On September 21 at the Majestic Theatre in downtown Gettysburg, PA, as part of a series of events in honor of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, Dr. Peter Carmichael, director of the Gettysburg College Civil War Institute, moderated “Forever Free: An Evening with Dr. James McPherson and Dr. Allen Guelzo.” The evening was formatted as a discussion focused around the Emancipation Proclamation and the events and personalities surrounding its drafting, passage, and impact on the nation.
Drs. Guelzo and McPherson followed Dr. Carmichael’s questions by discussing how the events and military situation of 1862 led Lincoln to draft the Emancipation Proclamation. Dr. Carmichael then steered the discussion toward an exploration of the significance of the Seven Days Battles in determining the military situation during the fall of 1862, and how that impacted when and why Lincoln presented his draft of the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet.
Although the conception, drafting, and passage of the Emancipation Proclamation was the centerpiece around which the discussion revolved, Drs. Guelzo and McPherson weighed in on a range of topics, including the many different courses of action Lincoln could’ve taken in initiating an end to slavery. Dr. Guelzo mentioned Lincoln’s other ideas regarding slavery, but stressed the necessity of the abolition of the institution to the survival of the postwar Union. Guelzo explained that without abolition, the nation would have reverted back to the grievances that paved the way for the war at the outset.
Dr. Carmichael framed his final question around a quote from historian Ed Ayers that criticized how multifaceted and interwoven different layers of Civil War scholarship have become. Both Drs. Guelzo and McPherson disagreed with Ayers, saying they felt that such a multifaceted approach was the most effective one in studying the era and its impact on the nation.
After about an hour of Dr. Carmichael’s questions, audience members were invited to write down questions on cards which were collected by members of the Pennsylvania College Guard, Gettysburg College’s reenacting unit. Dr. Carmichael picked a handful of audience questions to continue the discussion. One audience member was curious as to why the Emancipation Proclamation was not, like other Lincoln writings, known for its beautiful prose. Dr. Guelzo explained that the document is, foremost, a legal document, and needed to be written clearly and solidly so as to stand up to legal and judicial scrutiny, emphasizing that Lincoln was not indifferent or reluctant to write the Proclamation simply because it is written in more dry and legalistic language. Dr. McPherson agreed with Dr. Guelzo on both points, reading the final sentence of the Proclamation to illustrate that even while Lincoln was writing a legal document, he still incorporated some of his signature prose style, showing Lincoln’s personal commitment to the effects of the document he was setting forth: “And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.”
Following this, Dr. Guelzo ended the discussion describing how Lincoln continuously tried to “keep a lid on” the conflict so as the prevent an even more calamitous fracturing of the nation, stressing how Lincoln’s actions throughout the war reflected, above all, his desire to maintain the Union and to maintain the plausibility of democracy as a system of government. Following this, the audience applauded heartily and gave the men a standing ovation, giving due credit to an event that was intellectually stimulating, entertaining, and an overall great success.