Scholars discuss Emancipation Proclamation

February 21, 2000|By SCOTT BUTKI

SHARSPBURG - Three scholars discussed the importance and symbolism of President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation during a roundtable discussion at the visitors center at Antietam National Battlefield Sunday.

Not everyone agrees on whether Lincoln should be praised for the proclamation he issued Sept. 22, 1862, five days after the Battle of Antietam, said Edward Steers, a commentator for the History Channel.

"To some (the proclamation) is a symbol of freedom ... to some, a symbol of hypocrisy," Steers said.

While older generations may see Lincoln as the man who helped end slavery, some younger people see him as a white racist, he said.

In the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln declared that all "slaves within any state, or designated part of a state shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free." Specifically exempted were slaves in parts of the South then held by Union armies.


The proclamation was criticized in the British press, said Burrus Carnahan, a lecturer in law at George Washington University. Newspapers expressed concern the speech would lead to a race war, he said.

Despite that, more than 100,000 British citizens held a rally in support of the proclamation, he said.

At the time, the United States was the only republican democracy in the world and other governments felt threatened and wanted Lincoln to fail in his attempt to keep the nation together, Steers said.

Edward Smith, director of American studies at American University, said it must be remembered that the racial climate was very different then. Lincoln could not imagine "the racial harmony that we take for granted today," Smith said.

A running theme throughout the discussion was that, despite continuing debate about the reasons and the immediate impact of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, it is a document with lasting meaning to many.

And not just in the United States.

Steers said there are 132 statues of Lincoln, including 29 outside of the United States. In Cuba, where one statue is located, the impact of Lincoln's comments are not forgotten, he said.

The 90-minute event was moderated by Ted Alexander, Antietam National Battlefield park historian.

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