Lincoln released his lesser-known preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on Sept. 22, 1862 — 100 days before the final version. The first of the two documents has gained importance among historians as a turning point in the Civil War because of a change in thinking over the past 50 years.
Slavery and its abolition were once treated by historians as minor parts of the story behind the Civil War, but that began to change after the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, said historian Edward Ayers, president of the University of Richmond. Since then, the steps that led to emancipation have been recognized for their importance — with the Sept. 22 proclamation being a prime example.
“All our thinking about this has undergone remarkable recasting over the last 50 years,” Ayers said. “People begin now with slavery as the fundamental fact and emancipation and less with union as being the sole focus of attention.”
Commemorations began Monday with a forum moderated by Ayers at the Smithsonian Institution discussed the steps leading to emancipation. The discussion was broadcast to 100 schools, museums and libraries. The National Endowment for the Humanities also organized readings at the Lincoln Memorial.
Meanwhile, the only surviving version of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in Lincoln’s handwriting will make an eight-city tour of New York state this fall. The official government copy from the National Archives will be shown beginning Saturday in New York City at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
Other exhibits will feature copies of the final version in the months preceding the Jan. 1 anniversary of its issuing.
The preliminary proclamation served as a warning that if the Confederacy did not end its “rebellion” against the United States and voluntarily abolish slavery, then Lincoln would order the slaves freed on the first day of 1863. Lincoln believed it was a way to use his military powers to push to end slavery.
Lincoln drafted the preliminary proclamation over the summer of 1862 but held off on releasing it because of Union defeats. He felt there was enough of a victory when Confederate forces turned back after the Battle of Antietam in late August that he went ahead.
There was once skepticism among historians about Lincoln’s deliberate approach. For example, neither version of the proclamation covered five slave-holding Union border states that were freed in separate federal actions. But Ayers says most scholars now view Lincoln as shrewd.