Emancipation Proclamation Sesquicentennial Events Offer a Window into Current Historiography Debate

tags: slavery, Civil War, Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln, sesquicentennial, AHA, Vanessa Varin



Vanessa Varin is Assistant Editor, Web and Social Media at the American Historical Association.

January 1, 2013, marked the sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation. Although the general historical consensus is that slavery was at the root of the conflict, questions about the role of the proclamation in defining the Civil War and 19th century race relations continue to dominate the field. In the past few weeks, Washington, D.C., has hosted two events on the topic: A panel discussion at the National Archives (NARA), chaired by Annette Gordon-Reed and featuring James Oakes, Eric Foner, James McPherson, and Ed Ayers, and a more intimate lecture led by Foner at the Wilson Center and sponsored by the National History Center. The well-attended events were an opportunity to promote this history to the public, and a window into the current state of the debate over how we should understand the document and its centrality to the Civil War.  

A Fractured Narrative
Historian Stephen Ash once playfully wrote, “Historians continue to confound those who insist that everything that can possibly be said about the Civil War has already been said.” And yet, as the NARA panel pointed out, the lack of a common, comprehensive narrative of the conflict is inhibiting our understanding of the war. According to Oakes, new political, social, and cultural schools of thought rose to dominate the field by the 1960s, thereby fracturing the earlier one-dimensional narratives. This splintering has continued in the last decade as micro-histories have grown in popularity, and in the consensus of most of the panel, Oakes argued that the greatest challenge in his field is for historians to unite these subfields to form a more complete history of the conflict.

The Teleological Approach to the Civil War
From the idea of a fractured narrative, Ayers, Oakes, and Foner then pointed out the dangers of a teleological narrative of the Civil War, one in which events lead clearly to an inevitable culmination. According to Ayers, “history is a series of punctuations that can alter a person’s world view.” Anti-slavery legislation did not happen naturally, he argues, but was forced by a series of unexpected events. Foner seconded Ayers’s point by arguing that historians tend to see the Civil War unfolding in one direction (toward a Union victory), but the war had no predetermined goal. Instead, a deeply divided North and bitter political opposition made the war an unpredictable journey....



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