By Harold Holzer.
Harvard University Press.
213 pages. $24.95
Reviewed by Michael L. Ramsey
MICHAEL RAMSEY is president of the Roanoke Public Library Foundation.
Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was controversial when it was written and later when it was enacted. It remains a source of contentious discussion today.
Harold Holzer’s new book explains why it was difficult for the commander-in-chief to execute this important strategic maneuver.
In “Emancipating Lincoln,” Holzer walks us through the long, tedious process that President Lincoln used to draft the proclamation, test it with political allies, test it with broader markets and finally choose a time and format for enactment that would prevent its destruction in the courts.
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).
The Emancipation Proclamation gave freedom to slaves living in the states in rebellion unless those states ended their war against the United States. It was a controversial subject that some feared would cause other states to rebel and join the Confederate States of America.
In order to avoid too much dissension and to make the proclamation less likely to be gutted by lawsuits and court opinions or to cause further rebellion, Lincoln, as commander-in-chief, issued the proclamation as a document of war. Just as the Confiscation Act of 1862 intended to deprive the rebels of their goods, the Emancipation Proclamation would open the door for many landowners’ net worth to be decimated.
As an act of the commander-in-chief, the proclamation rose above the political debate. This was a part of Lincoln’s strategy to win the war.
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.
This image of Lincoln the consensus builder is also displayed in more detail in Doris Kearnes Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals,” so it should not come as a surprise that he was able to bring together people with different opinions to support this controversial action.
In his “Lincoln on War,” Holzer uses the words of Lincoln presented chronologically and in close proximity — without much commentary — to show how the president-elect and then the president chose carefully his portrayal of the brewing unpleasantness which finally produced the war of rebellion. Lincoln portrayed the war as a constitutional crisis. He was able to keep his focus on a winning strategy, and that focus carried over to the proclamation.
Because his framing of the proclamation was in keeping with his framing of the war, his prose was dry, sparse and legalistic. There were no florid phrases that some might have expected in a document that freed enslaved Americans.
But this was not some backwoods preacher. It wasn’t even a backwoods lawyer who conceived and executed the plan for emancipation. Lincoln was a skilled writer with a keen mind for legal finesse, as Holzer illustrates.
Lincoln’s critics were many and varied, and Holzer chronicles the criticisms levied against the proclamation and writer from the mid-1860s to today. He also examines how we now look upon the proclamation for what Lincoln intended it to be: a legal document that freed enslaved people without the cumbersome process of re-writing the U.S. Constitution.
The proclamation was a turning point in realizing the promises of freedom in our country’s founding documents. It also gave us a lasting image of a martyred president.
As Holzer notes, “while he was writing the Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln told Senator Charles Sumner: ‘I know very well that the name which is connected to this act will never be forgotten.’ Lincoln was right.”