Book Review: Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation

Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation:  The End Of Slavery In America, by Allen C. Guelzo

Wading into the argument of Lincoln’s Emancipation proclamation, noted Lincoln scholar Allen Guelzo [1] seeks to place this most notable and prosaic of Lincoln’s pronouncements into a sound historical context and manages to do so.  In the process, he reveals the tension between Lincoln’s words and deeds, and the way that slavery was ended in the United States [2] and the long-term consequences and repercussions of the choices that Lincoln made and refused to make.  Throughout the book, the author shows Lincoln to have been motivated by a strong sense of prudence and pragmatism of an enlightened kind that was deeply concerned not with appealing to grand heroic gestures and soaring prose, but to making meaningful and lasting change, ultimately to end slavery in the United States in a way that would do the most good as possible and the least harm to society as for.  To our age prudential morality and prudence in general is not viewed in a particularly noble light, but Lincoln’s prudence was well-founded and the author validates the approach of the Emancipation Proclamation through the perspective of history.

As is frequently the case, this particular book is written in chronological order and takes about 250 pages to cover five reasonably long chapters and a short post-script.  After a lengthy and eloquent acknowledgements section and an introduction that questions the harsh criticism the language of the Emancipation Proclamation has endured over the course of the 20th century and places Lincoln firmly in the place of a rational Enlightenment political philosopher, the author digs deeply into both the text and context of the Emancipation Proclamation.  First showing the four possible routes to freedom for enslaved blacks, the author makes a strong defense of Lincoln’s approach given his fears of military coups and his well-placed mistrust in the courts.  Later chapters show the delicate process by which Lincoln prepared the nation for the Emancipation Proclamation and showed himself to be an instrument in God’s hands, if an often misunderstood one.  The author then notes the importance of the Emancipation Proclamation in serving as an encouragement to slave states to engage in gradual and compensated emancipation, which was not a very popular proposition and notes the increasing despair in which many blacks feel about the United States and their resulting negativity towards Lincoln himself.

This book has a lot to say about the Emancipation Proclamation and is an essential book for those wishing to know the document and its importance better.  The author makes a convincing case that Lincoln sacrificed his usual gift for eloquence in order to attempt to make a declaration that would be as immune as possible to legal challenges while the Civil War was ongoing.  His mistrust of the legislative solution to slavery in light of probable court challenges was shown to be reasonable in light of the dismal record of the Reconstruction and Guilded Age Supreme Court in defending the rights of freedmen.  Without seeking to pander to contemporary progressives, a common fault among people who write about Lincoln and his behavior towards slavery, the author gives a sound historical argument that demonstrates Lincoln’s political savvy as well as his unusual but distinctive view on justice and the way it can best be approximated in this fallen world.  For those who want to understand how a prosaic and seemingly mundane piece of writing that dramatically and decisively increased the scope of Union war aims and brought blacks en masse into the United States military and made their civil rights a matter of national honor and moral debt, this book is an excellent volume.

[1] See, for example:

[2] 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.

2 Responses to Book Review: Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation

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

  2. Pingback: Book Review: A Slave No More | Edge Induced Cohesion

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