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Emancipating Lincoln: The Proclamation in Text, Context, and Memory

Harold Holzer; Harvard University Press

There is probably no important document in our nation’s history more little known—even to Civil War students—than the Emancipation Proclamation. Yet much of the proclamation’s importance, it turns out, lies in its back story. Abraham Lincoln, once convinced of both the economic and moral validity of freeing the slaves, agonized over the process, rewriting the proclamation three times.

Many Unionists were rightly concerned that any proclamation which curtailed slavery would, as Postmaster General Montgomery Blair of Maryland warned, “cost the administration the [1862] fall elections.” (Blair was correct.) There was worry, too, about how the border states would react. In Lincoln’s words, “We hope to have God on our side, but we must have Kentucky.” Even when it became obvious that some kind of emancipation was both necessary and likely, Lincoln asked rhetorically, “Would my word free the slaves when I cannot even enforce the Constitution in the rebel states?” There was perhaps no greater irony of Lincoln’s administration than that the impetus for issuing the proclamation was provided by an army commanded by George McClellan, “that old anti-emancipationist,” at Antietam.

Given the proclamation’s significance, it is remarkable that no artist or photographer was on hand to commemorate the event. And considering Lincoln’s gifts as a writer, the language was uninspiring. Yet the proclamation was long on impact, “regarded in its own time with so much trepidation and outright fear that it provoked Wall Street panic, Union troop desertion, bellicose foreign condemnation, vast racial unease, and severe political rebuke from voters at the polls.”

Holzer argues that the lack of fire in Lincoln’s prose was deliberate, as the president did not wish to enflame moderates and that whatever it did not accomplish at the moment was largely irrelevant; once the proclamation was made, slavery was doomed. Perhaps Massachusetts Governor John A. Andrew summed it up best: “a poor document, but a mighty act.”


Originally published in the October 2012 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.