Few documents in U.S. history share the hallowed reputation of the Emancipation Proclamation. Many, perhaps most, of my students have heard of it. They know — at least vaguely — that it pronounced freedom for enslaved African Americans, and earned President Abraham Lincoln the title of Great Emancipator. They know what it says, but no one has read it. Every U.S. history textbook mentions it, but I’ve never seen a single textbook that actually includes its full text.
Here, students examine excerpts from Lincoln’s first inaugural address, the rarely mentioned original Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution that Lincoln promised to support, and the Emancipation Proclamation. This lesson asks students to think about what these documents reveal about Lincoln’s war aims. Was it a war to free the slaves? Lincoln never said it was. Most textbooks don’t even say it was. And yet the myth persists: It was the war to free the slaves.