Lincoln's Proclamation: Emancipation Reconsidered

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

Celebrating Freedom
The Problem of Emancipation in Public Commemoration

WILLIAMA. BLAIR

When historian David Brion Davis presented his seminal study on the rise of abolition in the modern world, he characterized the effort as coming to grips with a problem. It was not a problem in the sense of meeting a crisis, but of solving a puzzle. In doing so, he revealed the contradictions that lay at the heart of Atlantic world slavery. The first concerned the origins of abolition. What made a group of people wake up one morning and conceive that the ownership of human beings and their coercion for labor was something wrong? For millennia slavery had been the way of the world and a fundamental means of organizing life and work. While critics of the system always existed, new ideas about individualism and government, coupled with revolutions, gave abolition more currency in the late eighteenth century. Davis exposed the striking fact that slavery needed no explanation; the expansion of freedom did. Second, he observed the contradiction that has intrigued historians for some time now—that the freedom offered by the founding of the Americas coincided with the creation of an African slave trade that forced more than 12 million people to the western hemisphere. Davis wanted to know how to reconcile the story of slavery as “an intrinsic part of the American experience” with the image of the New World as a place to fulfill aspirations for expanded opportunity and greater equality.1

The problem of fitting the story of slavery with that of freedom has not ended with emancipation. If we consider the way we remember the coming of freedom, especially by using public commemorations as a gauge, it becomes clear that the need remains to reconcile past with present, slavery with freedom. Emancipation celebrations do exist in the United States and especially in the British Caribbean. But it is still a challenge to place enslavement within national stories that tend to fea

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