Monday, March 29, 2010

Opposing Image Perspectives on the Emancipation Proclamation

Examining opposing views in history makes studying the subject more exciting and potentially provides one balance. Of course, different perspectives not only come in words, they also come in images. One of the most controversial measures of Abraham Lincoln's presidency was his decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. First presented preliminarily in September 1862, it was set to go into effect on January 1, 1863. The measure was to free the slaves in those slave states still in rebellion and not under Federal control, and specifically did not free the slaves in the volatile Border States.

Union soldiers as well as civilians viewed the Emancipation Proclamation in diverse ways. Some were for anything that would end the war sooner, while others swore that they would desert before they would fight for anything other than to preserve the Union. Most Southerners were of the opinion that the document was nothing more than a presidential sanction for slave insurrections and wanton destruction.
The image above was drawn by Confederate sympathizer Adelbert J. Volck. Volck was a Prussian political refugee who came to America during the 1848 European revolutions. He was not only an artist, he practiced dentistry as well. Produced in 1864, this pro-Southern image portrays Lincoln as the demonic author of the despised Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln rests his left foot on the Constitution, while a demonic icon hold his glass of water. A statue of Lady Liberty has a hood over head in the corner as bats are seen out the window. A picture of John Brown holding a pike and with a sarcastic halo is on the wall and labeled "St. Ossawattomie," for his role in Bleeding Kansas and his Harpers Ferry raid. The picture to the right of Brown's image is a scene of terror from the Haitian revolution, "Saint Domingue," where a slave rebellion started in 1791 and took power from the French colony. Finally, what appears to be a buzzard's skull holds back the curtains, while another skull image is worked into the president's chair back.
A more favorable view of Lincoln's measure is David Gilmore Blythe's lithograph, President Lincoln, Writing the Proclamation of Freedom. Also produced in 1864, Blythe's Lincoln is much different than that portrayed by Volck. Blythe's Lincoln is shown working hard on the document in his bed clothes and slippers with books and papers surrounding him for inspiration. Instead of standing on the Constitution as Volck portrays it at top, Blythe shows Lincoln with the Bible and Constitution on his lap. A bust of Andrew Jackson, who threatened to put down South Carolina's threats during the Nullification Crisis of the early 1830s, sits on the mantle, while a bust of former president James Buchanan (who proved inactive in South Carolina's December 1860 secession) hangs by a rope from the bookcase. An American flag drapes the window to allow enlightenment enter the room, while a scales of justice hangs on the wall and a rail splitter's maul lays on the floor with one of his bedroom slippers.
It has been said many times that "a picture is worth a thousand words." Art, like history, is open to interpretation and is influenced by the artist's sympathies and biases. An artists' perspective often comes out as clearly in images as an historians' does in written text. Part of the fun of studying history is recognizing those sympathies and biases and weighing them against what you have previously learned.


  1. Very little is said in any circles of the emancipation that Lincoln did in the D.C./Maryland area prior to the one we all see in the history books in public school. The earlier one compensated slave holders,probably not with their total investment, and provided some money to the freedman for a start. Was this ever a reality that the Southern states turned down?
    David Roberts

  2. David,
    That is an excellent question. I am certainly not the Lincoln scholar, but I will see what I can find on this.

    Personally, I don't think that the Southern states would have gone for any kind of compensated deal. Not only did they have way too much money tied up in their slave property, they firmly believed that without slavery their social structure would crumble immediately. John C. Calhoun, during the debate on the Compromise of 1850, had said that, "On the contrary, the Southern section regards the relation [slavery]as one which can not be destroyed without subjecting the two races to the greatest calamity, and the section [the South] to poverty, desolation, and wretchedness; and accordingly they feel bound by every consideration of interest and safety to defend it." Later, as the war crept closer, many others said the same thing.

    Kentucky, being a Border State, was not subject to the E.P. and kept up the institution even after war ended. Slavery only ended in the Bluegrass state when the 13th Amendment was radified by enough states to be added to the Constitution in December 1865. Kentucky finally radified it in 1976!

  3. more could b said about the southern view of the document

  4. Whose is the head holding up the hooded lady liberty?