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Did Lincoln Own Slaves? And Other Frequently Asked Questions About Abraham Lincoln

by Gerald J. Prokopowicz, Pantheon, 2008, $24.95

William Shakespeare discerned that “What is past is prologue,” but just because history is educational does not mean that it cannot also be enjoyable. It is always a treat to read a book of history that is not just informative but fun; and Gerald J. Prokopowicz has done it just right in his new book, Did Lincoln Own Slaves? And Other Frequently Asked Questions About Abraham Lincoln. It is a book written in a style that is serious about its subject but doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Did Lincoln Own Slaves? is a biography of Abraham Lincoln written in a question-and-answer format and arranged chronologically. It begins with Lincoln’s boyhood and follows through Lincoln’s personal life, his politics and presidency, the Civil War,emancipation,the assassination, and finally to Lincoln’s legacy.Prokopowicz,who served for nine years as the Lincoln Scholar at the Lincoln Museum in Fort Wayne, Indiana,developed the book out of his experiences answering a multitude of questions—sometimes hundreds a day—about Lincoln.Some of the questions, he explains, were stimulating and perceptive, some were funny or weird. Some were based on myths and legends; some questions were asked through a true desire to learn, while others revealed the questioner’s prejudice or ignorance. No matter what the context of the questions, Prokopowicz answers them all.

There are the basic questions such as, “Where was Lincoln born?” and “Did Lincoln ever go to college?”There are the more academic questions such as, “Did Lincoln’s presidential actions violate the Constitution?”and “Why didn’t Lincoln emancipate the slaves as soon as he became president?” There are the controversial questions such as,“Was Lincoln gay?”and “Was Lincoln the ‘Great Emancipator’or a clever,lying racist?” Then there are the purely absurd questions, such as,“Could Lincoln dunk a basketball?”and “Did scientists raise Lincoln from the dead?”

Prokopowicz answers every question with balanced and intelligent—but not pedantic—responses, wonderfully conversational style and readability,and more than a little humor. He doesn’t avoid any questions or skirt answers, and he gives equal consideration to both sides of contentious issues without getting wordy and tedious. For example,when discussing who exactly broke Abraham and Mary’s wedding engagement in 1841, Prokopowicz offers all the various theories for the event and explains that no matter how it happened,Lincoln suffered a deep depression because of it.On the questions of whether Lincoln was a “military genius,”answers of both yes and no are explained, as well as how and why the answer has changed through the years.

As Prokopowicz states in his introduction, the purpose of his book is to “answer questions about Abraham Lincoln asked by the public,not the professors”;and any professional scholars or well-read history buffs will probably not find anything new in these pages.While this is undoubtedly true, even the most well-read person will enjoy this book. It’s fun. It’s well written. The questions truly are interesting;and,for those knowledgeable buffs with a solid supply of opinions and judgments, the questions evoke many emotions—amazement,anger, hilarity and exasperation.

A truly valuable aspect of the book is its factual foundation.Did Lincoln Own Slaves? is not a substitute for a full-length scholarly biography, and Prokopowicz does not pretend that it is. But the book offers detailed notes as well as suggestions for further reading at the end of each chapter—including a final selected bibliography of 100 Lincoln books—that even the best-read enthusiasts will find illuminating.In fact,the real value of this book is that it is a wonderful beginning. Its intent, Prokopowicz states, is to “provide a synthesis of the best academic Lincoln scholarship, supported by references, presented in an accessible fashion,” and “If it answers your question, or better still, prompts you to read another book for a fuller answer, it will have done its job.”

Did Lincoln Own Slaves? certainly has achieved its goal. It is a valuable catalog of Lincoln information,very accessible,that is a good read from beginning to end. It also invites cherry picking of questions. But more than that,it’s a fun book that will inspire readers to learn more about its subject, and, really, that is what any worthwhile work should be expected to do.


Originally published in the March 2008 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here