Jewish World Review August 11, 2005 / 6 Av,
Trashing our history: Lincoln
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
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.
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.
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
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