- History and CommemorationThe Emancipation Proclamation at 150
Marking the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation presents a challenge for historians. Trends in historical writing do not unfold in neat, easily marked fifty- or one-hundred-year increments. Insight wrought from innovations in research and analysis does not easily coincide with anniversary dates. Still, we are mindful that in some moments scholarly exchanges attract the interests of broader audiences. As the nation marked the sesquicentennial of 1863’s Emancipation Proclamation, an eager audience awaited an explanation of this remarkable episode in Civil War–era history. From intimate family reflections to ceremonial readings and rituals, commemorative events provided historians with occasions to serve as citizen-scholars who could both mark the public fact of the proclamation’s anniversary and continue the work of producing new scholarship. The articles in this issue of the Journal of the Civil War Era provide one important example of how historians responded to this opportunity.
The ethos that frames commemorations is not always consistent with the complexity and contingency that characterizes historical writing. Reflecting upon the 1992 quincentenary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World, historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot remarked that commemorations tend to sanitize a past that was messy, particularly for those who had lived it. Grand rituals of memory, Trouillot warned, promote myth-making that packages history for broad public consumption. Myths become essential to justifying commemoration. Pageants, gold coins, tours, exhibitions, ceremonies, and the unveiling of monuments bind together historical events and public meaning. In turn, celebrations teach lessons about which historical events matter and why. Trouillot explained how when large numbers of people take part in such commemorations, a given date’s significance—for the past and the present—is affirmed.1 [End Page 452]
Trouillot’s trepidation about how history might serve the interests of commemoration in 1992 proved misplaced. As audiences confronted a near-bulwark of political and commercial events intended to reaffirm the importance of November 12, 1492, something unexpected occurred. Rather than their becoming wholly swept up in the logic of commemoration, a debate erupted. Anniversary events produced across a worldwide stage, Trouillot later explained, were met by a chorus of dissenting voices. Critics of the commemoration questioned and expressed outright dissent. What had been intended as “living theater” that affirmed the significance of 1492 was thus transformed into a scene neither sanitized nor simple.2 How, if at all, should we remember 1492 in 1992? And how should events that unfolded across the five-hundred-year divide between the two dates inform that memory? History emerged as an essential component within a process that was initially intended to elide the contingency and complexity of the half millennium since Columbus’s New World voyage.
By 2013, historians had learned a great deal from events such as the Columbus quincentenary. We might mark the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, but no cleaned-up myths would suffice on an occasion ripe for the making of historical memory through critical exchange. Marking the anniversary of January 1, 1863 would not, as Trouillot had feared, sacrifice the past in the interest of the present. It would not silence the events that preceded and followed by holding out as exceptional one twenty-four-hour period in the midst of civil war. The University of Michigan’s Proclaiming Emancipation project sought to encourage the sort of debate Trouillot had explained was so productive in 1992. Through an exhibit of primary documents, in-class lessons, and public exchanges, we asked if we should commemorate January 1, 1863, and, if we engaged in acts of commemoration, how we could give them meaning. Rather than an occasion to celebrate one day in the history of the Civil War and emancipation, Proclaiming Emancipation restored to the memory of the Emancipation Proclamation the remarkable noise that surrounded its promulgation in the months and years that followed.
The articles that follow are one part of that discussion. As historians eagerly stepped up to meet the demand that commemoration events produced, they did so armed with innovative new scholarship that helped ensure debate. These voices make certain that no ritual acts of remembrance will...