- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 7, 2004


By Allen C. Guelzo

Simon & Schuster, $26, 352 pages


It is hard to believe there is anything more that one can say about Abraham Lincoln — the most researched figure in American history. Allen Guelzo of Eastern University in Pennsylvania has already given us an award-winning study of the great executive in his “Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President.” Now he follows up that volume with an analysis of the Emancipation Proclamation, a book that is really an erudite vehicle for a major study of the slavery issue during the Civil War. Clearly Lincoln is the author’s hero, and his analysis of the president’s decisions is almost always through Lincoln’s eyes, and not those of his critics.

Since the 1960s, the Proclamation has been the subject of a variety of random assaults by revisionist historians, both white and black, who view the measure as a tepid, uninspiring statement that reflected simply the political expediency and the racist attitudes of both the president and his society.

Writing earlier, one famous historian, Richard Hofstadter of Columbia University, set the tone by saying that it had “the moral grandeur of a bill of lading.” He maintained that the document was the work of a politician who was more concerned with the ambitions of free white workers, the class from whence he came, than the immorality of black bondage.

Why was it that the author of the majestic Gettysburg Address and the stirring inaugural speeches could not reach similar rhetorical heights in the writing of the Proclamation? It was too bland and too lawyerlike to stir history, we are told — usually by our contemporaries.

Yet Mr. Guelzo reminds us of some important historical background. Unlike almost all of his predecessors in the presidential office, Lincoln honestly detested and consistently opposed slavery all of his adult life, and had proposed its termination in the District of Columbia when he was a one-term congressman. There could be no doubt that he hated slavery and wished that it would shrivel up and simply go away.

When in the 1850s, however, slavery seemed to be perched to expand into the new western territories, Lincoln stood firm in his opposition. And in the interregnum period between James Buchanan’s term and Lincoln’s inauguration, it was Lincoln who made the shaky Republican Party stand tall and not compromise on the issue of allowing the expansion of slavery into those territories, thus risking secession.

When the war came, the radicals in Congress along with Gens. John C. Fremont and David Hunter wished to treat the slaves as contraband, targets for confiscation by the army. Lincoln, desperately trying to mollify the loyal border states, refused to concur. He noted that any such steps were in his realm alone as commander in chief.

Mr. Guelzo labors long and hard in telling the tales of Lincoln’s attempts at getting the border states to accept federal compensation for emancipation, and in getting blacks to accept colonization to South America. He was consistently unsuccessful in both cases. In the midst of conflict, he wanted a solution that was gradual and voluntary for both, but his patience never paid off.

So faced with those failures and with the increasingly harsh realities of a prolonged war, he played his last card. The president resorted to emancipation by executive proclamation, despite the intense legal arguments raised. He faced two major challenges — a possible revolt by Gen. George B. McClellan’s army against his decision and a court challenge to the uncertain “war powers” doctrine that he came to embrace.

His Proclamation was deliberately crafted to avoid extraneous sentiments and possible additional grounds for still more legal challenges. Lincoln said that he believed he could do as commander in chief what could not be done through any other mechanism, which was to seize the property, not just of rebels but also of all of those in the areas of rebellion, a very different proposition.

It is frequently said that the Proclamation was a sham — for it freed slaves in areas where he had no power, and left them alone in the loyal states where he had some authority. But that is a misreading of Lincoln’s intentions and of the consequences. In fact, after emancipation, the owners of slaves in the border states found it almost impossible to sell or to barter their chattel, regardless of the narrowness of Lincoln’s language. And across the Western world, a provincial war of rebellion in the United States became a great crusade for liberty.

In that sense the working classes of Manchester and London understood better than some modern-day historians this fact. Little wonder that Lincoln wrote to them directly, acknowledging their support for his actions.

Mr. Guelzo also downplays the notion that Lincoln was simply responding to the 200,000 black troops serving then in the Union army. In fact, on occasion he turned down adding black units for fear of alienating white soldiers. The elections held somewhat after the Proclamation showed very clearly that large segments of Northern opinion opposed emancipation, and the Republicans suffered large electoral losses. Lincoln expected that reaction, and to characterize his actions as simply politically expedient is misguided.

The Proclamation and a string of Union army victories however began to change Lincoln’s image. He went from being a hesitating, beleaguered executive to a great commander in chief. Troops once so loyal to McClellan began to call him “Father Abraham,” and slaves throughout the South (including the border states) passed the joyful news that this one man had indeed broken apart their chains. Slaves walked off plantations, dutifully sought out their wives and children, joined the Union army, and literally knelt at his feet in Richmond.

While some current historians may see the Emancipation Proclamation as a dull bill of lading, those most intensely affected saw it for what it was, a rebirth of freedom. And in the process, the conservative Whig lawyer became the Great Emancipator. It was, as Lincoln said, “my last card,” and “I will play it and may win the trick.”

Later he would tell artist Francis Carpenter, “As affairs have turned, it is the central act of my administration, and the great event of the nineteenth century.” He was a good enough judge of history to conclude, “I know very well that the name which is connected with this act will never be forgotten.”

Michael P. Riccards is the author of the two-volume history of the American presidency, “The Ferocious Engine of Democracy.”

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