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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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We know Lincoln moved gradually, cautiously, deliberately. He kept saying, "Timing is everything; timing is everything." And to be sure, as the president in charge of restoring the Union, he had real issues that he had to deal with. He didn't want to take any precipitous action on slavery, because, as we said, he is afraid that those border states are immediately going to join the Confederacy. He is afraid that Union soldiers won't fight for black men if it's a war of abolition, that they would lay down their arms. He is nervous about foreign nations joining the Confederacy and recognizing them, overstepping his constitutional authority. He's got plenty of worries and plenty of concerns, and plenty of them are legitimate. It's for us to try and weigh the evidence, to try and sort through to what extent he was changing over time, to what extent he was following rather than leading.

To be sure, there are important changes. If you compare that preliminary Emancipation Proclamation with the final one, and you read carefully, the preliminary one talks about colonization. Read the final Emancipation Proclamation; colonization isn't there. It's a change. We can only try and guess as to what caused the change. But it's a significant one. And it's not the only one. Of course the preliminary one doesn't talk about enlisting black soldiers, but the final one certainly does. He said, Lincoln did, in 1864, "The moment came when I felt that slavery must die that the nation might live. It is my conviction that had the proclamation been issued even six months earlier than it was, public sentiment would not have sustained it." Well, maybe. And maybe, too, note the date, that was in 1864, maybe that's a rationalization for acting when he did act. He's talking after the fact. And we know that others kept the pressure on him: Act soon. Act soon. Act now. Charles Sumner, the senator from Massachusetts, reported that, in regard to emancipation, the president "tells me I'm ahead of him only a month or six weeks." Well, we have to wonder without the pressure from these outside forces, how much longer would it have taken for that gap to be closed?

So what remains for us to investigate, to determine, to think through, is how did the actions of the enslaved affect the critical question of timing. How did their actions give substance and meaning to those words on the pages of the Emancipation Proclamation?

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