Civil War Speakers Bring Emancipation Proclamation to Life
By BRIDGET BALCH
On Friday, Sept. 21, Dodd Auditorium’s stage was transformed to look like a sitting room in the White House as part of a “fireside chat” in honor of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Nationally renowned Civil War experts Edna Greene Medford, history department chair at Howard University, Frank Williams, retired Chief Justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, and Harold Holzer, vice president for government relations and public affairs at New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, spoke to a crowd of about 300 people.
Each speaker looked at the Emancipation Proclamation from a different perspective.
Holzer talked about the use of drawings, paintings and photographs to depict the different viewpoints on the Proclamation at the time. Some portrayed President Abraham Lincoln as a patriot, God-sent to free the slaves. Others showed the Confederate perspective of Lincoln as demonic and incompetent.
“Why the [pictoral images are] important is they’re not just pictures…they reflect passionate points of view, pro and con, North and South,” said Holzer.
Williams spoke about what an inspirational character Lincoln was to him when he was growing up. The former Chief Justice said the fact that Lincoln was a lawyer was one of the reasons he decided to become one.
According to Williams, Lincoln used his powers as Commander-in-Chief during wartime to put the Emancipation Proclamation into effect, something he couldn’t have done in a time of peace.
Williams also said that a combination of social, moral, military and political factors went into the formation of the Proclamation.
“There are very few people in world history who possessed the courage of Abraham Lincoln,” Williams said. “He learned to trust his own judgment. He knew his own mind, despite criticism…he was obsessed with character, selflessness and honor.”
Medford spoke about the black perspective on the Emancipation Proclamation.
According to Medford, the Proclamation’s inclusion of allowing blacks to serve in the Union Army played a key role in the Union victory in the Civil War. However, blacks expected to receive, not only freedom, but also equal rights in return for their sacrifices for the Union.
Medford said that, once they realized that they weren’t going to receive these rights, blacks became very disillusioned with Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation. This disillusionment persists today in many blacks, according to Medford.
Holzer approached the issue from a modern perspective. He compared Lincoln’s executive act, issuing the Emancipation, to President Barack Obama’s signing of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act (DREAM), which allows immigrants without documentation who arrived in the U.S. while under the age of 16 to obtain permanent residency.
Holzer also compared the speed and innovation of the telegraph at the time of the Emancipation to Facebook and Twitter today, and the partisan Democrat and Republican newspapers of the day to today’s major news networks, such as MSNBC and CNN.
Summing up the importance of the Emancipation Proclamation, Medford said, “The Proclamation was extremely important at the time that it was issued, on Jan. 1st 1863, it remains important because what it does is it helped to recommit the nation to freedom and equality.”
“Although it did not end slavery throughout the country, it was a major step toward that end, and so it leads to the 13th amendment,” Medford said.
One University of Mary Washington student, Ryan Quint, a sophomore history major, was convinced of this issue’s significance.
“[The Emancipation Proclamation is] a topic that’s talked about, but not really in depth,” said Quint. “A presentation of this magnitude is really worth going to.”