Harold Holzer has spent his life studying and writing about Abraham Lincoln. In this year, the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, Holzer rightly bemoans a steady erosion of Lincoln’s reputation as “The Great Emancipator’’ - a term now considered politically incorrect - triggered largely by revisionist historians who’ve questioned Lincoln’s motives and commitment to ending slavery. These critics, says Holzer, largely and unfairly have measured Lincoln against the values of today and found him wanting. 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.
“Emancipating Lincoln’’ is based on a series of 2010 Nathan I. Huggins Lectures Holzer delivered under the auspices of Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute. The book is divided into three sections. The first takes a look at the historical context of document, the political and social minefield Lincoln sought to navigate; the second examines the language of the proclamation and why Lincoln, who was capable of soaring political rhetoric, crafted a relatively dry, legal pronouncement; and the third surveys the images created by artists that helped shape the public image of Lincoln as “The Great Emancipator.’’
Holzer shows readers exactly what Lincoln was up against at the time. He faced a fragile coalition of border states (like Lincoln’s native Kentucky) that remained in the Union but wanted no radical reform of slavery; a white electorate that largely, unapologetically held white supremacist views; and a tottering military strategy, with the Union army having suffered a series of battlefield defeats. If that were not enough, Lincoln had doubts about whether he possessed the legal authority to declare the slaves free.
In crafting the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln needed to marry lofty ideals with political pragmatism. Holzer explains that Lincoln wrote it to “survive challenges in the courts . . . [and] seal the cooperation of . . . white men who had no tolerance for black men.’’ No small order that, and one that recalls former House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip’’ O’Neill Jr.’s definition of politics as the art of the possible.
Lincoln, fearing a white backlash, sought to head off opposition by first proposing a process of emancipation that would be both gradual and would compensate slave owners. He also pushed colonization, the concept of urging African-Americans to voluntarily return to Africa. Holzer sees these proposals, which countless historians have deemed indicators of Lincoln’s lack of commitment to black freedom, within a “broader context of public relations’’ intended to ease the way for the bolder Emancipation Proclamation.
Most convincingly, Holzer argues that the legalistic, wooden language of the executive order perfectly reflects Lincoln’s legal and political limitations. The document was issued under the beleaguered president’s wartime power as commander in chief, and it reads like a dry military order rather than a grand clarion call of freedom. Above all other presidents, Lincoln could rhetorically sound the trumpet when he wanted; that he held back at this pivotal moment of his career adds solid support to Holzer’s case.
Holzer concludes with a long, impressively researched look at the iconography of emancipation, how Lincoln’s greatest act was viewed in prints, portraits, and other visual media in Lincoln’s time until today. Holzer justifiably details President Obama’s obvious affinity with Lincoln iconography (most notably the Lincoln Memorial and the Emancipation Proclamation itself) as symbols of African-American achievement and ongoing aspiration.
In putting Lincoln’s greatest achievement in historical context, Holzer has done the Emancipator, and historical scholarship in general, a valuable service.