January 1st, 2013
05:30 PM ET

150 years later, myths persist about the Emancipation Proclamation

by Alicia W. Stewart, CNN

(CNN) - When Hannah Johnson wrote President Lincoln in the summer of 1863, she expressed the concerns of any mother with a son fighting a war.

But she had a special request: “I am a colored woman and my son was strong and able as any to fight for his country and the colored people have as much to fight for as any…. Will you see that the colored men fighting now, are fairly treated. You ought to do this, and do it at once.”

On January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation became the first authorization by an American president to enroll Johnson's son, and other black men, as legal soldiers for the United States military.

Emancipation and the enlistment of black soldiers were not President Lincoln’s initial impulse. He wanted to make a gradual change, as he wrote in this letter explaining his shift to an advisor:

When, in March, and May, and July 1862 I made earnest, and successive appeals to the border states to favor compensated emancipation, I believed the indispensable necessity for military emancipation, and arming the blacks would come, unless averted by that measure. They declined the proposition; and I was, in my best judgment, driven to the alternative of either surrendering the Union, and with it, the Constitution, or of laying strong hand upon the colored element. I chose the latter.

By the end of the Civil War, black soldiers made up 10% of Union troops, and 19,000 served in the Navy.

“Republicans understood that they needed blacks to be agents of change for the process,” said James Oakes, author of "Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery". “The North couldn’t win the war without black soldiers.”

Those soldiers, and the proclamation, became an enduring symbol of freedom.

But on the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, a historical document that symbolizes the beginnings of freedom for individuals once deemed property, historians say myths persist about what the policy did, and did not, do.

“Slavery didn’t die on January 1, 1863, but it was the death knell that slavery would die if the Union won the Civil War,” said Eric Foner, author of "The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery".

Here are three myths that persist about the Emancipation Proclamation.

Myth 1: President Lincoln freed all slaves with the stroke of a pen.

It is an easy narrative, historians argue, that a single document granted freedom. But that’s not how it happened.

Look to the proclamation’s language: “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.”

Freedom only applied to those slaves in states that had seceded. It did not apply to border states, or specific regions in Union control: about 750,000 slaves.

The 13th Amendment later abolished slavery.

Myth 2: President Lincoln was the sole visionary who eliminated slavery via the proclamation.

Lincoln’s leadership proved key to signing the document, as seen in the recent blockbuster “Lincoln,” which examines the legislation and political process to pass the 13th Amendment.

Review: 'Lincoln' brilliantly dramatizes delicacy of politics

President Obama hailed Lincoln in a proclamation of his own for the document’s 150th anniversary:

“With that document, President Lincoln lent new moral force to the war by making it a fight not just to preserve, but also to empower,” Obama wrote. “He sought to reunite our people not only in government, but also in freedom that knew no bounds of color or creed. Every battle became a battle for liberty itself. Every struggle became a struggle for equality.”

But popular culture, historians argue, often overlooks that questions around slavery had been debated 30 years before the war began, and some say, since the country’s inception.

“There is a long pre-history that involves black and white abolitionists. They visualized an end to slavery long before the Civil War, and they struggled to put it on the national agenda,” said Manisha Sinha, author of the forthcoming book, "The Slave’s Cause". “If you look at the long roots of the abolitionist movement, [they] really made it a central issue of the country even before the war.”

Myth 3: Due to limited freedoms, blacks and women were constrained in affecting the change and freedoms outlined in the Emancipation Proclamation.

In fact, despite limited freedoms, many became the agitators to address slavery.

“Despite a prevailing sense among so many white Northerners and politicians that the war’s principal aim was to save the Union and not destroy slavery, free and enslaved black people insisted otherwise,” said photographer and historian Deborah Willis, a co-author of "Envisioning Emancipation".

Abolitionist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, famed rescuer and spy Harriet Tubman  and noted author and lecturer Fredrick Douglass, along with countless other women and blacks, were key in making the country address slavery.

“In many ways, fugitive slaves were architects of their own freedom,” Sinha said. “It doesn’t take away from Lincoln’s role. Emancipation was a huge event; it involved many actors, not the least of which were slaves.”

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soundoff (28 Responses)
  1. The Truth

    The only Black history that we as Americans is that over 100 million Black slaves died in the middle passage during slavery. If only 10 million Jews died in the holocaust, why haven't Black Americans seen a dime of reparations in this country? The killings of our people are not the only reason for reparations. Our men and women were raped, bred for work, and castrated; among may other things. I kind of wish that all my people had to deal with was a German gas chamber. Our history, religion, and names were also stolen from us. When was the last time you seen the words "Black people" in a history book? This country and this story are a joke and nothing will change until we accept THE TRUTH about the effects slavery had on Black Americans.

    January 11, 2013 at 2:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • AmericanZombie

      UR KIDDING RIGHT!!? Blacks have profited more than anyone else! They're getting BILLIONS of dollars every year,and the WHITES are paying for it! PPL like you need to get off the self pity wagon,and REALIZE whites today had NOTHING to do with it,just like BLACKS today shouldn't expect a free ride,cause of the BLACKS that suffered long ago!! JEEZ!

      January 14, 2013 at 4:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • Red

      I owe black folks absolutely nothing. My people never owned slaves, never traded slaves, never bought slaves from the West Africans and my taxes are already supporting enough descendants of slaves

      February 2, 2013 at 11:42 am | Report abuse |
  2. Humberto

    How does such a ignorant article by Alicia w Steward get picked up By CNN?

    January 7, 2013 at 6:06 am | Report abuse |
  3. Rev. Brown

    Slaves free themselves, president Lincoln was force to sign the E. P M. Racism did not stop there. We are still fighting the confederacy, blacks are still fighting racism. Rev. Brown

    January 4, 2013 at 7:48 pm | Report abuse |
  4. The Truth

    So does the government still see Black men as 3/5 of a man?

    January 4, 2013 at 8:31 am | Report abuse |
    • The Truth

      If so, I should only pay 3/5 in taxes.

      January 4, 2013 at 10:43 am | Report abuse |
  5. hard times

    Fact: the first statue of liberty was indeed a slave in ball and chains. Fact: the constitution was around way before the emancipation and stated that all men are created equal. I guess the constitution was initial ly a list of suggestions just like today.

    January 3, 2013 at 2:28 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Cyn

    The question of slavery bothered the founding fathers of the US but they were living in a different world than Lincoln. They were recovering from a huge war that also turned neighbor against neighbor and tested the frail unity of the 13 colonies, which were not yet a Union. When it came time for the Constitution to be ratified it was decided that the abolition of slavery would not be included because the southern states wouldn't ratify it and a civil war might erupt. Instead the 3/5's Compromise, which was aimed to limit the South's power in the House[which was determined by population], and a clause stating slaves couldn't be imported after January 1st 1808 were put into the Constitution and the founding fathers hoped that by 1808 perhaps the country would be stable enough to abolish slavery. Obviously they weren't but the groundwork for earlier emancipation

    January 3, 2013 at 11:51 am | Report abuse |
  7. Chipsball

    Not sure why the movie "Lincoln" picked up at that point during the passage of the 13th amendment to the Consitution so I am waiting on the DVD to come out and the outtakes discussing the movie in further detail. Speilberg was aware of Lincoln's history with slavery, his segregationist views, and his reluctance to dismantle the institution of slavery, thus threatening the Union. Lincoln persistant rejection of anti-slavery efforts made for many self-inflicted wounds that prevented him for taking stronger measures to insure passage of the document. The movie illistrated the difficulties he was having getting the legislation passed coming under intense pressure that was brought on by his contradictory statements,opinions and positions. Lincoln wanted "gradual emancipation" of the Negroes and their deportation to Liberia and Haiti as a remedy for slavery...the signing of the Emanacipation Proclamation was a beginning of that process as well. This should not be overlooked or swept under the rug when celebrating this document as well, The Emancipation Proclamation was a "war message" that Lincoln believed was limited and he himself questioned its legallty.

    January 3, 2013 at 5:17 am | Report abuse |
  8. jolly green

    General Lee`s last order was attack when you feel the time is appropriate. War is a terrible creature it consumes nations and destroys men. As far as Texas is concerned we were the last state of the Confederacy to bare arms against the union. Slavery was a scape goat for greed and that greed brought this great union to its knees we should never forget our past or we will be bound to repeat it

    January 3, 2013 at 12:41 am | Report abuse |
  9. John Q. Public

    Hey Bubba, I'm pretty sure that the Civil War is American history, as is the major reasons behind it. I can also see Abraham Lincoln was featured in a featured movie across the United States recently, so that makes this topic both relevant AND timely. Crawl back under your bridge and wave your confederate flag in secret...

    January 2, 2013 at 2:59 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Bubba

    Hey CNN, is it black history month? Stop with the black history, how about some American History until February?

    January 2, 2013 at 1:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jed Clampett

      American History contains a lot of Black History. Unless you buy your textbooks in Texas.

      January 2, 2013 at 6:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Charles Stevens

      Seriously? On the 150th anniversary of the document that heralded the end of one of the most industrialized, commercialized, widespread human rights violations in modern history – you are complaining about a few news stories? Dude, there is really something sick inside of you. If you have any decency, think about where your head and your heart are and change your position in life.

      January 3, 2013 at 4:22 am | Report abuse |