The preliminary Emancipation Proclamation turned 145 years old last Saturday.
In my view, the proclamation remains one of the most misunderstood documents in American history. Hardly a month goes by without someone asking me via email or in conversation about Lincoln’s role in ending slavery. Perhaps I’m naïve, but I usually take such questions at face value—I assume people want to understand a vital issue in American history.
Sometimes, I’m wrong. I’ve encountered more than my share of individuals who approach Lincoln with a much different agenda. They claim they’ve researched the man and his famous “proclamation” and have formed an admittedly unconventional thesis. Perhaps you’ve heard some of their theories about Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation:
1. Lincoln was a liar. He claimed he wouldn’t touch slavery as president, but the Confederacy didn’t believe him so they seceded from the Union. Sure enough, as president, Lincoln did indeed end slavery. Thus, secession was justified because Lincoln could never be trusted.
2. Lincoln lied again. He claimed the Civil War was being fought “To Save the Union” when really it was being fought to “Free the Slaves.”
3. Lincoln was a tyrant who disregarded the U. S. Constitution. He had no constitutional authority to end slavery. Thus, his Emancipation Proclamation reveals his true identity—Lincoln was really America’s King George III.
4. Everything you’ve been taught about the Emancipation Proclamation is false. It did not free a single slave.
5. Lincoln is not the Great Emancipator. He was a racist who did not believe in equality. He even wanted to send all black people back to Africa.
Of course, these are just a handful of their theories on Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation. But I assure you, such theorizing is not limited to Lincoln and Slavery. Lost Cause Mythology adheres to a long list of Lincoln-related theories, but they all contain a similar theme—Lincoln could not be trusted and the Confederacy was right to secede from the Union.
It hardly matters that Lincoln is routinely ranked among the nation’s “Greatest Presidents.” Nor does it matter that Americans aren’t the only ones who hold him in high esteem. Never mind that people in Tokyo, Nairobi, Moscow, or even Tehran can identify a picture of Lincoln and say something positive about him. The conspiracy theorists will simply say that they have been brainwashed just like the majority of their American counterparts.
Fair enough. I’ve never been a big supporter of popularity contests anyway.
Historical evidence is the only weapon that can combat Lost Cause Mythology. But a word of caution…no matter how well you assemble your evidence or state your case, you won’t change their mind. Nevertheless, the fight is a worthy one.