Prof. Scott Hancock authors Emancipation Proclamation piece in New York Times

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Gettysburg College Prof. Scott Hancock authored a piece on the Emancipation Proclamation that appeared in Sept. 16's New York Times Sunday Review, a week before the 150th anniversary of the issuance of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which happened on September 22, 1862.

His piece is one of a seven-part series sponsored by Gettysburg College as we join the country in commemorating the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War.

The full text of Hancock's piece is below.

African Americans had no friend in Lincoln

Scott HancockI am a revisionist historian.

Every historian is one. We can examine the same events, documents, or statistics and reach starkly different conclusions about why things happened. Disagreement and revision, however, often produce consensus.

For instance, most historians now acknowledge that slavery caused the Civil War. Sources such as South Carolina’s Ordinance of Secession confirm that protecting slavery was the South’s top priority.

Likewise, there is consensus that saving the Union was the North’s primary goal. The Union did eventually make emancipation a vital secondary objective, but never wavered from its purpose of national preservation.

The Emancipation Proclamation fit within that purpose. Though typically perceived as the most important legal act for African Americans, it was for white Americans because it helped secure national preservation. In 1966, Stokely Carmichael made a similar point, declaring that “every civil rights bill in this country was passed for white people, not for black people.” Echoing Carmichael, this is my revision of American history.

The evidence? Lincoln’s Preliminary Proclamation, made public 150 years ago this month, left a legal loophole allowing Confederate areas that ceased rebelling to maintain slavery. Black men, women, and children would only be “forever free” in areas still rebelling on January 1, 1863. Despite the improbability of any state abandoning the Confederacy, this loophole’s purpose was to weaken the rebellion. Lincoln’s final 1863 Proclamation removed the loophole but added the phrase “a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion,” reemphasizing the primary goal. Freeing African Americans, though important, was absolutely secondary.

Getting our history right requires revisions, including using terms accurately. The term “Emancipation Proclamation” appears nowhere in the documents we call the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation or the Emancipation Proclamation. While Lincoln’s Proclamations were ingenious, even artistic, legal articulations that revolutionized the nation, neither document actually emancipated anybody.

This revision matters because too often emancipation is perceived as something that was done for African Americans, which connotes a gift or a grant. We often say Lincoln…or the Emancipation Proclamation…or the Union freed the slaves. That phrasing shapes political thinking. On the radio, in homes, and in classrooms, critics of social programs directed at African Americans argue that the nation has done enough for African Americans, starting with freeing them. Whatever one’s position in those debates, any argument presuming that Lincoln’s Proclamation or the sacrifices of Union troops were undertaken for African Americans relies on bad revisionist history. Lincoln’s Proclamation and the sacrifice of our nation’s citizenry did serve a crucial, nation-changing purpose, just not one initiated for African Americans.

Lincoln has been called the most significant friend African Americans have ever had. Perhaps he was the best ally. An ally may not like, respect, or care about you, but they can work effectively toward the same ends though motives may differ. Lincoln and his Proclamation are arguably the most significant allies Black people have had during our long experience on this continent. But Lincoln was no friend. And his Proclamation was no gift.

Lincoln’s Proclamation pushed the nation to the hard work of making its founding ideals a reality. Today, we best continue that work by being better allies: allies who genuinely respect one another. One hundred and fifty years later, we accomplish that in part by getting our history right. Even if it requires some revision.

Scott Hancock is an associate professor of history and Africana studies at Gettysburg College.

Find out more about Gettysburg College's Sesquicentennial Commemoration of the American Civil War at

Founded in 1832, Gettysburg College is a highly selective four-year residential college of liberal arts and sciences with a strong academic tradition. Alumni include Rhodes Scholars, a Nobel laureate, and other distinguished scholars. The college enrolls 2,600 undergraduate students and is located on a 200-acre campus adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.

Posted: Sun, 16 Sep 2012


I am replying to your ad/editorial. I always find it interesting when people call themselves revisionists. The idea of revising history based on today's values or beliefs is virtually impossible. Scott Hancock has no idea of the pressures faced by Lincoln in a society that was much more backwards than today's. Lincoln may have been a friend of slaves, but he never could have gotten support for a proclamation if it were positioned as such. He was a master politician, which is a requirement to be successful in our form of government. Look at the gridlock we have today in Washington by comparison. Scott Hancock is a naive academician who doesn't have to worry about getting anything done in a democracy. He does a disservice to one of the few presidents who really effected change for the better in our society.

David Catlett | Posted Sep 16, 2012 10:21 AM

I suppose I must also be a revisionist historian for I agree with every word Professor Hancock wrote. I have struggled and struggled to discover out the name and life trajectory of *even one single person* who was able to secure emancipation under the fine print rules and regulations of the "Emancipation Proclamation" -- entirely without success so far! Actually I go considerably further than the professor, for my reading of the XIIIth Amendment makes that out to be, not any freeing of the slaves, but merely the retroactive rendering null and void of this earlier proclamation of the executive branch of the government. Under the separation of powers doctrine, a power assigned to one of the three branches of the federal government is denied to the other two branches -- and the force of this constitutional amendment was to put congress in unchallenged charge by assigning sole and exclusive power to regulate slavery to the *legislative* branch rather than either the executive or judicial branches.

Austin Meredith | Posted Sep 16, 2012 05:27 PM

I am glad to see the Hancock contribution, and I am not sure there is much difference in content between himself and David Catlett. except in their different emotional tones. I have organized the Wepner Symposium on the Lincoln Library and Contemporary Scholarship also on thee emancipation. ( These issues will be discussed from a variety of points of view, and I would earnestly solicit the presence of these two contributors and all others interested. Matthew Holden,Jr. Wepner Distinguished Professor in Political Science. University of Illinois at Springfield

Matthew Holden, Jr. | Posted Sep 16, 2012 07:55 PM

Apparently those black citizens of Richmond who greeted Lincoln during his walk through the smoldering city knew something about Lincoln that Prof. Hancock discounts. And this wasn't the only incident where Lincoln was saluted by the freedmen and women. Prof. Hancock would have us believe that they were mistaken in considering him a friend. Obviously none of them could be considered revisionists. Happily, the students at Gettysburg need only turn to pg 533 of Prof. Allen Guelzo's book, Fateful Lightning, to find a rebuttal to the revisionists. "Douglas was firm in his insistence that achieving freedom would have had precious little significance unaccompanied by preservation of the union. No war for the Union could have succeeded without becoming a war to end slavery.... White veterans remember their war as being both for union and emancipation." Until Prof. Hancock comes to terms with that perspective, I'd suggest that Gettysburg students take Prof. Guelzo's course.

js zawacki | Posted Sep 16, 2012 08:52 PM

I read with interest Professor Hancock's piece. I have always viewed the civil war as 3 wars: that of the South, a war for State's Rights and therefore to preserve slavery; the war of the North, to preserve the Union; and the war of the African Americans, freedom. As Professor Catlett writes, we cannot know the pressures faced by Lincoln and he could have never sold the civil war to the Northern States if he positioned it as a war to free the slaves. The period of reconstruction and the war of terror against the newly freed African Americans would have been Lincoln's opportunity to show if he was a true friend to the African American citizens. Would Lincoln have sent troops into the South to guarantee the rights of the newly freed slaves? The assasination of Mr. Lincoln prevents us from understanding how he felt and how he evolved over the course of his administration.

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