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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 Three:
Final Thoughts on Emancipation

Lecturer: Professor Louis Masur

photo of professor Louis Masur

"And upon this act sincerely believed to be an act of justice warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgement of mankind, and the gracious favor of almighty God."

That's quite a line—maybe not as beautiful and poetic and powerful as the lines from the Declaration of Independence, but still it's there in the Emancipation Proclamation. The governor of Massachusetts read the document when it was issued, and he thought it was a poor document but a mighty, mighty act. And a lot of what we've been talking about has been to understand the context in which this document was issued; to understand the pressures and the forces colliding, coming together, and exploding to change history itself.

Lincoln, in his address to Congress in December of 1862, right before he is about to issue on January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation, says, "We cannot escape history." And what he is thinking about is us. He is thinking about future generations. How are we going to judge what his generation was doing with regard to the question of slavery, with regard to the question of civil war?

And the ways in which we judge Lincoln, we judge his actions and the actions of his generation, those have changed. No longer are we satisfied with the great-man theory of history, as if all acts are just handed down from up high by some great figure, a president, who is in control and who has authority, because we know history is messier than that. It's more complicated than that. There is a variety of motives and conflicts, and things change quickly. And they change over time.

The answers we get often depend on the questions that we ask. And in some ways, one of the great breakthroughs has been to change the question. If we change the question from who freed the slaves to in what ways did the enslaved free themselves, then we shift our focus a little bit. We look bottom up rather than top down. And certainly that has been one of the revolutionary changes—you know, understanding history across the board over the last 20 or 30 years, the attempt to search for evidence to recover the histories of the so-called inarticulate who turn out not to be all that inarticulate after all. We have photos, we have letters, and we have other kinds of documents by which we can perhaps triangulate on the historical truth, or a different historical truth, than simply to say, perhaps, "Well, it's Lincoln. Lincoln did it." I think, in a sense, we know that may not be enough.

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