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Proclaiming Emancipation

Conference Highlights Legalities and Meanings of Emancipation Proclamation

By Katie Vloet and Lori Atherton

Ed.'s note, 10/29/12: Story updated with reporting on the afternoon panel discussion.

An exhibit and activities at the University of Michigan "may be America's most ambitious program on the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation," said Clements Library Director J. Kevin Graffagnino at an Oct. 26 conference.

The program—presented by the Law School's Program in Race, Law & History and the William L. Clements Library, in cooperation with the Hatcher Graduate Library—included the academic conference, as well as an exhibit of documents and artifacts at the Hatcher Graduate Library, and a keynote speech by Pulitzer Prize–winning author Eric Foner.

During the conference's morning panel, "Emancipation's Many Legalities," scholars discussed an array of topics related to emancipation, the Civil War, and President Lincoln.

Kate Masur, a history professor at Northwestern University, spoke about her research on the change during the Civil War years in white Americans' willingness to believe the testimony of former slaves and other African Americans. At first, she said, "most white northerners were not inclined to see runaway slaves as credible informants."

That began to change, and, indeed, northern generals started paying "negro spies" to do work for the Union. Officers, she said, often thought highly of the quality of information they were given. But in the legal system and society at large, she said, change was often slow and "far from linear."

John Fabian Witt, a law professor at Yale University, spoke about his book, Lincoln's Code, regarding the new laws of war that Lincoln commissioned three weeks before the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation (which occurred on Jan. 1, 1863). The code established rules of civilized conduct in wartime.

The code included more articles about the problem of slavery and black POWs than any other topic, Witt said. Ultimately, the impact of the code was vast, Witt said; not only did it shape the course of the Civil War, but it also became the basis for international laws of war.

William Novak, professor at the University of Michigan Law School, and Stephen Sawyer, history chair at the American University of Paris, discussed "Lincoln, Emancipation, and the Making of a Modern Liberal State."

The Civil War and emancipation, Novak said, led to no less than "one way of life (surrendering) to another" through the "systematic deconstruction of the central pillars of the old regime."

The Emancipation Proclamation, Novak said, "embodied a new and far-reaching use of American public power"—not just of the presidency, but also at other levels of government. The period of 1861 to 1865, he said, was an era of "ascendancy of constitutional law, as opposed to common law" and a "revolution in governance." The impact of a new form of political and legal power was felt not just in the United States, but also in France, Sawyer said.

Michigan Law Professor Julian Davis Mortenson pointed out that the morning panelists all focused on "the relationship between power and liberty"—a relationship that, throughout history, has led to great tension.

"It's no accident that the opponents of the Emancipation Proclamation from the beginning focused on the uneasy relationship between means and ends that Lincoln adopted in pursuing emancipation," he said.

During the conference's afternoon panel, "Time, Space, and the Meanings of Emancipation," four scholars presented papers that addressed "the chronology of emancipation and how it unfolded."

Thavolia Glymph, associate professor of African & African American studies and history at Duke University, presented "'Negro Outlaws': Enslaved Women's Proclamations of Emancipation," which highlighted the plight of women slaves during the Civil War, as told through the experiences of Rosa, a slave from Pineville, South Carolina. Black women, Glymph said, occupied a "difficult place" in the Civil War and had "to become outlaws in necessary self-defense."

In his paper "August 8, 1861: Emancipation Begins," James Oakes, distinguished professor of history at City University of New York Graduate Center, spoke about Lincoln being a "reluctant emancipator" in the first years of the Civil War and how the First Confiscation Act of 1861 was an early version of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Michael Vorenberg, associate professor of history at Brown University, discussed the status of slaves as free people and why they weren't considered U.S. citizens during his presentation "The Emancipated: A Stateless People with Rights." "Emancipated slaves had no documentary equality," Vorenberg said, "because they had no proof of citizenship or freedom papers."

And, in a visual presentation, Martha Jones, associated professor of history and Afroamerican and African studies at U-M and affiliated LS&A faculty at Michigan Law, shared "intimate perspectives" of emancipation as seen through the images in soldiers' sketchbooks. "The images," Jones said, "help us understand the ways white soldiers viewed emancipation, views that began in the camps and on ships, and carry through years later after the War ended."

In summarizing the four papers, commenter Hannah Rosen, assistant research scientist and associate director for graduate programs and scholarship at U-M's Institute for Research on Women and Gender, said the presenters helped to further define the "origins, context, and impact" of the Emancipation Proclamation.

For more about the Proclaiming Emancipation events at the University of Michigan, watch a video featuring Prof. Martha Jones, codirector of the Program in Race, Law & History, a member of the Law School's Affiliated LS&A Faculty, and associate professor of history and associate chair of the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies.

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