Too kind to Lincoln

In the midst of Juneteenth celebrations here in Ashland and around the country, journalists have been a bit too kind to President Lincoln. NPR’s All Things Considered and the Ashland Daily Tidings, in their explanations of the original 1865 Juneteenth event, implied that Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation abolished slavery in the United States. This is partially true, but also misleading. Lincoln’s order abolished slavery only in Confederate states, not in Union ones. The order did not touch the institution of slavery in Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, or Missouri.

This may seem like an obscure point about history — but it is not. The current discussion of whether to make Juneteenth a national holiday is important precisely because it relates to the more profound question of how Americans remember (or don’t remember) our history of slavery and Reconstruction. Because the informal holiday arose first among the emancipated slaves themselves, and not among America’s political leaders, the event reminds us to consider not just how the history of the war has been told, but also by whom. White northerners tend to smooth over the rough spots in our national narrative, tidying up the parts that give us a twinge of guilt. It is reassuring to think of slavery as an exclusively Southern institution, and reassuring to think of the Civil War as an abolitionist crusade. It makes for a nice story, but it is not a true one. There were once plenty of slaves in the north, and there were several slave states on the Union side of the Civil War.

The real goal of the Emancipation Proclamation was to encourage slaves to flee from Confederate-held territory to Union lines. The policy was almost identical in intent to the order issued by British commander Lord Dunmore during the American War of Independence almost a century before. Dunmore’s order of 1775 freed slaves from rebel plantations and welcomed them as royalist recruits. In other words, the British proclamation applied to Thomas Jefferson and George Washington’s slaves, and the later Union proclamation applied to Jefferson Davis’s slaves, but neither order abolished slavery in zones loyal to the government. Lincoln described the measure, as a “military necessity” in the midst of a war that he had insisted was “not either to save or destroy slavery.”

None of this is headline news. It was on the pages of our high school history textbooks, but somehow we keep forgetting the details — perhaps because an accurate retelling of events leaves us ill at ease.

Let us hope that we soon have a national holiday commemorating Abolition; and let us also hope that it encourages a deeper and more subtle discussion of the past. Perhaps placing the holiday on Dec. 6, when the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified, would be a good idea. And one final suggestion: let’s keep school in session that day. We all have a lot to learn.

Sean McEnroe