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Vail Law: The meanings of ’emancipation’

Rohn Robbins
Vail, CO, Colorado

In plain English, “emancipate” means to “free from bondage, oppression or restraint; to liberate.” And, of course, plain English has a place – however insignificant it might sometimes seem – at the table of law. In fact, plain English has a rather revered place in the law, with many legal arguments reducing to the meaning and intent of words. Remember “it depends what ‘is’ is?”

At law, “emancipated” has significance in two seemingly unrelated venues. First, of course, derives from President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which was an executive proclamation, issued on New Year’s day, 1863 whereby the President announced that, “all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.”

Despite this expansive wording, the Emancipation Proclamation was limited in many ways. It applied only to states that had seceded from the Union, leaving slavery untouched in the loyal border states. It also expressly exempted parts of the Confederacy that had already come under Northern control. Most important, the freedom it promised depended upon Union military victory.



Transforming the fight

Although the Emancipation Proclamation did not immediately free a single slave, it fundamentally transformed the character of the war. After it was issued, every advance of federal troops expanded the domain of freedom. Moreover, the Proclamation announced the acceptance of black men into the Union Army and Navy, enabling the liberated to become liberators. By the end of the war, almost 200,000 black soldiers and sailors had fought for the Union.



After the war, a debt of freedom was to be paid. And that debt was manifested in the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the United States Constitution. The 13th provides, in relevant part, that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

The 14th holds that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

The 15th provides that “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”



In this context, then, emancipation means to be freed from slavery and is embodied in the most basic testament of the laws of this nation – the Constitution.

Another kind of freedom

In the context of slavery, then, it is interesting to look at the second meaning of emancipation, a concept which any teenager will tell you is little different from the first. Emancipation’s second face is the face of being free of one’s parents. It means to be made, by the exercise or accretion of law, to be one’s own master.

The term is principally used with reference to the emancipation of a minor child (usually younger than 18 years of age) by his/her parents, which involves entire surrender of the rights to care, custody, and earnings of such child as well as the renunciation of parental duties. In other words, “from here on, baby, you’re on your own.”

But wait. What about this “renunciation of parental duties” part? Effectively, once emancipated from one’s parents, anything they do for you is out of good will alone and not out of legal responsibility. Your mistakes are your own. Your support is your own. You will be called to task – and perhaps called into court – for your failings.

Emancipation may be express – as by voluntary agreement between the parents and child – or implied from such acts and conduct as implied consent. While there is not a fixed age when a child becomes emancipated, it is usually upon reaching the age of majority. As Forrest Gump might observe “Emancipation is as emancipation does” and, except for certain legal duties and liabilities which attach to a person upon reaching mature age, complete “emancipation” itself may be a protracted affair. Mom and Dad paying for college room and tuition, for example.

Emancipation, in the last analysis, means freedom from the control of another. With the extinction of slavery in this country, man was emancipated from the ownership and control of his fellow man and those inalienable rights are now embodied in our constitution.

With adulthood, or its near equivalent, emancipation, means being free from the control of your mom and dad, but subject to the consequences of one’s own stutters and missteps. In both definitions, emancipation is a noble thing and ennobled further by the laws that secure, promote and protect full self-determination.

Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the Bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley. He lectures for continuing legal education in the areas of real estate, development and legal ethics. He may be heard on Wednesday nights at 7 p.m. on KZYR radio (97.7 FM) and seen on ECO TV 18 as host of “Community Focus.” Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at robbins@colorado.net.


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