The Emancipation Moment: Abraham Lincoln and the First of January 1863

Allen C. Guelzo, Eastern College
February 28, 2004

No other words in American history changed the lives of so many Americans as those of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. But no other words in American history have been so often passed over or held up to greater suspicion. Born in the struggle of Lincoln’s determination to set slavery on the path to destruction, it has remained a document of struggle, as conflicting interpretations and historical mysteries swirl around it. So what were Lincoln’s real intentions on the first of January, 1863, the moment when he signed the Proclamation into law? Was he the Great Emancipator or just a Great Fixer? What slaves did the Proclamation actually free? Or did the slaves free themselves? Why is the language of the Proclamation so bland, so legalistic, so far from the soaring eloquence of the Gettysburg Address? Using unpublished letters and documents, little known accounts from Civil War era newspapers, and Congressional memoirs and correspondence, Prize winning Lincoln scholar Allen C. Guelzo tells the story of the complicated story of the first of January, 1863, Lincoln’s “Emancipation Moment,” and the greatest moment of the American Civil War.

Allen C. Guelzo is the Dean of the Templeton Honors College at Eastern College (St. Davids, PA), where he is also Grace F. Kea Professor of American History. He is the author of Edwards on the Will: A Century of American Philosophical Debate (1989), The Crisis of the American Republic: A New History of the Civil War and Reconstruction (1995), and editor of Josiah G. Holland’s Life of Abraham Lincoln (1998). His biography of Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President (1999) was the co-winner of the Lincoln Prize for 2000. His most recent book, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America, will be published shortly before this talk in February 2004.

Session One

Focus: After the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, no document had a wider or more revolutionary impact on American society than the Emancipation Proclamation. Unhappily, it is also one of the least well-understood. Its legalistic style is a puzzle; its limited reach has convinced some critics that it failed to do enough; and other critics have attacked it for doing too much, even including subversion of the Constitution. What we will want to do in this session is to begin understanding the legal and political context of the Proclamation. Although Lincoln was elected as an anti-slavery president, what options were really open to him to effect emancipation? Why was Lincoln so enamored of gradual emancipation? What caused him to shift ground so dramatically in 1862 an issue a proclamation?


Session Two

Focus: Lincoln regarded the Proclamation as the central act of his administration, and for a generation afterward it was hailed, by African-Americans in particular, as a central document of American freedom. From the 1920s onwards, however, currents of interpretation began to change. Neo-Confederates condemned the Proclamation as an act of willful destruction aimed at the South; Southern agrarian conservatives attacked it as an example of Lincoln concentrated dictatorial power in the hands of the federal government; black writers criticized it for weakness of will and political disingenuity. Even among Lincoln’s admirers, the Proclamation began a steady descent from its pedestal, and the Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural became instead Lincoln’s greatest state papers. Is the Proclamation an act of dictatorial power? What changes in the lives of black Americans in the 20th Century tarnished Lincoln’s image as “The Great Emancipator”? Was Lincoln insincere, slow of perception, temperamentally hesitant, or just politically prudent? Why does his standing on slavery seem meager compared to the abolitionists?


  • W.E.B. DuBois, “Abraham Lincoln” (June 1907) in Writings by W.E.B. DuBois in Periodicals Edited by Others, ed. Herbert Aptheker (Millwood, NY: Kraus-Thompson Organization, 1982), volume one, pp. 371-380
  • W.E.B. DuBois, “Abraham Lincoln” and “Lincoln Again” in W.E.B. DuBois: Writings, ed. Nathan Huggins (New York: Library of America, 1986), pp. 1196-1198
  • Lerone Bennett, “Did Lincoln Really Free the Slaves,” Ebony (February 2000), pp. 54-60
  • Richard Hofstadter, “Abraham Lincoln and the Self-made Myth,” in The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (1948; New York: Knopf, 1973), pp. 92-134
  • Walter D. Kennedy, “Lincoln the Unemancipator,” in Myths of American Slavery (Gretna, LA: Pelican, 2003), pp. 163-181.

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