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Primary Sources - Workshop in American History Workshop 4 - Concerning Emancipation: Who Freed the Slaves?homesitemap
Introduction -Link Before You Watch - link Lectures and Activities Classroom and Applications - Link

Workshop 4:  Lectures & Activities

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Lecture Transcript Two:
The Forces for Emancipation

Lecturer: Professor Louis Masur

photo of professor Louis Masur

I was listening to you guys discuss Lincoln and how complicated a figure he is, and I heard some of you talking about it and noted very shrewdly that he seems to change his opinion based on where he is speaking. And that's true back in the Lincoln-Douglas debates, where there is this famous phrase that I think historians used, that "his attitude was affected by the latitude." So when he was in the Northern part of the state he was Mr., you know, "I'm against slavery," and when he was in the Southern part of the state—But that doesn't seem to trouble you. You know that he's a politician who, basically, we don't know what he really believes; he's just saying what is needed at the time. I don't know. I don't know.

It gets to this critical second question which is, essentially, if he's not a leader—Let's put it this way. Let's rephrase the question "Who freed the slaves?" Let's rephrase it into "To what extent did Lincoln lead toward emancipation, versus to what extent did he follow?" Was he a follower? And certainly time and again you read in the documents that he tells those border state representatives who come, and even then he is still begging them, "Gradually emancipate your slaves, and we'll compensate you for them." He says, "The pressure toward emancipation is upon me and is increasing." And still a year later, after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, he confessed not to have controlled events, but to have been controlled by them—this sense of sort of passive leader having to respond to external forces, having not to be blind to the signs of the times that are about him.

But what about these external forces? Where are they coming from? What are they? Certainly Frederick Douglass and the abolitionists, Wendell Phillips and William Lloyd Garrison, and the whole host of sort of radical Republicans further to the left on the political spectrum than Lincoln are pushing him time and time again. And as early as May 1861, Douglass talks about how to end the war, and he says, "If you want to end the war, let's enlist blacks as soldiers. That will do something to end the war." And in February of 1862, he denounced the uncertainty, the vacillation and hesitation of Lincoln in dealing with the great question of this war: slavery.

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