A fluent study of a transformative document in American history.
Guelzo (History/Eastern Univ.) views Abraham Lincoln as the last politician of the Enlightenment—that revolutionary school of thought that favored reason over religion, argued for the natural rights of humankind, and prized the little-remembered virtue of prudence, which, “unlike mere moderation, has a sense of purposeful motion and declines to be paralyzed by a preoccupation with process, even while it remains aware that there is no goal so easily attained or so fully attained that it rationalizes dispensing with process altogether.” So it was, Guelzo continues, when Lincoln declared that slaves in the rebellious territories of the US were henceforth free. Lincoln’s order, as many historians have observed, was written in uncharacteristically uninspired language; but, Guelzo notes, whereas the Gettysburg Address was plainly meant to thrill its audience, the Emancipation Proclamation “is a legal document, and legal documents cannot afford much in the way of flourishes. They have work to do.” True enough, and Guelzo does a fine job of linking the legal complexities hidden within the document to other contemporary legal issues, such as Lincoln’s suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. Controversies surrounding the Proclamation developed not just in the courtroom, but everywhere on the Northern street; though Lincoln, asked whether he were an abolitionist, had once admitted, “I am mighty near one,” most of his compatriots were more concerned with preserving the Union than with freeing slaves and indeed actively opposed the latter. Yet Lincoln braved the act, despite fears that the federal army might rise up against him in a coup and certainty that he would court plenty of enemies in the bargain. Of particular interest to legal-minded readers are the various drafts of the Proclamation that Guelzo includes as appendixes, which tell a story all their own.
Thoughtful and readable: a valuable contribution to Civil War–era history.