Monday, January 5, 2015

Emancipation Proclamation Then and Now: How to Make It Matter to Students


First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln,
Francis Bicknell Carpenter, 1864

             On New Year’s Day, 1863, a crowd of 3,000 abolitionists including Frederick Douglass gathered in the evening at Tremont Temple in Boston—the oldest integrated church in the country— to hear for the first time in public, President Lincoln’s long awaited Emancipation Proclamation read out loud.  Similarly, this past November in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, thousands gathered in public spaces and in front of televisions across the nation to hear President Obama address the nation on his executive action on immigration accountability.  Both presidential actions held the seed to change the status for millions living in this country.  Both actions forced politically-fraught, humanitarian issues onto the congressional agenda. 
            As Bruce Ackerman, Yale professor of law and political science, outlines in his argument, the Emancipation Proclamation did not actually free slaves as is often interpreted; it merely stated that slaves were free because of “military necessity”and free wherever they couldn’t be controlled.   In a LA Times op-ed, Ackerman writes that in the document, “Lincoln did not try to free any blacks in the four slave states that remained loyal to the Union. Nor did he even liberate slaves in the Southern areas under federal control. Instead, the proclamation only affected those areas that remained in active rebellion on New Year's Day 1863.”  Arguably, Lincoln went as far as he could without overstepping his presidential authority.  There was no unilateral emancipation for the slaves under this executive action, and even where it did apply under “military necessity”, it was “unclear whether Southern states could constitutionally reinstate slavery once the fighting came to an end.” 
            Just as Lincoln could not unilaterally free slaves, Obama cannot unilaterally alter the immigration status for 11.2 million undocumented immigrants.  But he can prioritize deportations, meaning in his words “felons not families,” in line with Lincoln who could prioritize a reprieve for slaves in certain areas of the country as a result of “military necessity.” 
Over a year later in April 1864, as a result of Lincoln’s executive action, the House of Representatives debated the 13th Amendment and voted against it.  This pushed the issue into the 1864 election where Lincoln Republicans stated they were in favor of the 13th Amendment and won a sizeable victory.  This win convinced the Democrats to propose the 13th Amendment to the states for ratification.
If history serves as a predictor, then our current Congress may be forced to put authoritative immigration reform on the agenda, if not to enact real reform now than perhaps in 2016. 
For educators, the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation is an opportunity to make real connections from America’s past to the present concerning executive power and the rights of those living in this country unrecognized.
Below are three ideas to ignite interest and apply common core understanding to reading and constructing an argument on Emancipation Proclamation and its current relevance with students:


Additionally, you may want to listen to the podcast episode Tyrannophia: The Uses and Abuses of Executive Power by Backstory with the American History Guys produced by the Virginia Endowment for the Humanities.
If you are interested in learning more about our grants program which provides educators with financial resources and ideas for teaching about immigration, please sign up here for updates.