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Eric Foner 

Pulitzer Prize–Winning Historian Eric Foner Delivers Keynote Lecture for "Proclaiming Emancipation" Conference

By Clarissa Sansone
Oct. 30, 2012

Who better qualified to speak on Abraham Lincoln than the man who's done everything from winning the Pulitzer, Bancroft, and Lincoln prizes for his published work on Lincoln, to advising Disney on its Hall of Presidents and Meet Mr. Lincoln attractions, to being consulted by filmmakers who asked, "Did Lincoln play harmonica"?

Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, ended Oct. 26's "Proclaiming Emancipation" conference with an often-fascinating account of how Lincoln's views on emancipation evolved during his presidency. The conference—sponsored by the Law School's Program in Race, Law & History, the William L. Clements Library, and the University of Michigan Library—consisted of two panel discussions in addition to the keynote, and launched a four-month commemoration of the Emancipation Proclamation's 150th anniversary.

"I'm going to argue that the Emancipation Proclamation emancipated Lincoln," said Foner, referring to how the document illustrated a pronounced shift in Lincoln's ideology. "Lincoln evolved, his ideas evolved, his policies evolved," and he had very different ideas about slavery and emancipation at the end of his life than earlier in his political career, said Foner.

Although he did not identify himself as an abolitionist or radical member of the Republican party, Lincoln nonetheless saw himself "as part of a broad abolitionist movement," said Foner. To Lincoln, "slavery was a form of theft," stealing the labor of one for the benefit of another, said Foner, and Lincoln believed the "natural right to the fruits of your own labor was not bound by race or by gender."

We might, however, find the president's initial plans for the end of slavery surprising: that slaves in rebel territory be emancipated, slave owners be compensated for a loss of property (in the 1850s, few could conceive of the end of slavery without the consent of slave owners, Foner said), and the newly freed relocate outside the U.S. "We sometimes forget how prevalent colonization was before the Civil War," said Foner, going on to explain that colonization allowed a discussion of the end of slavery while sidestepping the question of what to do with freed African Americans living in the United States. (Popular Lincoln historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, Foner pointed out, only referred to colonization once in her 800-page tome.)

The reality was that slave owners had no intention of freeing their slaves, and "most African Americans made it clear that they were not interested in leaving the U.S.," said Foner. How, then, did Lincoln become labeled the "Great Emancipator"?

As the Civil War went on, "a powerful combination of events [was] propelling him," Foner said, namely: that the war had reached a stalemate, that the Union feared Britain might intervene on behalf of the Confederacy, that slavery was beginning to disintegrate as slaves fled to Union army encampments, and that Union army enlistment was waning. By July 1862, Lincoln had privately drafted a proclamation providing that slaves in rebel territory might be freed on January 1, 1863.

In Sept. 1862, the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was issued, giving the Confederacy one hundred days to rejoin the Union and keep slavery. When that failed, on Jan.1 the following year, Lincoln issued a final version of what Foner called, "probably the most misunderstood significant document in American history."

"The proclamation did not end slavery the day it was issued," he said, but it sounded slavery's "death knell" (provided the Union army won the war). With it, 3.1 million individuals were declared free.

"The Proclamation fundamentally changed" the focus of the war, Foner said, and, Lincoln, "having made the decision" to emancipate slaves, "did not look back."

While it fixed the Union’s position on the question of slavery, the Proclamation opened the question of "the role of the emancipated slave in post-war American life," Foner said. How would the "pursuit of happiness," which Lincoln wished for all Americans, turn out for the freed slaves? "One hundred and fifty years after the Emancipation Proclamation, this question continues to bedevil American life," said Foner.

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