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Primary Sources - Workshop in American History Workshop 4 - Concerning Emancipation: Who Freed the Slaves?homesitemap
Introduction -Link Before You Watch - link Lectures and Activities Classroom and Applications - Link

Workshop 4:  Lectures & Activities

Lecture Transcript Two:
The Forces for Emancipation

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And then, of course, there is another group that we have to talk about when we talk about who led and who followed, and that's the actions of the enslaved themselves. And it's important to call them enslaved, not slaves. Slavery isn't a condition of human nature. It's something that one person does to another person. And the sense of enslavement captures that notion that these are human agents and human beings who have volition, who have free will, and who are not necessarily what they are called.

Simply put, the argument goes something like this: that the enslaved, by their actions, they are the ones who transformed the war from a struggle to preserve the Union into a war against slavery. The slaves proclaimed the war won for abolition long before government leaders did. They spread the word from plantation to plantation that Lincoln intended to set them free, and you can see this in the documents themselves. Thousands responded to the news. What did they do? They ran away. They left plantations. They ran and searched for Union forces. They delivered themselves up, announcing that they were free. As early as May of 1861, one general reported that "Since the commencement of these unhappy disturbances, slaves have escaped from their owners and have sought refuge in camps of the United States' troops."

The enslaved are creating an issue that the Union has to respond to. And initially Union policy is to return these runaway slaves to their owners, because slavery is protected by the Constitution. As far as Lincoln is concerned, this is a war of the rebellion. Technically he thought those states, those seceding states, still remained within the Union. He didn't feel he had the constitutional authority to confiscate their property, and so that is the policy at the beginning. And as we've seen, these generals ignored that policy, and they're the ones who make the argument that "We need these people. We need not only to free them because they are delivering themselves up to our lines, but they serve to support the Confederate effort, and better that they be in our lines than they be in Confederate lines."

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