Since Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863, you might think that there would be no need for a new book about it today.
Unfortunately, there is very much a need for a new book on the subject, not only because of the gross neglect of history in our schools and colleges, but also because of the completely unrealistic view of the world — past and present — that prevails, not only among the ignorant but among the intelligentsia as well.
Since the 1960s, it has been fashionable in some quarters to take cheap shots at Lincoln, asking such questions as "Why didn’t he free all the slaves?" "Why did he wait so long?" "How come the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t just come right out and say that slavery was wrong?"
People who indulge themselves in this kind of self-righteous carping act as if Lincoln was someone who could do whatever he damn well pleased, without regard to the law, the Congress, or the Supreme Court. They might as well criticize him for not discovering a cure for cancer.
Fortunately, there is an excellent new book, titled Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation by Professor Allen C. Guelzo of Gettysburg College, that sets Lincoln in the context of the world in which he lived. Once you understand the constraints of that world, and how little room for maneuver Lincoln had, you realize what courage and brilliance it took for him to free the slaves.
Just one fact should give pause to Lincoln’s critics today: When Lincoln sat down to write the Emancipation Proclamation, the Supreme Court was still headed by Chief Justice Roger Taney, who had issued the infamous Dred Scott decision, saying a black man had no rights which a white man needed to respect.
This was a Supreme Court that would not have hesitated to declare the freeing of slaves unconstitutional — and Lincoln knew it. The Dred Scott decision was not yet a decade old at the time.
There would have been no point in issuing an Emancipation Proclamation that didn’t actually emancipate anybody. Ringing rhetoric about the wrongness of slavery would not have gotten the Emancipation Proclamation past Taney and his Supreme Court.
Since Lincoln’s purpose was to free millions of human beings, not leave some rhetoric to be preserved in the anthologies, he wrote the Emancipation Proclamation in dry legalistic terms that disappointed thoughtless critics in his time and ours, but got it past the Supreme Court.
Nothing in the Constitution gave a President the authority to free slaves. The only thing Lincoln could use to make his actions legal was his authority as commander-in-chief in wartime. But that meant that he could only free the slaves in territory controlled by enemy forces.
It took not only legal shrewdness but much courage to do what Lincoln did. There was no big political support in the North for freeing slaves. In fact there was much opposition to the idea by Northerners who feared that such an action would stiffen Southern resistance and prolong a war that cost more lives than any other war in American history. More than ten times as many American died in the Civil War as in Vietnam.
Lincoln was out on a limb, both politically and legally. He could have been impeached. At a minimum, he expected to lose the next election and was surprised when he didn’t. But today we see the spectacle of pygmies sniping at this giant.
As for the other slaves not covered by the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln worked behind the scenes to try to get slave-holding border states to emancipate them by state actions that would be beyond the jurisdiction of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Failing that, he prodded a reluctant Congress to end slavery by amending the Constitution. He did a lot of political maneuvering on a lot of fronts to accomplish his goal.
Professor Guelzo’s book does more than give us some sense of realism about a major event in American history. Perhaps if we come to understand the complexities and constraints of Lincoln’s turbulent times, we might not be so quick to seize opportunities to reduce other times — including our own — to cartoon-like simplicities that allow us to indulge in cheap self-righteousness when judging those who carry heavy responsibilities.
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