- Editor’s Note
Ever since military emancipation became a Union policy, 150 years ago, people from all walks of life have tried to put into focus its meaning and significance. For a long time, the narrative that emerged featured Lincoln as the Great Emancipator and overlooked efforts by the enslaved in their own liberation. In the first third of the twentieth century, various works chipped away at that edifice, with the proclamation facing increased scrutiny for its conservatism. Today, academic historians recognize emancipation—in the words of historian Eric Foner in the December 31, 2012, issue of the New York Times—as “a process, not a single event. It arose from many causes and was the work of many individuals. It began before the Civil War, when slaves fled from plantations and proved they did not welcome the hard hand of the master. It did not end until December 1865, with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, which irrevocably abolished slavery throughout the nation.” And even if Lincoln had become perhaps a little less great as an emancipator, more recent works have renewed the appreciation of him as an essential part of the process.
The articles in this special issue on emancipation underscore how scholars employ multiple approaches to understanding the process of freedom, spanning the perspectives of both high policymakers and people on the ground, in both the United States and internationally. They are meant not to present a cohesive portrait designed to create a new narrative but to demonstrate the ways that various scholars—and disciplines—continue to find meaning in one of the most important events in U.S. history. The essays arose from a conference titled “Proclaiming Emancipation,” sponsored in October 2012 by the University of Michigan Law School’s Program in Race, Law & History and the William L. Clements Library. A special exhibit highlighted some of the riches of the holdings in the Clements Library. We are grateful to Martha S. Jones and William Novak, conference organizers, for encouraging this collaboration. [End Page 451]