One of the country’s key freedom stories is that Abraham Lincoln — The Great Emancipator — freed the slaves. That story has a tie to this date. It is also a story that is misunderstood and constantly under revision as we learn more facts.
On September 22, 1862, the following was issued by the White House in the name of the president of the United States of America:
Whereas, on the twenty-second day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-two, a proclamation was issued by the President of the United States, containing, among other things, the following, to wit:
“That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.…”
Yes, today in history, Lincoln told the world that he would issue the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. Simple, yes? Well, no.
As Christopher R. Fee and Jeffrey B. Webb describe in History Myths Exploded: How Some of History’s Biggest Ideas are Wrong (2019), much of what the general public knows about Abraham Lincoln and the freeing of the slaves is at best incomplete and at worst wrong. Why is that? Professors Fee and Webb explain that “although most of us recognize the value of good history, we often find truthful accounts of the past, frankly, less than inspiring.”
What really excites us? A tale well told.
So in the case of Lincoln and the “myth” of the Great Emancipator, we find it easier to buy into the tale of Lincoln pushing against great odds to singlehandedly end slavery than to recognize that there was a great deal of work in this arena that was done before Lincoln became president; that many people collaborated and contributed to the freeing of the slaves; that Lincoln himself went back-and-forth during his term on the political benefit of emancipation; that he personally waffled on what to do with slaves once they were freed; that the Emancipation Proclamation was a tightly drawn, lawyerly document that did not free all the slaves at the time; and that the 13th Amendment to the Constitution — with its simple two sentences which did abolish slavery and which Lincoln pushed through the Congress just months before his assassination — well, even that document included an out.
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander brilliantly described how that out was used historically and to the present day to keep people of color in servitude based on false and trumped-up charges. In her words, “we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”
The sign at Muir Woods National Monument in California comes as a surprise to many. It reads simply, “Alert: History Under Construction.”
History is always under construction. History is messy. The facts that we know now may be accurate, but incomplete. As we learn and uncover more, the way we tell the stories of our history and the way we preserve the physical reminders of the past changes. As I wrote yesterday, our memories are shaped by forces outside ourselves which are often not recognized or acknowledged. But I think we need to try.
I’ve been thinking a great deal about disputed and difficult history recently in preparing for an upcoming tour of Southeast Asia. Professors Fee and Webb do a good job of explaining the challenges of getting history “right.” In fact, Dr. Webb says early in the work that he “trolls” his students by suggesting that “there are no facts in history, only sources.” There’s a great deal of truth in that statement.
More to the point when considering disputed and difficult history, Webb spends time outlining the important distinction between history and heritage. History is all that “happened in the past that we find to be meaningful and significant, and it presupposes a ‘warts and all’ approach.” History, he suggests, is “the work of the archives, and the manuscript review process with books, and the classroom. And it involves making people feel uncomfortable when their cherished myths are exposed as falsehoods.” Heritage is “something else entirely.” Webb notes that it is the part of history that we in the present “choose to commemorate and celebrate in our communities” with statues, parades, special holidays and the like. I worked with the head of a prestigious local historical center who liked to say that “heritage is history without the hard parts.”
Webb looks at the issue of the removal of Confederate statues and notes that instead of “destroying” our history, what we are doing is readjusting that part of the past that we are choosing in the present to commemorate and celebrate. “The statues and the public monuments are not history, but heritage, and heritage is constantly changing and shifting as each generation chooses what part of the past it wishes to celebrate in the present.”
History Myths Exploded (available in audiobook format) begins with the myth of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae and ends in 1960s America looking at the myth of the radical 60s. It is a good reminder that history is always under construction.
More to come…
UPDATE: The This Day in History Substack newsletter today caught up with me (they put theirs out in the early evening) and featured Lincoln’s issuance of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. It is written in a bit of the great man theory of history style but does note some of the challenges of emancipation. I want to be clear that I believe that Lincoln was absolutely critical to the effort and was at the right place at the right time. The point the authors of the book were making, which I believe is correct, is that we tend to gloss over some of the messiness of the history to maintain the Lincoln myth. Click on the link to read more from them about this piece of history.
Image of sign at Muir Woods by DJB