WHO FREED WHOM?
A Comparative Analysis of Two Articles Regarding the Emancipation of Slavery
Many historians have debated over the significance of the Emancipation Proclamation, in addition to arguing over who should receive the credit for the freeing of slaves in the Civil War era. Two historians, James M. McPherson and Ira Berlin, respectfully express their contrasting views over these topics in this assignment. While I absolutely agree that the slaves in the Civil War era played a pivotal role in emancipating themselves and securing their civil liberties, it was unequivocally the actions of President Lincoln that led to their eventual freedom. McPherson, a professor at Princeton University and Civil War historian, describes in his article, Who Freed the Slaves?, that Lincolns outspoken role against the concept of slavery was vital towards securing their emancipation. Ira Berlin, professor at the University of Maryland, challenges the validity of Lincoln’s commitment to emancipation, as well as McPherson’s opinions stating that, “the true authorship of African-American freedom lies elsewhere.” These two historians debate whether or not President Lincoln should be praised for the events that contributed up to the abolition of slavery.
Ira Berlin strongly disagrees with McPherson in his article, Who Freed the Slaves? Emancipation and Its Meaning. He writes that Lincoln’s Proclamation didn’t in fact free any of the slaves and that it only applied to slaves in Confederate-held territories. He argues that the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t even free the slaves in the territories that were liberated by the Union armies, or in the four slave states (Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri) fighting on the Union side (Berlin, 1997). Berlin suggests that the Proclamation’s text seemed like it was written with reluctance and could have been worded much more specific to set the boundaries for slavery. He insists that "the strongest advocates of emancipation were the slaves themselves." Although it is noted in the articles that Lincoln’s decision for emancipation was gradual, McPherson states that, “Slaves did not emancipate themselves; they were liberated by Union armies.” Which is a true fact, the slaves did not have the power to overcome their adversaries. If they did, then they probably would have organized a militia and revolted to try and free themselves long before the emancipation proclamation. It was only through the option to join and fight in the Civil War, that they were given the opportunity for freedom. McPherson suggests that Lincoln did more than just make a moral case against slavery; he used his political genius to build a campaign against it. As a politician, he never moved too far ahead of his constituents. In 1860, he ran for president on a platform that made his election possible. He opposed the expansion of slavery, but at that point did not call for its abolition (McPherson, 1996). Lincoln instead incrementally moved the public opinions of the North against slavery and turned a war for the Union into one for emancipation. I personally feel that after reading this article, Berlin’s views tend to center around the smaller facts such as whether or not the Emancipation Proclamation was the direct cause to the abolition of slavery. It may not have been the direct cause, however it did change the focus of the Civil War and compelled the nation to decide on a final solution to the issue of slavery. It was only after the doors had been opened to the possibility of emancipation that the slaves began to pressure officials for their freedom through their actions and words. McPherson’s views revolve around a much larger picture of Lincoln’s efforts and contribution to the emancipation of slaves. Some believe that Lincoln’s words and deeds at the beginning of the Civil War led to the conclusion that he viewed emancipation as a political and military necessity, and nothing more. I think that Lincoln struggled with...
References: 1. McPherson, J. M. (1996). “Who Freed The Slaves?”. Drawn with the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War, 192-94.
2. Berlin, I. (1997). “Who freed the slaves? Emancipation and Its Meaning”. Union and Emancipation: Essays on politics and race in the civil war era, 107-21.
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