5 Facts About Emancipation Proclamation

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On Jan. 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the famous Emancipation Proclamation, which, he argued, freed the slaves in the Confederacy. Today, Americans and others celebrate Lincoln’s proclamation as one of the major highlights of the modern world. Chattel slavery was finally abolished in arguably the last industrialized country on earth. The truth, however, was a bit more complicated than the celebratory narrative that schoolchildren are familiar with. Slavery in the Confederacy and the broader United States was part of a global network that used unpaid, coercive work to accomplish tasks that needed to be done. Here are five reasons the Emancipation Proclamation is more complicated than meets the eye:


5. The Emancipation Proclamation was a coldly calculated political move. Abraham Lincoln was like many, if not most, northerners in the U.S.: he loathed slavery as an institution but he didn’t like black people, either. Yet Lincoln understood that the war between North and South was about slavery above all else. He understood that to defeat the Confederacy, he was going to have to crush its peculiar institution and the ideas it stood for. So, the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in the midst of the war, when morale was low in the North and victory an unsure outcome. (For those of you who are particularly passionate about an unpopular but morally superior position, such as ending the war on drugs, keep at it. Abolitionist sentiment was always extremely low in the United States, despite occasional public outbursts of anger over lynchings in the news cycle.)

4. The Confederacy was, for all intents and purposes, an independent country. When Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, the Confederacy had long since declared independence from the United States and set up a federal government of its own. Montgomery, Ala. acted as its capital city until 1861, when the Confederacy’s government moved to Richmond, Va. Lincoln viewed Richmond’s diplomacy with the British and French as the most dangerous element of the Confederacy’s secession. If Richmond could somehow manage to get a world power on its side, the consequences for the future of the republic would be dire. For London and Paris, the calculations were a bit different. If either one joined the side of the Confederacy, the other would officially join the north and a global war could ensue. The Confederacy lobbied especially hard for the British to fight on their side, but there was one issue London’s hawks, the factions that wanted a war with Washington, couldn’t get past.

3. The British Empire ended slavery in 1833. Good intentions abounded when London abolished the slave trade in 1833, but ending the slave trade soon took on a life of its own for the British Empire, and before long, the United Kingdom began fighting a continuous stream of wars in Africa under the pretense of abolishing slavery. Ending the global slave trade meant that London could push into the interior of Africa and claim large swathes of territory for the crown, and all in the name of liberty. The British were not stupid, of course. London picked off what was left of the Dutch Empire in Africa, but the Portuguese slave trade was left alone as was French-claimed Africa. The British Empire’s abolition of the slave trade in its territories enlarged the territory of the empire in Africa but also put a significant dent in the profits of slave owners in British-governed territory in the New World and Old.

2. African polities played a vital role in the global slave trade. One aspect of the global slave trade that continues to be ignored or underemphasized in American classrooms is the vital role that African polities played in the horrors of human bondage and trafficking. This educational trend will change once African-Americans are more fully integrated into American society, but for now the role that African political units played in the slave trade will continue to be put on the back burner. This is unfortunate, too, since downplaying such a vital role in the global system only erodes the agency of the African in American minds. The Ashanti Empire in what is now Ghana is a case in point: the Ashanti, who built their empire on slaves and gold, fought several wars against the British during their time as regional hegemon, and won a couple of those wars.
Only an alliance of several rival polities and the British brought an end to Ashanti hegemony. The complexity of African society also suffers under a regime of ignorance in the American educational system. Slaves weren’t just a bunch hunter-gatherers who were captured by European or Arab slave traders and shipped off to the Americas. Slaves were the losers of geopolitical wars that had worldwide ramifications. Slaves were members of the African land-owning aristocracy. Slaves were the product of hard-nosed trade negotiations between African polities and European states (or multi-national corporations). And the Anglo-Dutch slave trade was just the tip of the iceberg in the global slave trade. The Spanish and especially the Portuguese were far larger players in African politics and the global slave trade.

1. The Brazilian Empire still had slavery in 1863, and the Emancipation Proclamation did absolutely nothing for slaves in Brazil or slavery in the “Portuguese Triangle.” Stretching from Portugal in Europe to Angola in Africa to Brazil in the Americas, the Portuguese Triangle was responsible for most of the slave trading that went on in the world, and there was nothing the British Empire or the Emancipation Proclamation could do about it. The trade in slaves ended in Brazil in the 1860s, after U.S. Civil War, but slavery itself wasn’t abolished until 1888. This suggests, again, that the sins of slavery extend far beyond Anglo-American participation, but also that the British and American ability to influence world events was not (and is not) as incredible as it is sometimes made out to be by historians and analysts today.

Special mention: the Emancipation Proclamation also ended slavery in Indian territory. The Emancipation Proclamation also included the Indian territories that then operated under American vassalage. This is another fact that is easily verified in American history textbooks, but severely underemphasized in classrooms nationwide. The costs of this obstinate ignorance are the same as those found in No. 2: no agency, no freedom; no sins, no history; no history, no self-worth.

Further thoughts
The Emancipation Proclamation was a big deal, of course. That the President of the United States declared an end to slavery rivaled the decision of the British Empire to end slavery in 1833, and the impact of abolition in the U.S. on the world then, and now, was powerful. But it was not as far-reaching as is often supposed.
The Brazilian Empire’s abolition of slavery in 1888 was the defining moment of the abolitionist movement. Chattel slavery was virtually eradicated from the earth (it still exists in small pockets among various societies around the world), and the project of liberty could finally, truly be pursued by all of the world’s human inhabitants.

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