Lincoln's Proclamation: Emancipation Reconsidered

By William A. Blair; Karen Fisher Younger | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

In Lincoln Park, about a mile east of the U.S. Capitol, resides one of the few outdoor representations of emancipation in the country. Every day, thousands of commuters pass it on their way to work or play. The observant ones would notice two figures on the pedestal: Abraham Lincoln stretching his hand over a crouching slave who wears freshly broken shackles. One simple word sounds the message of this monument, “Emancipation.” It is a handsome work of art, standing twenty-four feet from top to bottom. Nonetheless, it is easy to overlook this piece of stone in a city filled with numerous other monuments, many of them much more imposing. But this quiet statue that anchors one side of the park, surrounded by Victorian-era homes in the Capitol Hill District, is worth attention. It contains the achievements and the contradictions that marked the coming of freedom for enslaved African Americans in the United States. One person can see the comforting figure of Lincoln, the Great Emancipator; another can view the statue with less comfort, wondering why the slave must kneel to a paternalistic hand.1

Lincoln remains arguably the most popular president in American history, yet his legacy is not without controversy; the most hotly debated part of the sixteenth president’s achievements always has been his Emancipation Proclamation. Part of the reason is that the proclamation, and the process of ending slavery in this country, traveled an uneven road that lends itself to multiple interpretations. With the Constitution acknowledged as protecting slavery, the president faced limits on what he could do with executive powers. So he freed slaves in the Confederate states and not in the loyal border regions. Additionally, emancipation came about through the efforts of many hands, including military officers, legislators, abolitionists, and slaves whose resistance forced changes in government policies. Yet the limitations of the proclamation were not confined to the border states of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware. Even in the

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