Abraham Lincoln and America’s Greatest Self-Study

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“Abraham Lincoln and America’s Greatest Self-Study”

James Jordan

AFR 356

Dr. Gardner

29th April 2003

The magnitude of scholarship on the Emancipation Proclamation is simply awe-inspiring. Books, journal articles, newspaper editorials, speeches and other media, from the moment it was issued right up to the present day, have all attempted to describe, analyze, and hypothesize on one of the foremost documents in US history. Why did Abraham Lincoln issue the Emancipation Proclamation? Why did he issue it when he did in the way he did? These questions have bedeviled historians for 140 years and will probably continue to do so for as long as Americans are interested in their history and want to make sense of the world in which they live. For six generations scholars have disagreed as to whether Lincoln was a good man, a bad man, a racist, an inspired commander-in-chief, or just inspired. The three main schools of thought that have emerged are testament to the imagination, perseverance, and dedication to the pursuit of the truth that has underpinned the differing ideologies. Of course, not all historians fit neatly into the Traditionalist, Revisionist, or Post-Revisionist categories; they often borrow, refute, and modify each other. In the historiography of assessing Lincoln’s motives and rationale for his issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation there is no “progressive” trend, rather, it is more a case of academia making a complete “U-Turn” with regards the possible influences on him. Above all, the case is still open on the man who is known as the Great Emancipator.

John William Draper, writing in 1868, postulated the so-called “Traditionalist” interpretation as to why Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1st 1863. In this highly perceptive account, Draper includes all the major issues that later historians would touch upon, notwithstanding the fact that his History of the American Civil War was published in the immediate aftermath of the bloodiest conflict in the United States’ history. Transcending the boundaries of time and place, Draper did not merely present a piece of Northern triumphalist literature; instead he portrayed a remarkably balanced view of the sixteenth president. The traditionalist interpretation, as depicted by Draper, primarily posits Lincoln issuing the Emancipation Proclamation because God was working through him, and that to free the slaves was “the work of God.”1 While acknowledging preservation of the Union was his foremost concern during the war, Draper recognized that Lincoln needed the Border States and, conversely, that the Confederacy could not hope to survive without them either. Draper distinguishes between Lincoln the president and Lincoln the person, as evidenced by author noting, “whatever his (Lincoln’s) personal opinions and wishes in relation to slavery were” as the president of the United States “preservation of the Republic was his first duty.”2 Draper contended that Lincoln’s moral dilemma was inherently entwined with his efforts to work within the legal bounds of the Constitution. Once public opinion started to impress upon the president, however, Lincoln began to feel the “universal” notion “that either [emancipation] must be done or the union given up.”3 These sentiments were brought into sharper focus by the combined forces of

“a depreciated currency, heavy and steadily increasing taxation, the terrors of a coming military draft, the clamor of the peace party, and, above all, a profound disappointment in the result of McClellan’s campaign, [which] weighed heavily on the nation.”4
This traditionalist account portrays Lincoln as a distinctly “Godly” man (insofar as he received divine inspiration). It concludes with the assertion that “in every phase of the conflict [Lincoln] perceived the arbitrament of a Higher Power,” thereby, implying emancipation was both inevitable and morally desirable by the majority of Northerners (albeit for a number of reasons) and that Lincoln was, and indeed should be regarded as, the Great Emancipator.5

James H. Cathey, writing nearly a generation after Draper, described Lincoln as “America’s most remarkable man” viewed him, like Draper, positively.6 Holding true to tradition, the author of this disturbingly racist piece of work identified Lincoln as being “a man of the most profound principle” while also recognizing him as an “intense practicalist” and steadfast believer in the Constitution.7 Cathey’s project was not to criticize the former president for emancipating the slaves “for that was right” he did believe, however, that Lincoln never intended to make the Negro the white man’s equal.8 What is interesting about this position is that the author’s bigoted prose perhaps unintentionally, perhaps not, implied a limit to Lincoln’s humanitarian agenda, an issue that was certainly picked up by historians half a century later. Nevertheless, the enduring view from Cathey is that Lincoln “in the classification of the world’s heroes must be grouped alone,” a legacy that is illustrative of him being regarded by one and all as the Great Emancipator.9

Less than a decade after the Great War, Lord Charnwood reinforced the view of Lincoln as being “one of the few supreme statesmen of the last three centuries” who should rightfully claim “his place among the great men of this earth.”10 This British peer subscribed to the view that the Emancipation Proclamation was an act of war and agreed with Draper insofar as he stated Northern opinion generally supported the edict. According to Charnwood, Lincoln personally hated slavery and wanted to get rid of the inhuman institution because it was “God’s will.”11 This author offered no new interpretations as to why Lincoln issued his proclamation; instead he merely rehashed material that had been around for almost the past fifty years. Charnwood may well have written his biography to coincide with the fifty-year anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Considering the date of publication, it must be noted that the socio-political and cultural trends of America favored the reconciliation between North and South. What the war was fought for was essentially being pushed to the periphery, while heroes were being made of the dead and the conflict romanticized as a war between brothers. Charnwood was, no doubt, affected by these trends, evidenced by his literary tone and content that tended to emphasize the inherent morality in Lincoln’s actions serving to vindicate not only a man but a nation also.

Richard Hofstadter changed the way historians viewed Lincoln forever in his disparagingly critical account of the sixteenth president. The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It, written in 1948, indicts Lincoln on a number of different levels. Hofstadter’s interpretation, which is recognized within the academy as the Revisionist view, drew a particularly hostile understanding of the man (and, by association, American society). He noted, for example, that “the Lincoln legend has come to have a hold on the American imagination that defies comparison with anything else in political mythology.”12 Although the author contests much of what the traditional school had postulated, there are some areas of relative harmony. Everything, Hofstadter argued, for Lincoln was subordinate to the “cause of the Union” and that he vehemently wanted to hold on to the Border States, all of which he recognized were unwilling to participate in an anti-slave crusade.13 One of the milder points of contention was that in addition to the Border States’ reluctance, Lincoln recognized a great section of conservative opinion was willing to fight for the Union but not necessarily so for the Negro. In the typical traditionalist vein, Hofstadter claimed that as the war lengthened, the radical sentiment became stronger, and so, to a certain extent he agreed with the mounting pressure thesis put forth by Draper. These sentiments (of popular pressure) are evidenced by his opinion that “men who had never thought of attacking the South’s peculiar institution before secession were now ready to destroy it in the most abrupt and ruthless way, if by doing so they could hasten the end of the war.”14 It is particularly noteworthy that Hofstadter couched his language for popular support of emancipation in military terms because it marks the intellectual shift away from the providential rendering of history.

Lincoln’s proclamation, Hofstadter asserted, was not based upon any moral or benevolent pretensions; he was guided not by the hand of God, but by the exigencies of war. Always, Lincoln was primarily concerned with the plight of the free white worker rather than the Negro; he did not “liberate” the slaves for freedom’s sake, rather, the policy was born out of necessity. The Proclamation was more expedient to Lincoln because it succeeded in holding his remaining supporters and forestalled English recognition of the Confederacy. In the end, then, Hofstadter’s point of view states that Lincoln freed the slaves for political and military expediency declaring “it was evidently an unhappy frame of mind in which Lincoln resorted the Emancipation Proclamation.”15 Most remarkably, the author declared that Lincoln’s edict “had all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading. It contained no indictment of slavery, but simply based emancipation on military necessity.”16 For Hofstadter, this statement is the culmination of a scathing personal attack on the sixteenth president. The attack even asserted that Lincoln was a follower, rather than a leader of public opinion (which is a logical extension of the traditionalist school of thought) but was taken to such an extreme that in the end he became a liberator “in spite of himself.”17

Colin R. Ballard, writing a mere handful of years after the establishment of the revisionist school, did not seek to refute Hofstadter; in fact, he endeavored to celebrate his interpretation by hailing Abraham Lincoln as a military genius. That the “form and date of issue [of the Emancipation Proclamation] were dictated by military necessity” is the bedrock of Ballard’s project in order for him to prove Lincoln a great tactician.18 Similarly, he warned that the Emancipation Proclamation was an act by “the commander-in-chief and a real part of his strategy; [therefore,] it is from this point of view that we must consider it.”19 To qualify his argument, Ballard argued for the military genius of the Proclamation, citing by the end of 1863 there were 100,000 blacks in uniform and that even though they did not really serving on the front lines it meant that an extra 100,000 whites could.20 The fact that Lincoln’s edict stripped the white South of her labor proved to be “a very serious deprivation at a time when the Confederacy was so badly in need of men.”21 Ballard also argued the Emancipation Proclamation effectively barred any type of foreign intervention, armistice, or compromise that may have been forthcoming; it was going to be total victory for Lincoln…or nothing. The non-intervention of foreign powers, the author declared, “was perhaps a decisive factor in the war.”22 Ballard reveled in Hofstadter’s wake because it allowed him the opportunity to turn Lincoln from Great Emancipator to Great Commander-in-Chief while still making him appear as the archetypal American hero.

Although a legitimate line of enquiry, Ballard’s findings were something of an anomaly in the historiography of Abraham Lincoln because no other historian chose to view the president solely as a commander in chief. David Herbert Donald got “back on track” with his critical view of the sixteenth president, in which he asserted that Lincoln had “no policy, adopted a non-ideological approach and that his dogma was an absence of dogma.”23 The very title of his book, Lincoln Reconsidered, suggests that he’s writing in response to the traditionalist school of thought. In a very real sense, Donald did because he produced the first full political biography of the Lincoln since Hofstadter’s groundbreaking publication. Primarily, Donald argued that Lincoln was essentially a pragmatist and not an abolitionist. In a clear break from the traditionalist position he asserted that “only after offers of compensation to slaveholders had failed and after military necessity had become desperate did [Lincoln] issue his Emancipation Proclamation.”24 Although heavily influenced by Richard Hofstadter criticisms of Lincoln, Donald did recognize the man’s genius for being able to appease both the abolitionists and the Border States. He affirmed that, in response to that perilous situation, Lincoln managed to do nothing except to propose a policy of colonization for the Negroes in Central America, which, in Donald’s words, was “as good as nothing.”25 Unquestionably, he saw public opinion being in advance of Lincoln insofar as the president waited until “all the important segments of Northern opinion were brought to support emancipation as a wartime necessity”…stating that only then did he issue the Emancipation Proclamation.26

Donald’s analysis not only dealt with the issues Hofstadter raised, but also dredged up some older ones. The reexamination of the distinction between Lincoln the man and Lincoln the president (as first outlined by John William Draper) occupied a major part in Lincoln Reconsidered. Donald recognized that “the president of the United States could not act as Abraham Lincoln wished. He was president not of the anti-slavery forces but of a disunited and divided people, and [as such] he must serve the general welfare.”27 He conceded the point that “as a man [Lincoln] wished to eliminate slavery everywhere, but as president it became his official and painful duty to rebuke his subordinates who took extra-legal steps to uproot the peculiar institution.”28 The author also alluded to pressure being placed upon Lincoln by American diplomats (informing of the specter of foreign intervention) and Northern governors who related, “their anti-slavery young men were unwilling to enlist in an army still legally bound to preserve the hated institution.”29 Lincoln also had to contend with “military leaders like General Grant [who] demanded more men and pointed to the large numbers of Negroes who would willingly serve for their freedom,” whom Donald cited as exerting meaning influence over the president, which should not be carelessly overlooked.30 Thus, while Hofstadter argued Lincoln resorted to the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation in an unhappy frame of mind, Donald implied that the president would have been happy to deliver the edict, proof, therefore, that the latter was unwilling to accept revisionist position in extremis.

Courtlandt Canby, writing in 1960, adhered to the revisionist school of thought insofar as he argued, that the Emancipation Proclamation was a war measure “issued on the narrow grounds of military necessity, and designed to hurt the enemy both at home and abroad.”31 Implicit in the text is the charge that the edict was Lincoln’s last throw of the dice, that there was no acceptable alternative to it, thereby in direct opposition to the traditionalist interpretation of God inspiring the president to act. Canby brought a new piece of analysis to the fore when he wrote that today we would call such a move “psychological warfare.” This “psychological warfare,” according to the author, was primarily concerned with the state of the Union rather than the plight of the Negro. He supported this notion with the declaration that “Lincoln had always preached the containment of slavery rather than its abolition.”32 Canby, like Donald in moving back toward a traditionalist interpretation, however, did concede that “Lincoln was certainly not insensitive, on the other hand, to the humanitarian and idealistic overtones of his Emancipation Proclamation, and he deserves the fame it brought him.”33 This is a noticeable shift from Richard Hofstadter’s position, which failed to see Lincoln as being “sensitive” to the issue. Mark Krug’s 1963 essay expounded upon the transition from Lincoln not being insensitive to liberating the slaves to it playing a major role in his psyche, John Hope Franklin’s portrayal of Lincoln, on the other hand, is somewhat more moderate.

It is interesting to note that two major works in the historiography of Lincoln’s motivation(s) for issuing the Emancipation Proclamation were published in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement. One discerns, from the first book at least, a sense of the legitimacy and validity of the American system for righting wrongs. John Hope Franklin’s The Emancipation Proclamation continued in the movement away from the revisionist school. While he did not aim to steadfastly refute Hofstadter’s main principles, he did make modifications and arrived at some different conclusions. On the whole, Franklin portrayed Lincoln in a positive light, a position evidenced by his arguing, “no problem of the war had troubled the president more than the question of slavery and what to do about it.”34 He contended that the decision to emancipate “was a logical decision, the result not only of the exigencies and events of the war but also the total experience of western man in coping with eradicating the evil of human bondage.”35 Perhaps Franklin wrote to celebrate the centennial anniversary of the proclamation; if he did so he certainly set the stage for the Emancipation Proclamation as one of the great liberating documents in the West’s history. Implicit in Franklin’s work is the inherent superiority of the “American experiment” by the way in which he suggested that Lincoln was a mere cog in the great democratic machine.36 He cited both public and military pressures on the president, particularly during the second year of the war. Franklin is an advocate of the mounting pressure thesis insofar as he named, in addition to the aforementioned, Congress, prominent politicians such as Charles Sumner, the abolitionists, and religious groups as weighing more and more heavily on the president’s back.37 He covered all the major bases as to why Lincoln would have needed to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, including, it was his last card to play, the specter of foreign intervention, and a bid to hasten the end of the war. He also put forth a moral thesis, however. Franklin quotes Lincoln as saying “I never, in my life, felt more certain that i was doing the right thing than I do in signing this paper.”38 Thus, he recognized that although Lincoln’s proclamation was first and foremost a military measure (Hofstadter’s influence), and that the Washington government expected to undermine the Confederate war effort by relieving slaves of their obligations to serve the Confederate cause, the sixteenth president of the United States did not entirely overlook the moral and humanitarian significance of the measure.”39 Although written at the same time, Mark Krug was influenced (possibly) to a greater extent by the socio-political and cultural trends of the time because he moved farther away from Hofstadter’s school than Franklin did.

Brought out to coincide with the centennial anniversary of Lincoln issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, Mark M. Krug’s article attempted to build upon previous historians’ work and take Richard Hofstadter to task. In the process of his broadside, Krug created the post-revisionist school of thought. Again, like Franklin, perhaps the mood of the time meant that Krug thought it was a more conducive, indeed desirable, climate for the public to see their most cherished president in a better light because it ultimately made America look better. In essence, Krug thought that a good point (Hofstadter’s) had been taken too far; that even though Lincoln issued his proclamation primarily for military reasons, he also did it to right a moral wrong. Krug set up this amendment to Hofstadter’s position by claiming “the assessment of Lincoln’s convictions on slavery, is of decisive importance in evaluating his motives in the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation.”40 He argued that Lincoln was very much an “anti-slavery man” during his political career and that those convictions should not be held against him because he had to issue the Emancipation Proclamation primarily for military reasons. Krug’s analysis thus far represents a marked shift in the view of Lincoln encountered up to this point because it examines Lincoln’s career as a whole rather than just in the polarized vacuum of the Civil War. Although such a position had been previously alluded to it was Mark Krug who firmly planted his flag on terra firma to portray Lincoln as being a lot more complex than the very good/very bad dichotomy that had previously prevailed. Krug made the case that Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation “off his own back” by refuting that Congress exerted unbearable pressure upon the President. Furthermore, to support this point of view of Lincoln’s agency in making the decision, Krug opposed the view that Lincoln’s hand on the proclamation was forced by the projected conference of war governors. In taking Richard Hofstadter’s work to task for not realizing the complexity of the issue, Krug announced the Emancipation Proclamation to be “the most exciting bill of lading in the history of modern man” and that in the eyes of the Civil War generation, it was a clarion call for human freedom. Consequently, Abraham Lincoln was indeed the Great Emancipator.41 By offering this new interpretation, Krug reopened the casebook for Lincoln and sparked a flurry of research on the famed president.

One such reinterpretation was Henry Jaffa’s in 1965, which stated that the only safe starting point in investigating the Emancipation Proclamation is to recognize the document as a paradox.42 He argued that Lincoln was a great believer in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence to the extent he thought all men were created equal. With regard to the president’s policy toward emancipation, however, Jaffa maintained the president was always a “free-soiler,” and “never an abolitionist.”43 He therefore sought to critique Krug’s view on this point or, rather, modify it by asserting that Lincoln may have been anti-slavery but not necessarily an abolitionist for moral reasons (agrees more with Hofstadter on this point). Jaffa recognized Lincoln’s cautious, constitutional conservatism as the necessary stabilizing factor while he endeavored to tie up the loose strings of Unionism as he organized the Union to fight for its life. But once the fight was organized and became increasingly desperate, once abolitionists and Border State Unionists, neither of whom would fight for the other, had been committed to the same cause by their blood in Battle, Jaffa argued, “the policy had to change.”44 Thus, while the author appreciated the difficult situation Lincoln was in, he alluded to the president’s practicality and sense of opportunity. Henry Jaffa added to the historiography of this issue because he portrayed Lincoln as the Great Emancipator, not for what he did on Jan 1st 1863, but because of everything he did and said from his first speech against the Kansas-Nebraska Act until his Second Inaugural, and indeed, until the last day of his life. He took Hofstadter’s “hard-line” stance and chipped away at it by claiming that Lincoln desired to put an end to slavery and did eventually emancipate the slaves, therefore, he is deserving of some credit – albeit no moral credit. In a sense, then, Jaffa conceded as truth that Lincoln never intended to emancipate the African American as human being (a divergence away from Krug) as much as intended to emancipate the American public from the curse of slavery.45

V. Jacque Voegeli went one step further than Jaffa by stating that not only is the Emancipation Proclamation to be seen as a paradoxical document but also its author should be viewed in the same way. Consequently, Voegeli represents, to a certain extent, the fusion of traditionalist and revisionist views by asserting that Lincoln was both outraged at slavery, yet believed in white superiority. In building upon Krug’s thesis—that Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation out of necessity but also to right a moral wrong—the author sheds light over the shadow that cast the president as a “racist free-soiler,” which he was indicted for by Jaffa. Voegeli, therefore, makes a case for the paradoxical nature of Abraham Lincoln, yet, maintained that his policy towards slavery, “always contained the elements of morality, practicality, statesmanship, and political expediency.”46 This view broadly encompasses all the previous positions, yet articulates them in spite of their seemingly conflicting opinions. He, like all the other scholars in the field, admits that Lincoln was chiefly concerned with reunion, not slavery and so does not go as far as the traditionalist position, even though it does represent a move in that direction. Voegeli did undertake a reexamination of Lincoln’s agency as a leader of public opinion (thus attempting to refute Hofstadter) by stating that the president had to convince the people of the north, particularly in the Border States and the Midwest that emancipation was a military necessity in the quest for winning the war. Having to present his edict as such, Lincoln was forced to word the Emancipation Proclamation (in terms of military necessity) so that it was naturally devoid of humanitarian and “moral preachments.”47 Voegeli stated it is wrong to assume Lincoln was callous or indifferent to the plight of Negroes, and that it is often overlooked he did assert some moral leadership. However, in 1863, the time was not right to make such bold assertions about slavery, therefore he did what he could with the tools that he had.

James McPherson is representative of the middle path in “Lincolnian” historiography. One of the reasons for moderate view is that he picked up on the old distinction between Lincoln the man and Lincoln the president. He argued, “while Lincoln privately thought slavery was wrong, as president of the US he was bound by the Constitution, which protected the institution of slavery in the states.”48 He rehashes the old argument that Lincoln’s war aims were limited – restoring the antebellum status quo rather than the abolition of slavery – yet defends his actions in revoking the emancipatory acts of two of his general because of the importance of the border states to the Union and did not want to provoke them into joining the Confederacy. McPherson confidently declared that a majority of Lincoln’s party “wanted to turn this limited war to restore the old union into a revolutionary war to create a new nation purged of slavery” thus representing a harkening back to the mounting pressure thesis.49 Importantly, the author addressed the problem with the proclamation, stating

“it did not free a single slave because it applied only to the Confederate states where Lincoln had no power, completely misses the point. The proclamation announced a revolutionary war aim – the overthrow of slavery by force of arms if and when the Union armies conquered the South.”50
McPherson cited Lincoln as a revolutionary insofar as he was responsible for presiding over a “fundamental change in society” when he declared that he was a “pragmatic revolutionary who found it necessary to destroy slavery and create a new birth of freedom in order to preserve the Union.”51 Lincoln’s agency is really brought to the fore by this well-established historian of the Civil war period. He argued that it was the president who was in ultimate control, “for it was his own superb leadership, strategy and sense of timing as president, commander in chief, and head of the Republican Party that determined the pace of the revolution and ensured its success.”52 McPherson’s work, therefore, represents a new school of thought, drawing on older traditions, that places the Emancipation Proclamation in the context of a revolution and with Lincoln at its center. He quoted Lincoln as saying “In giving freedom to the slave, we now assure freedom to the free,” thus illustrating the extent to which the author thought that America had entered a new epoch in its history.

James A. Rawley, writing in 1996, assumed Abraham Lincoln was the Great Emancipator but one who used the Emancipation Proclamation as a weapon of war.53 Following McPherson’s lead, he implied that it was the Republican Party who had only sought the containment rather than the abolition of slavery and that it was Lincoln’s actions that looked toward emancipation and colonization.54 Rawley did concede that both the military and the 37th congress were in advance of the president regarding the emancipation of the Negro during the war; however, he did not allow those issues to detract from the “pro-moral” Lincoln he wanted to portray. The author stated that the Emancipation Proclamation “was not an impulse but the fruition of a quarter of a century of detestation of slavery, ‘founded on both injustice and bad policy’ as he had said in 1837.”55 Rawley is making the argument that Lincoln is very much in the abolitionist camp – to which he offers the president’s whole political career as testament. Despite this, he did grant that Lincoln’s sole aim was to hold the Union together, however, in the post revisionist mold, Rawley (like Krug) attested it was also to right a moral wrong.56 Rawley introduced the point that “if [Lincoln’s] views on race seem retrograde to present day readers, they represent an advance beyond those of most of his contemporaries.”57 Up until now, this is just about the first time that Lincoln’s “racism” has been measured relative to that of his time, therefore, the author concluded that Lincoln was ahead of his time in addition to his being the savior of the Union and liberator of the slaves.58

Herman Belz picked up on the revisionist interpretation of Lincoln when he stated that the president “was no dictator standing for a triumphant majority” but a man of moderate temperament, a practical and astute politician who was made an emancipator by circumstances and expediency rather than by his own initiative.”59 Belz’s project, therefore, is to argue against McPherson’s thesis (of Lincoln as a revolutionary) by contending that the president was a strict constitutionalist. He is heavily influenced by the revisionist school, and as such, he employ’s Hofstadter’s viewpoint as the foundation for his own interpretation. The author of Abraham Lincoln, Constitutionalism, and Equal Rights in the Civil War Era agreed that the president was primarily interested in white labor rather than the plight of the Negro and that it was only under pressure from the radicals did he change his policy toward emancipation. In keeping with the revisionist worldview, Belz argued that Lincoln resorted to issuing the Emancipation Proclamation “only when things had gone from bad to worse.”60 There was, however, an interesting innovation made in this author’s argument.

Belz’s project made a break with the past by asserting the issue of motivation in Republican emancipation policy has been conceived of almost entirely as a question of Lincoln’s motivation for issuing the proclamation. Viewed in this light, Belz contended, the problem is unlikely to be resolved, for there is evidence to support both the revisionist and traditionalist points of view. He supported the view articulating, “Congress moved faster and further than Lincoln on emancipation.”61 Belz argued against their moral righteousness, however, because he states that “they too were concerned with using black manpower for military purposes rather than establishing the free status of former slaves.”62 Notwithstanding this condemnation, he attempted to establish that the 37th Congress were “motivated by pragmatic considerations rather than by concern for slaves’ personal liberty, they were content to declare the slaves of rebels free and to leave to future developments the determination of their status and rights in the civil order.”63 Belz is the first historian to indict Congress, a charge that has usually been reserved for Lincoln, an interesting line of inquiry, however, not fully carried out to its potential. Despite being heavily influenced by the revisionist school, he did grant that although “Lincoln based emancipation on thoroughly pragmatic grounds of military and political expediency, he had compelling ideological and humanitarian reasons for adopting a policy of slave emancipation.”64

Alan C. Guelzo, in the recent biography of Abraham Lincoln, subtitled Redeemer President, argued that Lincoln, personally, was morally opposed to slavery, however, in his capacity as president he did not favor immediate emancipation for the slaves. It would be dangerous to believe that Guelzo is ignorant of Belz’s position, however, he does seem to ignore it, to the extent of refuting it – stating that the president was compelled by the Republican Party to act and that Lincoln “could not easily ignore such pressure.”65 He argued, contrapositionally, that the “increasing relentlessness of the radicals in his own party” convinced Lincoln that “soon enough, [they] would take the extreme step in Congress of withholding supplies for carrying on the war, leaving the whole land in anarchy.”66 This point of view is somewhat contradictory because, on the one hand Lincoln is being pressed by the Radicals to emancipate the slaves while on the other, Guelzo is arguing that Congress were likely to terminate funding for the war which they wanted fought to free the slaves. Guelzo did introduce a new line of inquiry. He asserted that Lincoln “also had to deal with moral pressure from a more unexpected quarter, and that was from blacks themselves.”67 This is the first occasion that blacks have been attributed any sort of agency by historians in actually influencing Abraham Lincoln’s decision to emancipate them. Fused with new interpretations is a return to an old one, the author reintroduced the providential interpretation in contending that the war could not be saved “unless Lincoln himself took note of providence’s whispering.”68 Again, it was disappointing to find an author unwilling to fully support his claims. This time it was Guelzo who did not adequately qualify his statement concerning black agency in Lincoln’s decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

Recognizing the distinct lack of arguments for black agency in the historiography of Lincoln’s proclamation, Lerone Bennett Jr. enters the fray. Taking a very revisionist view of Abraham Lincoln and his motives for issuing the Emancipation Proclamation he decisively declared that one’s identity “whatever your color, is based in part, on what you think about Lincoln, the Civil War and slavery.”69 In this forthright and antagonizing piece of scholarship, Bennett argued that Lincoln was a racist and in fairly standard “Hofstadterarian” prose, postulated the “mythology of the ‘Great Emancipator’ has become a part of the mental landscape of America.”70 He also contended that Lincoln’s agency in the “emancipation” process was not at all done in a positive way for the slaves, declaring that the president “deliberately drafted the Proclamation so that it wouldn’t free a single slave immediately.”71

Bennett argued, somewhat unconvincingly, that “a growing body of evidence suggests that Lincoln’s Proclamation was a tactical move designed not to emancipate the slaves but to keep as many slaves as possible in slavery until Lincoln could mobilize support for his conservative plan to free blacks gradually and to ship them out of the county.”72 Furthermore, he stated that “one of the reasons why Lincoln was opposed to immediate emancipation was his personal and racist concern about the impact such an act would have on the servant problem of slaveholder families,” an assumption the author based upon very flaky evidence.73 Following Hofstadter’s example, Bennet asserted that Lincoln did not want to issue the Emancipation Proclamation but that he had no alternative than to do so.74 The main factor that “forced” Lincoln to issue his proclamation, according to the author, were threats of foreign intervention and when juxtaposed with the deteriorating military situation he was left with no choice but to play his last card. Bennet declared that it was “Not wisdom, then, but threats, not compassion but pressure moved him to his date with destiny.”75 He is the first person, however, to mention black abolitionists in the same breath as white ones putting pressure on Lincoln. Men such as Frederick Douglass, Wendell Philips, Governor John Albion Andrew of Massachusetts he cited as being among the real emancipators. According to Bennett, Mr. Lincoln was most certainly not the Great Emancipator.

Bennett’s evidence for how Abraham Lincoln sought to subvert his own Emancipation Proclamation is outlined in three main ways after January 1st because Lincoln:

  1. Sent positive messages to pro-slavery people

  2. Attacked the legal foundations of the proclamation himself

  3. Favored gradual emancipation.76

The author did not entertain any “Lincolnian” agency whatsoever, instead postulating that blacks were freed “by an intersection of individuals and social forces in a climate favorable to social change.”77 One of these “social forces, Bennett argued, was the 37th Congress, which became the emancipating Congress. Drawing on past scholarship, he stated that Lincoln was more of a follower than a leader of public opinion.78 In short, however, this view, as put forth by Lerone Bennett Jr. passes Hofstadter’s in its hostility toward Lincoln, yet it falls short in its evidence for its conclusions.

Brian R. Dirck returned to the mainstream of Lincoln-motivation historiography offering an interpretation, which once again put forth the sixteenth president of the United States as the Great Emancipator. As the most recently published Dirck has the final say (in this paper) and called Lincoln’s policy on slavery “his morally admirable pursuit of emancipation as a defining national goal.”79 This work represents a return to the traditional interpretation, even insofar as Dirck asserted

“Emancipation and its relationship to God offered rare occasions for Lincoln to profess an understanding of God’s plan for the American nation. Freeing the slaves had injected a degree of divine morality into a most immoral and dirty civil war; God cleansed the war, and the nation, through emancipation. With emancipation and God linked closely in Lincoln’s mind, he was apt to turn a deaf ear to callers who were at once Confederate sympathizers and outspoken Christians.”80
He argued that Lincoln believed “God’s will and slavery were fundamentally incompatible,” which again harkens back to the earliest views of Lincoln and his being divinely inspired.81

According to Dirck, Lincoln saw the war not as forcing him to free the bondsmen but as providing him with the opportunity to “vanquish slavery.”82 All in all, this work flies in the face of fifty years of scholarship and demonstrates the almost complete turn of the wheel back to the traditionalist interpretation of Abraham Lincoln.

The historiography of Lincoln’s reasons for issuing the Emancipation Proclamation is as much a self-study of the United States’ perception of itself than it is about the man from Illinois who became the sixteenth president. Historians do not write in vacuums; events, social currents and political climates greatly influence them. In the post World War Two era, Richard Hofstadter wrote the most important piece of work ever done on the subject of Lincoln. Hofstadter was writing at a time when the nation was going through a profound sense of loss, yet it had again prevailed in a fight for what was “right” and so one wonders what influenced him to pen such a critical analysis of arguably one of America’s favorite son’s. It is understandable that during the centennial celebrations of the Proclamation, historians should have wanted to portray the “hero of the Civil War” as something more than an outright racist who did not truly believe in liberty and freedom for all. Although Lerone Bennett Jr.’s book takes an extreme view, the author does put forth some perceptive insights on American society. Bennett meant that to believe in a Lincoln who was, in essence, without sin, malice, or color preference is to believe that racism does not exist today. The perpetuation of this view of Lincoln represents the guilt of a white-dominated society that feels the need to paper over the cracks of the past in order to legitimize the current status quo. Whether Lincoln issued the Emancipation for good or out of necessity will not be discovered in any lost manuscript or forgotten-about speech. The “answer” to this enigma, therefore, will only be found when a majority of Americans are willing to accept the implications of what a critical view of race-relations in their society entails. The gauntlet has thus been laid down…


Ballard, Colin R. The Military Genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York: The World Publishing Company, 1952.

Bennett, Lerone Jr. Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream. Chicago: Johnson Publishing Co., 2000.
Belz, Herman. Abraham Lincoln, Constitutionalism, and Equal Rights in the Civil War Era. New York: Fordham University Press, 1998.
Canby, Courtlandt, ed. Lincoln and the Civil War: A Profile and a History. New York, G. Braziller, 1960.
Cathey, James H. The Genesis of Lincoln: Truth is Stranger than Fiction. [S.l.: s.n.], 1899.
Dirck, Brian R. Lincoln & Davis: Imagining America, 1809-1865. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2001.
Donald, David. Lincoln Reconsidered. Reprint of first edition, [1956] Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press Publishers, 1981.
Draper, John William. History of the American Civil War. New York: Harper and Barnes, Publishers, 1868.
Franklin, John Hope. The Emancipation Proclamation. Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company Inc, 1963.
Guelzo, Allen C. Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President. Grand Rapids, Michigan: W.B. Eerdmans, 1999.
Hofstadter, Richard. The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1948.
Jaffa, Henry V. Equality and Liberty: Theory and Practice in American Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965.
Krug, Mark M. “The Republican Party and the Emancipation Proclamation.” Journal of Negro History, 48 (April 1963): 98-114.
McPherson, James M. Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Rawley, James A. Abraham Lincoln and a Nation Worth Fighting For. Wheeling, Illinois: Harlan Davidson, 1996.
Voegeli, Jacque V. Free but Not Equal: The Midwest and the Negro during the Civil War. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967.

1 John William Draper, History of the American Civil War (New York: Harpers and Brothers, 1868), 611.

2 Ibid., 597.

3 Ibid., 605.

4 Ibid., 607.

5 Ibid., 611.

6 James H. Cathey, The Genesis of Lincoln: Truth is Much Stranger than Fiction (s.l. : s. n., c. 1899), 13.

7 Ibid., 149.

8 Ibid., 160.

9 Ibid., 146.

10 Lord Charnwood, Abraham Lincoln (New York: H. Holt and Co., 1923), iv.

11 Ibid., 324.

12 Richard Hofstadter, The American Political Tradition and the men who made it (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1948), 92.

13 Ibid., 125.

14 Hofstadter, 127.

15 Ibid., 131.

16 Ibid., 131.

17 Hofstadter, 132.

18 Colin R. Ballard, The Military Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: The World Publishing Company, 1952), 138.

19 Ibid., 138.

20 Ibid., 139.

21 Ibid., 139.

22 Ibid., 145.

23 David Herbert Donald, Lincoln Reconsidered (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press Publishers, 1981, Reprint edition from 1956), 18.

24 Ibid., 19.

25 Ibid., 69.

26 Ibid., 70.

27 Donald, 134.

28 Ibid., 135.

29 Ibid., 137.

30 Ibid., 138.

31 Courtlandt Canby, Lincoln and the Civil War: A Profile and a History (New York: George Brazillier, Inc., 1960), 291.

32 Canby, 292.

33 Ibid., 292.

34 John Hope Franklin, The Emancipation Proclamation (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company Inc., 1963), x.

35 Ibid., x.

36 Ibid., 20.

37 Ibid., 26.

38 Ibid., 95. Other, more critical, historians have attributed this statement of Lincoln to mere political rhetoric rather than any true heartfelt desire.

39 Franklin, 138.

40 Mark M. Krug, “The Republican Party and the Emancipation Proclamation” Journal of Negro History, 48 (April 1963), 99.

41 Krug, 114.

42 Henry V. Jaffa, Equality and Liberty: Theory and Practice in American Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965), 142.

43 Ibid., 156.

44 Jaffa, 164.

45 Ibid., 166.

46 V. Jacque Voegeli, Free but Not Equal: The Midwest and the Negro during the Civil War (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), 38.

47 Voegeli, 47.

48 James M. McPherson, Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1991), 31.

49 McPherson, 32.

50 Ibid., 34.

51 Ibid., 41.

52 Ibid., 42.

53 James A. Rawley, Abraham Lincoln and a Nation Worth Fighting For (Wheeling, Illinois: Harlan Davidson, 1996), x.

54 Rawley, 91.

55 Ibid., 105.

56 Ibid., 222.

57 Ibid., 229.

58 Ibid., 229.

59 Herman Belz, Abraham Lincoln, Constitutionalism, and Equal Rights in the Civil War Era (New York: Fordham University Press, 1998), 11.

60 Belz, 52.

61 Ibid., 103.

62 Ibid., 105.

63 Ibid., 118.

64 Belz, 102.

65 Alan C. Guelzo, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President (Grand Rapids, Michigan: W. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999), 332.

66 Ibid., 332.

67 Ibid., 332.

68 Guelzo, 337.

69 Lerone Bennett Jr., Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream (Chicago: Johnson Publishing Company, 2000), preface.

70 Ibid., 6.

71 Ibid., 7. This evidence is based on the thesis that Lincoln deliberately only “freed” the slaves in the places not under Union control - where he knew they would remain in bondage.

72 Ibid., 9-10.

73 Bennett 14.

74 Ibid., 23.

75 Ibid., 23.

76 Ibid., 30.

77 Ibid., 38.

78 Bennett, 555.

79 Brian R. Dirck, Lincoln and Davis: Imagining America, 1809-1865 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2001), 3.

80 Ibid., 192.

81 Ibid., 192.

82 Ibid., 216.

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