America's Understanding of Emancipation Proclamation On Its 150th Anniversary Too Simple For Country's Own Good

FILE - This Feb. 18, 2005 file photo shows the original Emancipation Proclamation on display in the Rotunda of the National A
FILE - This Feb. 18, 2005 file photo shows the original Emancipation Proclamation on display in the Rotunda of the National Archives in Washington. As New Year's Day approached 150 years ago, all eyes were on President Abraham Lincoln in expectation of what he warned 100 days earlier would be coming _ his final proclamation declaring all slaves in states rebelling against the Union to be "forever free." A tradition began on Dec. 31, 1862, as many black churches held Watch Night services, awaiting word that Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation would take effect as the country was in the midst of a bloody Civil War. Later, congregations listened as the president's historic words were read aloud. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

Abraham Lincoln, the tall president with the stovepipe hat, the full beard and the grief-stricken eyes, slipped away from the White House’s annual New Year’s celebration with a few members of his administration. Lincoln steadied his nerves, then his hands.

After a few minutes, he took a pen, signed the Emancipation Proclamation and ushered in the beginning of the end of two and a half centuries of American chattel slavery, some of its attendant violence and human degradation. Exactly 150 years ago today, the Emancipation Proclamation -- a monumental document written on both sides of an ordinary sheet of White House paper -- declared slaves living in most of the South “forever free.”

For many American adults, it’s also the moment when universal, legal freedom became a reality for an estimated 4 million black slaves. But scholars who have studied the document, Lincoln and Civil War history say the limited understanding of how slaves became free citizens led to a national habit of thinking about complex issues like race and equality simply, like finite challenges already wrestled with and resolved.

“Of all the country’s foundational and key documents the Emancipation Proclamation may well be the most misunderstood,” said Eric Foner, a Columbia University historian and a leading Reconstruction, race and Lincoln scholars.

“On the one hand, there are a healthy share of Americans who believe that Lincoln freed all the slaves with a stroke of his pen,” said Foner, who this year published “The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery.”

“On the other, there is this cynical modern take that says Lincoln wasn’t interested in emancipation, that he took action for purely political reasons, for military reasons and this notion that not many slaves were actually freed. None of that is exactly true.”

Lincoln was not the lone force behind emancipation but rather an essential part of a coalition of outspoken abolitionists that included free blacks and whites, said Lonnie G. Bunch III, director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture and one of the curators of the Smithsonian’s 150th Emancipation Proclamation anniversary exhibit.

Lincoln also was responding to the unique pressure slaves brought to bear, said Bunch.

From the very start of the war in South Carolina, slaves began running away more frequently and willingly, living in a state of legal limbo. What started with four slaves in Virgina given refuge in a Union-controlled fort, became hundreds and later thousands of slaves in areas just north of the Mason-Dixon line. In order to evade slave catchers, bounty-hunter like figures paid to find and return fugitive slaves to their masters empowered by federal law, some set up so-called “contraband” camps near Union Army encampments or outposts, said Bunche. One such camp grew in what is now Arlington Cemetery, just outside Washington, D.C.

Some runaways also began to work for wages. They dug trenches and latrines, managed laundry and other tasks related to war. Later, when the Union Army began accepting black soldiers, some negotiated with commanding officers to bring their families along.

That drive towards self-liberation was first documented about 30 years ago, said Bunch, but most people have no knowledge of how slaves helped bring down the institution.

“I don’t say this to take anything away from Lincoln,” said Bunch, author of the 2010 book Call the Lost Dream Back: Essays on History, Race and Museums. “Ultimately, the Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th Amendment, none of it would have happened without Lincoln. But it’s also true neither would have happened without all these people and forces essentially saying something had to be done.”

Lincoln, a life-long opponent of slavery who viewed human ownership as immoral but blacks as inferior, first ran for public office in his early 20s, Foner said. He came to national prominence nearly two decades later with a series of heated debates and public speeches calling for the still-growing nation to ban slavery in new states. Later, Lincoln became a public proponent of a gradual slave emancipation that would offer government-funded compensation to slave owners and essentially deport former slaves to Africa.

By the time Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, he supported the idea of an uncompensated and broad emancipation. He publicly endorsed limited rights, including voting, for certain African Americans, Foner said.

The Emancipation Proclamation changed the purpose of the war from restoring and preserving the Union to setting slaves free and defending principles like freedom and unity.

“That evolution has somehow failed to permeate the nation’s thinking,” said Foner. “Instead, Lincoln has become iconic, the self-made man, the frontiersman, the moral politician guided by what is right or the Union’s military goals and this kind of uncommitted emancipator to others.”

The collective value of the nation’s 4 million slaves sat between $3 and $4 billion in 1860, more than all the nation’s factories and railroads combined, Foner said. Any step to set the slaves free, and wipe out slaveholders' “investments,” amounted to a radical act by a supremely savvy, morally driven president, he said.

The document itself, issued in September 1862 as a warning to Southern states that slaves would be freed the following January if the Confederacy did not end the rebellion, went into effect at midnight, Jan.1, 1863. But it applied only to slaves living in Confederate breakaway states back under Union Army control. It also included exemptions.

It freed between 50,000 and 70,000 slaves immediately, Foner said. About 750,000 African Americans living in slave-dense places like New Orleans were not subject to Lincoln’s executive order and remained chattel.

For just over 3 million others, slavery itself would not end until Union forces advanced across the Confederacy. As they did, Union Army soldiers read from pocket-sized copies of the Emancipation Proclamation, announcing the president’s order to slaves, Bunch said.

In states like Texas, that moment came in June 1865, two and half years after Lincoln slipped away from that White House party. Slavery itself became an unconstitutional and utterly illegal institution that same year, when Congress approved the 13th Amendment.

“What Americans have to understand is that there were 100 years between Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation and the 1963 March on Washington,” said Bunch, “and a few years more before that freedom was given any durable and consistent meaning with the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act."

"When you understand that freedom was a process, not a moment, then you can allow yourself to wonder what work is left for us in the next 100 years.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified the location of the Virginia fort where four slaves took refuge after the start of the Civil War.