As we near its sesquicentennial, a distinguished Lincoln scholar examines the problematic history of the Emancipation Proclamation.
On New Year’s Day 1863, Lincoln steadied himself before signing the document whose culture-changing significance he well understood: “If my name ever goes into history it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it.” Today Lincoln’s image as “the Great Emancipator” has eroded—too politically incorrect—replaced by Lincoln the unifier, Lincoln the wise. After his death the Proclamation “soon achieved the status of holy writ.” Today it’s often dismissed as the delayed, insufficient and half-hearted act of a desperate president fearful of losing his office and the war. Holzer’s (Lincoln President-Elect, 2009, etc.) tripartite narrative deals first with the historical context of the Proclamation, laying out Lincoln’s exquisitely difficult political, legal, moral and martial calculations as he gradually widened his circle of confidants, labored to manipulate public opinion and slyly prepared the nation for his momentous decision. He spent months refining the announcement released after Antietam and steadfastly signed the promised executive order. The author then moves to a discussion of the Proclamation’s rhetorical deficiencies (Richard Hofstadter said it contained “all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading”), explains why our most eloquent president wrote so uncharacteristically and points us to contemporaneous speeches and letters for the “poetic accompaniment” to what was, after all, preeminently a legal document. Finally, Holzer turns to the iconography surrounding Lincoln and emancipation, tracing images from the early kneeling-slave, peculiarly disconcerting to modern audiences, on through to treatments by contemporary artists such as Rauschenberg, Basquiat and Kara Walker. This visual evidence effectively underscores his larger point about our troublesome, still evolving understanding of the Proclamation’s place in our history.
A fine introduction to what promises in 2013 to become a nationwide discussion.