The Postal Service has commissioned a commemorative “forever” stamp in recognition of the sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation. Stamps are (appropriately) not shipped until January, but are available for pre-sale now. The Emancipation Proclamation stamp is one of three stamps in a “civil rights set” that the Postal Service has commissioned for 2013. One of the other stamps commemorates the birth of Rosa Parks. The third stamp in the set has yet to be revealed.
I think the stamp is a great idea (and I will use these throughout the next year); I wonder, though, why the Proclamation is lumped together with the civil rights movement. Presumably, the historians at the Postal Service are aware of the Proclamation’s history (including the 1862 Preliminary Proclamation) and desired effect; it was never intended to – and never did - grant “rights” to any person. The Proclamation effectuated a war goal, and clarified for Union forces how enslaved refugees (or “contraband”) ought to be treated under the rules of war (in parts of the Union-occupied Carolinas, for example, several thousand persons were “freed” due to the Proclamation). While its symbolism sent a powerful message to enslaved people in the Confederate and border states (and more broadly, to the nation and Europe), relatively few walked free because of its dictate. In fact, outside of Union-occupied territory, tens of thousands of enslaved men and women would subsequently have to risk life and limb to reach Union lines in order to realize the Proclamation’s promise. Steve Hahn’s excellent book (A Nation Under Our Feet, on Amazon) is great on this point – between Fort Sumter and Appomattox, enslaved folks took emancipation into their own hands and (at least physically) freed themselves. Do these self-emancipators have a place in traditional tellings of this story? Do they have a place in our legal histories of this period? Was the Proclamation a "civil rights" act?