Emancipating Lincoln: The Proclamation in Text, Context, and Memory

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Overview

Emancipating Lincoln seeks a new approach to the Emancipation Proclamation, a foundational text of American liberty that in recent years has been subject to woeful misinterpretation. These seventeen hundred words are Lincoln's most important piece of writing, responsible both for his being hailed as the Great Emancipator and for his being pilloried by those who consider his once-radical effort at emancipation insufficient and half-hearted.

Harold Holzer, an award-winning Lincoln scholar, invites us to examine the impact of Lincoln’s momentous announcement at the moment of its creation, and then as its meaning has changed over time. Using neglected original sources, Holzer uncovers Lincoln’s very modern manipulation of the media—from his promulgation of disinformation to the ways he variously withheld, leaked, and promoted the Proclamation—in order to make his society-altering announcement palatable to America. Examining his agonizing revisions, we learn why a peerless prose writer executed what he regarded as his “greatest act” in leaden language. Turning from word to image, we see the complex responses in American sculpture, painting, and illustration across the past century and a half, as artists sought to criticize, lionize, and profit from Lincoln’s endeavor.

Holzer shows the faults in applying our own standards to Lincoln’s efforts, but also demonstrates how Lincoln’s obfuscations made it nearly impossible to discern his true motives. As we approach the 150th anniversary of the Proclamation, this concise volume is a vivid depiction of the painfully slow march of all Americans—white and black, leaders and constituents—toward freedom.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Holzer, who won a prize for his analysis of Lincoln’s 1860 speech at Cooper Union, now examines the Emancipation Proclamation. The book, based on a series of lectures at Harvard in 2010, outlines Lincoln’s approach to drafting the document and creating a climate for its acceptance; reactions to the text, especially the disappointment on the part of some that it lacked “grandeur or Book of Exodus fervor”; and changing depictions of it and of Lincoln, first as the Great Emancipator, later “generic hero of national unity,” or simply a great leader. Tracing the history of the iconography of Lincoln and the Proclamation, Holzer deftly leads readers through American racial politics from the Civil War to the election of President Obama. Readers lacking Holzer’s expertise could use more particulars on Lincoln’s juggling of possible political ruin, the abolition of slavery, and the pursuit of Union victory. Images of the Proclamation and political cartoons shed light on the text and its reception in 1863. (Feb.)
James M. McPherson
Lincoln published a preliminary proclamation on September 22, 1862, warning Confederate states of his intention to issue a final edict on January 1...Holzer argue[s] persuasively that the progression of events during that critical autumn of the war were full of contingencies and that the final outcome was by no means certain...Provide[s] detailed and careful renderings of these events and of Lincoln's intellectual journey.
Gary W. Gallagher
As the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation approaches, Harold Holzer has given us a splendid book that provides essential historical framing for the document, its reception, and the trajectory of Abraham Lincoln's reputation as the Great Emancipator. A most enjoyable and informative read.
Henry Louis Gates Jr.
A succinct, readable, and essential guide to Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.
Edna Greene Medford
Holzer uncovers a complex, imperfect man who was guided by practical considerations as he struggled to both preserve and perfect the Union. A welcome, balanced, and necessary addition to Lincoln scholarship.
Charlotte Observer - John David Smith
Emancipating Lincoln is a long-overdue contextual analysis of Lincoln's evolving emancipation program and its place in historical memory. Holzer, an authority on Lincoln..., pinpoints when, why and how the president moved toward freeing the slaves.
Boston Globe - Chuck Leddy
Holzer's book brilliantly and quite convincingly aims to restore Lincoln's place as a courageous American civil rights pioneer by considering the 16th president's actions, attitudes, and the Emancipation Proclamation itself within the political, military, and racial context of the time...In putting Lincoln's greatest achievement in historical context, Holzer has done the Emancipator, and historical scholarship in general, a valuable service.
Roanoke Times - Michael L. Ramsey
What emerges from Holzer's research is a portrait of Lincoln as a man of vision who was adept at manipulating the news media. He was also discreet, even with his friends (both political and personal)...Holzer describes Lincoln's care in selecting the proper words, the right timing and the right context to effect the enactment of the proclamation. The portrait that emerges is one of a leader able to build consensus during the development of an important policy and in the middle of a war.
Star-Ledger - Jonathan E. Lazarus
Crucial insights into Lincoln's dodgy and downright dissembling strategy in formulating and promulgating the Proclamation during the darkest months of the Civil War are brightly illuminated by Harold Holzer on the eve of the document's 150th anniversary. Holzer, a Lincoln scholar and vice president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, puts the fine points on the limited declaration, and embellishes the effect it produced through an excursion into the iconography, art and memorials depicting "The Great Emancipator."...In fusing the politics and the "art" of the Proclamation, Holzer adds handsomely to the Lincoln canon with this modest but highly insightful work.
Daily Beast - Allen Barra
Perhaps Holzer’s most outstanding recent work is Emancipating Lincoln. Compact and precise—just 172 pages of text and 23 pages of notes—the book is a model of lucid historical writing. There is probably no important document in our country’s history that even Civil War students know so little about than the Emancipation Proclamation.”
Charlotte Observer

Emancipating Lincoln is a long-overdue contextual analysis of Lincoln's evolving emancipation program and its place in historical memory. Holzer, an authority on Lincoln..., pinpoints when, why and how the president moved toward freeing the slaves.
— John David Smith

Boston Globe

Holzer's book brilliantly and quite convincingly aims to restore Lincoln's place as a courageous American civil rights pioneer by considering the 16th president's actions, attitudes, and the Emancipation Proclamation itself within the political, military, and racial context of the time...In putting Lincoln's greatest achievement in historical context, Holzer has done the Emancipator, and historical scholarship in general, a valuable service.
— Chuck Leddy

Roanoke Times

What emerges from Holzer's research is a portrait of Lincoln as a man of vision who was adept at manipulating the news media. He was also discreet, even with his friends (both political and personal)...Holzer describes Lincoln's care in selecting the proper words, the right timing and the right context to effect the enactment of the proclamation. The portrait that emerges is one of a leader able to build consensus during the development of an important policy and in the middle of a war.
— Michael L. Ramsey

Star-Ledger

Crucial insights into Lincoln's dodgy and downright dissembling strategy in formulating and promulgating the Proclamation during the darkest months of the Civil War are brightly illuminated by Harold Holzer on the eve of the document's 150th anniversary. Holzer, a Lincoln scholar and vice president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, puts the fine points on the limited declaration, and embellishes the effect it produced through an excursion into the iconography, art and memorials depicting "The Great Emancipator."...In fusing the politics and the "art" of the Proclamation, Holzer adds handsomely to the Lincoln canon with this modest but highly insightful work.
— Jonathan E. Lazarus

Kirkus Reviews
As we near its sesquicentennial, a distinguished Lincoln scholar examines the problematic history of the Emancipation Proclamation. On New Year's Day 1863, Lincoln steadied himself before signing the document whose culture-changing significance he well understood: "If my name ever goes into history it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it." Today Lincoln's image as "the Great Emancipator" has eroded--too politically incorrect--replaced by Lincoln the unifier, Lincoln the wise. After his death the Proclamation "soon achieved the status of holy writ." Today it's often dismissed as the delayed, insufficient and half-hearted act of a desperate president fearful of losing his office and the war. Holzer's (Lincoln President-Elect, 2009, etc.) tripartite narrative deals first with the historical context of the Proclamation, laying out Lincoln's exquisitely difficult political, legal, moral and martial calculations as he gradually widened his circle of confidants, labored to manipulate public opinion and slyly prepared the nation for his momentous decision. He spent months refining the announcement released after Antietam and steadfastly signed the promised executive order. The author then moves to a discussion of the Proclamation's rhetorical deficiencies (Richard Hofstadter said it contained "all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading"), explains why our most eloquent president wrote so uncharacteristically and points us to contemporaneous speeches and letters for the "poetic accompaniment" to what was, after all, preeminently a legal document. Finally, Holzer turns to the iconography surrounding Lincoln and emancipation, tracing images from the early kneeling-slave, peculiarly disconcerting to modern audiences, on through to treatments by contemporary artists such as Rauschenberg, Basquiat and Kara Walker. This visual evidence effectively underscores his larger point about our troublesome, still evolving understanding of the Proclamation's place in our history. A fine introduction to what promises in 2013 to become a nationwide discussion.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674064409
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 2/27/2012
  • Series: The Nathan I. Huggins Lectures , #5
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 820,206
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Harold Holzer is Senior Vice President for Public Affairs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 3: Sacred Effigies



The scene was wild and grand. Joy and gladness exhausted all forms of expression, from shouts of praise to joy and tears.” That was how Frederick Douglass described the moment when the words of the Emancipation Proclamation finally arrived over the telegraph wires on January 1, 1863. As he had written in a similarly jubilant mood three months earlier, when Lincoln first announced his emancipation policy: “We shout for joy that we live to record this righteous decree.” Certainly the word joy could not describe the reigning mood at the White House ceremony at which Lincoln actually signed the document that Douglass and others first celebrated on that momentous holiday afternoon. In fact, calling it a ceremony at all would constitute an exaggeration; that it lacked emotion or fanfare of any kind is beyond dispute. All Lincoln did that day was quietly slip away from a long New Year’s reception in the East Room and walk upstairs to his office to affix his name to the document in almost total privacy. More over, he maddeningly took his time to do so, delaying his formal action for hours even as the nation waited anxiously for the fulfillment of a promise on which many people were absolutely convinced he would renege. It did not help relieve tensions that the holiday began, and continued well past midday, without any definite word from Washington. “Will Lincoln’s backbone carry him through?” wondered apprehensive New York diarist George Templeton Strong. “Nobody knows.”

Lincoln knew— he just kept his intentions to himself. But as he had confided to his wife, who argued that he should indeed refuse to sign the order, it was too late to waver: he was “a man under orders” from God to approve it. Perhaps just as formidably, he was also under orders from the First Lady to keep his promise to host their annual East Room New Year’s levee without interruption. For a time, Mrs. Lincoln’s influence proved the more powerful, especially after the sharp- eyed Lincoln noticed an imperfection in the hand- engrossed copy prepared by a scribe and brought to him for his signature earlier in the day. Lincoln sent it back to be recopied and joined the holiday levee as scheduled. Observing him there, one journalist noted: “The President seemed to be in fine spirits and cracked an occasional joke.”

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 1, 2012

    Interesting reading

    Best to read if you are a lincoln admirer. It shows they brillance of Lincoln's use of people and the media to further the cause of freeing the slaves.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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