Book Review: Emancipating Lincoln

Emancipating Lincoln:  The Proclamation In Text, Context, And Memory, by Harold Holzer

I feel it necessary to freely own that there was a lot that I simply did not like about this book.  Although in the past I have been fond of his writing [1], there was a lot about this book that simply irritated me on political grounds.  There is no doubt that the Emancipation Proclamations–there were at least three of them, two of which were published–were themselves highly political documents and this book is an able defense of their legitimacy even in the absence of soaring rhetoric within them, but unfortunately this book does not consider it sufficient to seek to understand the Emancipation Proclamation on its own terms and context, but rather views a praise of Lincoln’s document as a way of heaping praise on former president Obama, which is off-putting and unpleasant.  It is deeply offensive and lacking in integrity to seek to place Lincoln in such a context so that he endorses the corrupt representatives of contemporary left-wing politics, and that is precisely what this book does.  As a reader of this book I found it necessary to parse out that which the author said ably about Lincoln while viewing his contemporary political grandstanding as contemptible and beneath the dignity of a historian.  Had the author attempted less, he would have achieved more.

The contents of this slightly less than 200 page book are divided into three chapters.  The first chapter looks at the way that Abraham Lincoln prepared for the release of the Emancipation Proclamation by bringing people into his confidence and making them at times unwitting accomplices to his plan to set the ground for the proclamation as being inevitable as well as beyond legal challenge.  Holzer does not deny the seeming harshness of some of the rhetoric and sleight-of-hand that Lincoln engaged in so that he would accomplish this task, and manages to perform a notable act of historical analysis in trying to figure out how many people were in on the secret that an Emancipation Proclamation of some kind was more or less inevitable during the time between June and September 1862.  The second chapter looks at the text of the Emancipation Proclamations and notes that the writing seems austere and spare, lacking in the sort of soaring rhetorical brilliance that we normally associate with Lincoln.  It is almost as if Lincoln wanted to claim the holding of slaves by rebellious Americans as illegal under the president’s war powers was an ordinary act and nothing to be particularly concerned or enthusiastic about, showing an admirable sense of restraint and a savvy knowledge of the tendency for leaden prose to hide the explosiveness of the implications within a text.  The third and most blameworthy chapter of the book looks at the Emancipation Proclamation in memory, particularly through art and sculpture, showing that frequently efforts at making Emancipation glorious and artistic has suffered from changes in what portrayals are politically incorrect, and that even contemporary cartoonists seek to tie Lincoln with others to draw political points.

Written for the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, this book is ultimately of mixed worth and demonstrates the hazard historians have in attempting to apply lessons and interpretations of history without sufficient caution to contemporary events.  The author may have assumed that his reading audience of people who feel positively about the Emancipation Proclamation would similarly feel positively about a corrupt Illinois politico whose similarities to Honest Abe in terms of either moral integrity or political savvy are vastly overrated.  This was a mistaken assumption, and while the book is worthy of some praise, it vastly overplays its hand.  Furthermore, the author’s willingness to engage in dodgy contemporary political rhetoric endangers the charity of the reader towards his historical insights.  At any rate, this is a book by an all-too-human writer on an immensely important but not notably eloquent document from a generally noble but imperfect human being remembered for his eloquence.  Those readers who are inclined to view the author’s commentary on contemporary politics in a more charitable fashion than I am are likely to find much more here to enjoy, even if this book is very much a subject of its time.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Book Review: Emancipating Lincoln

  1. Pingback: Juneteenth: A Case Study In Acceptable Holidays | Edge Induced Cohesion

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