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One of the nation's foremost Lincoln scholars offers an authoritative consideration of the document that represents the most far-reaching accomplishment of our greatest president.

No single official paper in American history changed the lives of as many Americans as Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. But no American document has been held up to greater suspicion. Its bland and lawyerlike language is unfavorably compared to the soaring eloquence of the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural; its effectiveness in freeing the slaves has been dismissed as a legal illusion. And for some African-Americans the Proclamation raises doubts about Lincoln himself.

Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation dispels the myths and mistakes surrounding the Emancipation Proclamation and skillfully reconstructs how America's greatest president wrote the greatest American proclamation of freedom.



The Emancipation Proclamation is surely the unhappiest of all of Abraham Lincoln's great presidential papers. Taken at face value, the Emancipation Proclamation was the most revolutionary pronouncement ever signed by an American president, striking the legal shackles from four million black slaves and setting the nation's face toward the total abolition of slavery within three more years. Today, however, the Proclamation is probably best known for what it did not do, beginning with its apparent failure to rise to the level of eloquence Lincoln achieved in the Gettysburg Address or the Second Inaugural. Even in the 1860s, Karl Marx, the author of a few proclamations of his own, found that the language of the Proclamation, with its ponderous whereases and therefores, reminded him of "ordinary summonses sent by one lawyer to another on the opposing side." When the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated in 1922, quotations from the Second Inaugural and the Gettysburg Address flanked the great Daniel Chester French statue of the seated Lincoln, but there was no matching quotation from the Proclamation, only a vague, elliptical representation in Jules Guerin's mural, Emancipation of a Race, which was mostly lost to sight near the ceiling of one of the memorial's side chambers.

But the unkindest cut at the Proclamation came from the hands of Columbia University historian Richard Hofstadter, in his essay on Lincoln in The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (1948). A onetime member of the circle of American Marxist intellectuals around Partisan Review, Hofstadter repudiated the traditional Progressive view of American political history as a struggle between the legacies of the liberal Thomas Jefferson and the conservative Alexander Hamilton. Instead, Hofstadter viewed American politics as a single, consistent, and deeply cynical story of how capitalism had corrupted Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians alike and turned the United States into "a democracy of cupidity rather than a democracy of fraternity." But he reserved his angriest words for Lincoln and for the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln's opposition to slavery, in Hofstadter's reckoning, was kindled only by the threat it posed to free white labor and the development of industrial capitalism. Lincoln "was, as always, thinking primarily of the free white worker" and was "never much troubled about the Negro." No one, then, should be fooled by the Proclamation. Its motives were entirely other than had been advertised, and that fact explained its stylistic flaccidity. "Had the political strategy of the moment called for a momentous human document of the stature of the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln could have risen to the occasion." Instead, what he composed on New Year's Day, 1863, "had all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading."* It accomplished nothing because it was intended to accomplish nothing "beyond its propaganda value."

The influence of Hofstadter's easily repeatable quip about "the moral grandeur of a bill of lading" has had long innings, and even the most favorably disposed of modern Lincoln biographers have found themselves forced to concede that the Proclamation "lacked the memorable rhetoric of his most notable utterances." And perhaps for that reason, no serious study of the Proclamation has appeared since John Hope Franklin's brief The Emancipation Proclamation in 1963, written for its centennial. (That centennial itself was a disappointing affair, capped by President John F. Kennedy's refusal to give the principal address at ceremonies at the Lincoln Memorial on September 22, 1963, for fear of suffering deeper losses of Southern Democrats in his reelection bid the next year.) As the Proclamation's negative symbolic power has risen, efforts to interpret the text have diminished, and examination of the Proclamation's contents has subsided into offhand guesswork and angry prejudice. The Proclamation has become a document (as Garry Wills once described the Declaration of Independence) "dark with unexamined lights." As with Jefferson's Declaration, we have lost in the cultural eddies of the last hundred and forty years the assumptions that would make the Emancipation Proclamation readable.

Recapturing at least some of those assumptions will begin, I think, with recognizing in Abraham Lincoln our last Enlightenment politician. The contours of Lincoln's mind -- his allegiance to "reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason"; his aversion to the politics of passion; the distance he maintained from organized religion; his affection for Shakespeare, Paine, and Robert Burns; and his unquestioning belief in universal natural rights -- were all shaped by the hand of the Enlightenment. But the most important among the Enlightenment's political virtues for Lincoln, and for his Proclamation, was prudence.

Prudence carries with it today the connotation of "prude" -- a person of exaggerated caution, bland temperance, hesitation, a lack of imagination and will, fearfulness, and a bad case of mincing steps. This view would have surprised the classical philosophers, who thought of prudence as one of the four cardinal virtues and who linked it to shrewdness, exceptionally good judgment, and the gift of coup d'oeil -- the "coup of the eye" -- which could take in the whole of a situation at once and know almost automatically how to proceed. Among political scientists, it has more specific meanings, but those meanings are usually just as repellent -- of cunning, and in some quarters, an unhealthy preoccupation with the neo-classicism of Leo Strauss. (So let me say, for the benefit of the hunters of subtexts, that I can cheerfully confess to never having read Leo Strauss, nor, for that matter, to possessing much aptitude for the peculiar dialect spoken by my political science friends.) It is an ironic rather than a tragic attitude, in which the calculus of costs is critical rather than crucial or incidental. It prefers incremental progress to categorical solutions and fosters that progress through the offering of motives rather than expecting to change dispositions. Yet, unlike mere moderation, it has a sense of purposeful motion and declines to be paralyzed by a preoccupation with process, even while it remains aware that there is no goal so easily attained or so fully attained that it rationalizes dispensing with process altogether. Montesquieu found the origins of political greatness in "prudence, wisdom, perseverance," since prudence would "guard the passions of individuals for the sake of order and guard the guardians for the sake of freedom." In the new American republic, James Madison argued (in the forty-third of the Federalist Papers) for ratification of the 1787 Constitution on the grounds of "the rights of humanity," the "considerations of a common interest," and on "prudence." So also for Lincoln: The practice of politics involved the rule of prudence, and "obeying the dictates of prudence" was as important for Lincoln as obeying "the obligations of law." He hoped, as president, that "it will appear that we have practiced prudence," and in 1861, he promised that the management of the Civil War would be "done consistently with the prudence...which ought always to regulate the public service" and without allowing the war to degenerate "into a violent and remorseless revolutionary struggle."

It is this politics of prudence which opens up for us a way to understand Lincoln's strategy in "the mighty experiment" of emancipation. The most salient feature to emerge from the sixteen months between his inauguration and the first presentation of the Proclamation to his cabinet on July 22, 1862, is the consistency with which Lincoln's face was set toward the goal of emancipation from the day he first took the presidential oath. Lincoln was not exaggerating when he claimed in 1858 that he "hated" slavery:

I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world -- enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites -- causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty -- criticising the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.

But in Lincoln's case, prudence demanded that he balance the integrity of ends (the elimination of slavery) with the integrity of means (his oath to uphold the Constitution and his near-religious reverence for the rule of law). Lincoln understood emancipation not as the satisfaction of a "spirit" overriding the law, nor as the moment of fusion between the Constitution and absolute moral theory, but as a goal to be achieved through prudential means, so that worthwhile consequences might result. He could not be persuaded that emancipation required the headlong abandonment of everything save the single absolute of abolition, or that purity of intention was all that mattered, or that the exercise of the will rather than the reason was the best ethical foot forward.

Far too often, Lincoln's apologists hope to give the lie to Hofstadter's scalding attack by pulling apart means and ends, either apologizing for the former or explaining away the latter, a sure sign that they have no better grasp on the politics of prudence than Hofstadter. Most often, this pulling apart happens whenever we are tempted to plead that Lincoln was either a man in progress or a man of patience. That is, Lincoln was (as Horace Greeley put it) "a growing man," growing in this case from a stance of moral indifference and ignorance about emancipation at the time of his election in 1860, toward deep conviction about African-American freedom by the time of the Emancipation Proclamation less than two years later. Or else that Lincoln already had all the racial goodwill necessary for emancipation but had to wait until the right moment in the war or the right moment in the growth of Northern acceptance of the idea of emancipation. These are both generous sentiments, but I am not sure that generosity is quite what is needed for understanding Lincoln's proclamation. Rather than needing to develop progress, I believe that Abraham Lincoln understood from the first that his administration was the beginning of the end of slavery and that he would not leave office without some form of legislative emancipation policy in place. By his design, the burden would have to rest mainly on the state legislatures, largely because Lincoln mistrusted the federal judiciary and expected that any emancipation initiatives which came directly from his hand would be struck down in the courts. This mistrust is also what lies behind another curiosity: Lincoln's rebuffs to the covert emancipations that Congress constructed under the cover of the two Confiscation Acts (of August 1861 and July 1862), the "contraband" theory confected by the ingenious Benjamin Butler, and the two martial-law emancipation proclamations attempted by John Charles Frémont and David Hunter. Lincoln ignored the Confiscation Acts, showed no interest in Butler's "contraband" theory, and actually revoked the martial-law proclamations -- not because he was indifferent to emancipation, but because he was convinced (and with good reason) that none of these methods would survive challenges in federal court.

But why, if he was attuned so scrupulously to the use of the right legal means for emancipation, did Lincoln turn in the summer of 1862 and issue an Emancipation Proclamation -- which was, for all practical purposes, the very sort of martial-law dictum he had twice before canceled? The answer can be summed up in one word: time. It seems clear to me that Lincoln recognized by July 1862 that he could not wait for the legislative option -- and not because he had patiently waited to discern public opinion and found the North readier than the state legislatures to move ahead. If anything, Northern public opinion remained loudly and frantically hostile to the prospect of emancipation, much less emancipation by presidential decree. Instead of exhibiting patience, Lincoln felt stymied by the unanticipated stubbornness with which even Unionist slaveholders refused to cooperate with the mildest legislative emancipation policy he could devise, and threatened by generals who were politically committed to a negotiated peace. (We usually underrate the menace posed by the generals, largely because, in the end, it did not materialize, but on at least some level, Lincoln feared that emancipation risked triggering a military coup d'etat by General George McClellan and the Army of the Potomac.) Thus Lincoln's Proclamation was one of the biggest political gambles in American history.

But gambles are not necessarily inconsistent with prudence, and Lincoln's gamble may be considered a prudent one for the role that providence came to play in it. For a man with such a vague religious profile, Lincoln nevertheless understood that a significant part of the politics of prudence involved a deference to providence -- whether one defined providence as the work of an active and interventionist God or merely the forces of history, economics, or ideas.

Lincoln was raised in an environment saturated with notions of providential determinism, beginning with his upbringing among the "hard-shell" Separate Baptists. As he did with so much else in his upbringing, Lincoln lost what little faith he might have had, and he acquired more notoriety than was good for an ambitious young politico in Illinois as an "infidel." It was an Enlightenment infidelity, a rationalistic deism stoked in equal parts by the smile of Voltaire and the arguments of Tom Paine. But even then, Lincoln's unbelief had this much still in common with the Calvinism he had forsaken -- both subscribed alike to the notion that all events were determined by forces beyond human power.

This is not the most optimistic way of looking at the world, but it can lend a certain confidence to one's plans if the direction in which determinism is pointing also happens to be the upward path you are following. Lincoln, like so many other secular determinists shaped by the Enlightenment's delight with the idea of a mechanically predictable universe -- Thomas Henry Buckle, Karl Marx, Adolphe Quetelet, Pierre Laplace -- thought that progress, improvement, and invention were written into the script of human affairs beyond the power of human effacement. And that meant, from Lincoln's vantage point, that an institution as hateful and retrograde as slavery had to be as inalterably doomed as superstition and tyranny. Whatever the occasional wrong moves -- the economic surge of the cotton South, the overthrow of the safeguards against slavery's expansion by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, even the Civil War itself -- the fundamental direction of events was inevitable and required only a certain amount of machinery-tending to put things back on the rails.

The carnage, the stalemate, and the incomprehensible rebel victories of the War's first year conspired to strip Lincoln of his optimism in the natural, pleasant ascent of progress, but not of his fundamental belief in providence. Instead, the war saw him veer away from a providence defined by indifference and the iron law of cause and effect, and back toward the providence of a mysterious and self-concealing God whose will for the human future did not necessarily move according to the sweet and logical processes of progress. And in the case of emancipation, Lincoln came to see the Proclamation as the only alternative God had left to emancipation being swept off the table entirely.

All the same, Lincoln never intended the Proclamation to be a substitute for a long-term legislative solution, and in fact, that hope for a legislative solution eventually bore fruit as the Thirteenth Amendment. The Proclamation was an emergency measure, a substitute for the permanent plan that would really rid the country of slavery, but a substitute as sincere and profound as the timbers that shore up an endangered mine shaft and prevent it from collapsing entirely.

Understanding prudence as the key to Lincoln's political behavior gives us the "big picture" behind the Emancipation Proclamation. It does not speak automatically to four very specific questions about the Emancipation Proclamation that I am asked nearly everywhere I go. First and most frequent is the Hofstadter question: Why is the language of the Proclamation so bland and legalistic? The answer, I think, really should be obvious, and it was not because Lincoln wrote the Proclamation grudgingly and of necessity. Very simply: The Proclamation is a legal document, and legal documents cannot afford very much in the way of flourishes. They have work to do. In this instance, we are dealing with a document with a very great deal of it to do, and one which had to be composed with the understanding that every syllable was liable to the most concentrated legal parsing by the federal court system. If it falls short of the eloquence of the Gettysburg Address, I only have to point out that the Gettysburg Address was not a document anyone could take into court, and at least in legal terms, it was not intended to accomplish anything. In other words, Lincoln could afford eloquence at Gettysburg; he could not in the Proclamation.

The second question is linked to the Hofstadter question, if only because Hofstadter believed, wrongly, that a linkage between the two existed: Did the Proclamation actually do anything? Because the Proclamation limited emancipation only to the states or parts of states still in rebellion and did not include the slaves in the four loyal slave states -- Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri -- it has been easy to lampoon the Proclamation as a puff of political air. But laws are not the less laws merely because circumstances render them inoperative at a given time or place. I should be ashamed to offer myself as an example, but I do so only because it will force Lincoln's critics to examine their own terms: Every day that I traveled between Paoli and Princeton, I took liberties with the speed limit which the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the State of New Jersey forbid. (Judging from the abandon with which other drivers flew past me, most of my readers, it is safe to say, are doubtless implicated in similar offenses.) The guardians of the turnpike might have lacked the energy, the technology, or even the power to enforce the legislated speed limits, but they certainly possessed the perfect and unimpaired authority to do so, as I would have discovered if ever once they had gotten me to stop. The same is true with Lincoln and the Proclamation. Lincoln may not have had the power available to him to free every slave in the Confederacy, but he certainly had the authority, and in law, the authority is as good as the power. The proof is in the pudding: No slave declared free by the Proclamation was ever returned to slavery once he or she had made it to the safety of Union-held territory.

This raises a related question: Did the slaves free themselves? In 1979, Leon Litwack laid the foundations for an alternative view of emancipation when he urged historians to regard emancipation not as an event beginning and ending with Lincoln but as a process in which pressure was exerted on Lincoln and Congress by the slaves themselves. By running away, by labor sabotage, and by volunteering to serve the Union armies, the slaves forced Lincoln's hand toward emancipation. But looked at in the larger context of nineteenth-century American race relations, the "self-emancipation" thesis asks for too great a suspension of disbelief. Without the legal freedom conferred first by the Emancipation Proclamation, no runaway would have remained "self-emancipated" for very long. The files on the first year and a half of the war bulge with accounts of thwarted slaveowners with court papers in their hands and sheriffs at their sides, stalking through the camps of Union regiments in pursuit of slave runaways as though a barbecue rather than a war was in progress. Without the Proclamation, the Confederacy even in defeat would have retained legal title to its slaves, and there is little in the oppressive patterns of coercion Southerners employed before the Civil War or afterward in Reconstruction to suggest that they would not have been willing to reclaim as many of their self-emancipated runaways as they could; and if the record of the federal courts in the post-Civil War decades is any proof, the courts would probably have helped them.

In the same skeptical spirit, a fourth question is frequently aimed at the intentions behind the Proclamation: Did Lincoln issue the Proclamation only to ward off European intervention or inflate Union morale? To this, I can only say that if intervention and morale were Lincoln's primary concerns, then an Emancipation Proclamation was probably the worst method, and at the worst time, with which to have met them. Abroad, there was as much danger that an Emancipation Proclamation would trigger foreign intervention as there was that the Proclamation would discourage it. At home, Pennsylvania politician Alexander McClure warned Lincoln that "political defeat would be inevitable in the great States of the Union in the elections soon to follow if he issued the Emancipation Proclamation." Significantly, Lincoln agreed "as to the political effect of the proclamation." He knew that the Proclamation, for all that he hoped it would forestall the generals and put the Union cause unreservedly on the side of the angels, might just as easily convince them to accelerate plans for an intervention or put Lincoln's administration on the side of the losers. To his surprise, McClure found that this made no dent in Lincoln's determination. Those who have sung in Richard Hofstadter's choir need, as McClure needed, to take a new measure of that determination.

But it is not simply the complexities of Lincoln's mental habits or the difficulty involved in piecing together the circumstances and chronology of Lincoln's decision to emancipate which make the Proclamation so difficult for us to grasp. A good deal of our befuddlement is wrapped up in the way that our notions of political ethics have changed since Lincoln's day. Even as Lincoln emerged onto the national political scene in the 1850s, the politics of prudence that had guided Enlightenment political theory was being devalued in favor of a Romantic politics of ethical absolutism. One source of that absolutism lay close to home for Americans in the radical perfectionism of evangelical Protestant revivalism; another was the influence of Immanuel Kant, mediated through English and American Romantics such as Emerson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Frederick Augustus Rauch, and James Marsh, the "Vermont Transcendentalist." What the American Romantics particularly admired in Kant was his attempt to locate a source for ethical judgments within men (instead of imposed externally, through divine revelation or natural law), in a "categorical imperative" that yields absolute and universal answers to ethical dilemmas. "We do not need science and philosophy to know what we should do to be honest and good, yea, even wise and virtuous," argued Kant in his Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals. What we need to do is obey the imperative. Kant's hope was to be able to isolate moral decisions from the flux of circumstance, culture, and individual experience, and thus escape the threat of moral relativism. He was, in other words, looking for a way out of the mechanistic universe, where ethics is simply a pretty name we give to justify whatever decisions circumstances force upon us. Kant sought to base the right or wrong of things solely on the principle that moved the will to choose one thing over another. Purifying the will trumps the claims of all other values, and willing purely is all that is necessary to overcome injustice. As much as Kant believed in universal rational criteria for ethical behavior, those criteria spoke in (as Isaiah Berlin put it) "the language of inner voices."

It is the convergence of American evangelical absolutism and the ethic of the imperative that, more than anything else, erects a translucent shield between our habits of mind and Lincoln's, passing enough light to make us think we see but not enough to allow us to understand. This is not to say that Lincoln, as a man of the Enlightenment, possessed a superior morality or always did well and right. Nor does it mean that Lincoln was untinged by certain elements of Romanticism himself or that he conforms in precise anticipation to all our American anxieties about race and reconciliation at the beginning of the twenty-first century. It would be special pleading to claim that Lincoln was in the end the most perfect friend black Americans have ever had. But it would also be the cheapest and most ignorant of skepticisms to deny that he was the most significant. And if the Emancipation Proclamation was not, as Richard Hofstadter so mordantly complained half a century ago, the most eloquent of Lincoln's writings, it was unquestionably the most epochal. It may have had little more "moral grandeur" than a "bill of lading," but Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation was still a bill that itemized the destinies of four millions of human beings, bound in the way of danger for the port of American freedom.

Copyright © 2004 by Allen Guelzo

About The Author

Photo Credit:

Allen C. Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era at
Gettysburg College, where he also directs the Civil War Era Studies Program and
The Gettysburg Semester. He is the author of Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer
(1999) and Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation: The End of
Slavery in America
(2004), both of which won the Lincoln Prize. He has
written essays and reviews for The Washington Post, The Wall Street
, Time, the Journal of American History, and many other

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (November 7, 2006)
  • Length: 400 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781416547952

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Raves and Reviews

"A brisk and elegant narrative that is likely to stand for some time as the definitive account of Lincoln's noblest achievement. . . . Guelzo's book succeeds in restoring emancipation to its historical context. . . . He has provided the best account to date of the political virtuosity and unswerving idealism that gave Lincoln his victory in the difficult battle to destroy slavery." -- Los Angeles Times

"Immediately takes its place not only as the newest study of emancipation, but far and away, the very best." -- Harold Holzer, Civil War Book Review

"Most if not all of the preceding works [on the Emancipation Proclamation] will now pale with the publication of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation by [this] highly respected Lincoln scholar . . . With this volume, decades of misunderstanding about Lincoln's most controversial action now give way to exactly what Lincoln's proclamation was, for then and for all times." -- Richmond Times-Dispatch

"The complex story of how the war to preserve the Union evolved into a war to give that Union 'a new birth of freedom' has been told many times -- but never so well." -- James M. McPherson

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