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 mediafrom his promulgation of disinformation to the ways he variously withheld, leaked, and promoted the Proclamationin 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 Americanswhite and black, leaders and constituentstoward freedom.
About the Author
Harold Holzer is Director of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College.
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.”
What People are Saying About This
With a refreshing blend of analytical rigor and common sense, Harold Holzer places the Emancipation Proclamation in the context of its own time and circumstances, showing how Lincoln prepared public opinion for this controversial act, grounded it in his legal powers as commander in chief, and promoted its growing acceptance with eloquent paeans to freedom as a goal of the Civil War. This is a welcome new study of the Proclamation.
James M. McPherson, author of Battle Cry of Freedom and Abraham Lincoln
A succinct, readable, and essential guide to Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.
Henry Louis Gates Jr., W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, Harvard University
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.
Gary W. Gallagher, author of The Union War and The Confederate War
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.
Edna Greene Medford, Howard University
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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.