Books: “Emancipation Proclamation”

March 12, 2013

A Lincoln 3 The recent movie Lincoln is serving an important function if it adds some balance to the public perception of the 16th president. No film that I have seen has presented Abraham Lincoln in such realistic terms, and the decision to focus on his campaign to get the 13th Amendment enacted was inspired, because that aspect of Lincoln’s presidency is not well known.

In a way, Lincoln is a victim of his own success. Under his watch, the Union was preserved and human slavery was outlawed in the United States. As a result, Lincoln is enshrined in the national memory as a miracle worker, a savior, almost super human. The apotheosis began almost the moment the public learned of his death.

Among the titles applied to Lincoln is “great emancipator,” but the sobriquet doesn’t reflect Lincoln’s internal struggle and his political struggle over the notion that the federal government should free the millions of people who were being held in bondage in the South when the Civil War erupted.

A Lincoln 4In Emancipation Proclamation: Lincoln and the Dawn of Liberty, Tonya Bolden spells out the hazardous route Lincoln traveled to his decision to issue the document that fixed his image in history.

The book is marketed by the publisher, Abrams, as being for young readers but the clear and concise treatment would be serviceable for any adult who wants to catch up on this topic.

Lincoln was progressive for his time. He  hated human slavery and would have abolished it if he thought he could. But the relationship between the states and the federal government was still evolving in the mid 19th century, and Lincoln didn’t think Constitution gave the federal government the power to interfere with slavery where it already existed.

A Lincoln 2 Inasmuch as the Civil War erupted shortly after and largely because of Lincoln’s first inauguration,he was preoccupied with one thing, and that was saving the Union. He said in so many words that whatever he did about slavery — abolish it, modify it, leave it alone — he would do only because it would save the Union. In the end, he was true to his word, because the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared free only those people  who were being held as slaves in states or parts of states in rebellion against the federal government, was a war measure. Lincoln reasoned that he could take that action as commander in chief even if he couldn’t have taken it as a peacetime president. Even then, he hesitated.

A Lincoln 5

While Lincoln was considering the advisability of freeing slaves as a way of weakening the southern economy, he had to take into account the potential reaction of the border states — slave states that hadn’t left the Union — as well as the reactions of  white Union soldiers who were willing to fight to save the Union but not to free black slaves. Meanwhile, he was under pressure from the swelling abolitionist movement to simply put an end to slavery in one sweeping gesture.

Lincoln also gave a lot of thought to what would become of the slaves once they were emancipated, and his thoughts were shaped by the fact that he didn’t believe in the equality of the black and white races and didn’t think black and white people could live together in peace. Accordingly, his solution was to colonize the freed slaves, preferably in South America or West Africa, even though most slaves at that time had been born in the United States. But by February 1865, Lincoln was publicly endorsing voting rights for at last some educated black men.

This is an attractive book — an art book, really — richly illustrated with images from the period and embellished with break-out  quotes from prominent men and women with an interest in the subject of emancipation.

 

 

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2 Responses to “Books: “Emancipation Proclamation””

  1. shoreacres Says:

    I enjoyed the film “Lincoln” so much that I saw it twice, just to catch some of the details and nuances I knew I missed the first time. That second viewing was a good decision.

    When I was growing up, there was a portrait of Lincoln in nearly every one of my classrooms. When I visited Fox School on the tallgrass prairie in Kansas last year, the same image was hanging on its walls.

    Because it’s the image I’ve carried in my head for decades, it was particularly interesting to see a post by Gary Myers highlighting a variety of Lincoln photos, some of which I never would have imagined. I suppose that, just as we carry particular physical images of famous people around with us, we carry particular understandings that we assume reflect the whole of their convictions, passions, concerns and so on.

    Films like “Lincoln” and books like this one perform a valuable service by giving us an expanded view of people we may not know as well as we assume. I suspect the book’s inclusion of those quotations and images only adds to that value.

    • charlespaolino Says:

      The casting and makeup in Lincoln was impressive. Many of the characters, including Sally Fields, looked remarkably like the historic figures they were playing. I’ve read enormous amounts about Lincoln, and he was played in this movie exactly as I picture him, including his mode of speech. I reviewed a book a while back that has every known photographic image of Lincoln.

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