Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Emancipation Proclamation: Three Views

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

I have thinking quite a bit these days about the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln's role as commander-in-chief, and the legacy of emancipation during the sesquicentennial. I recently revisited a very good book - The Emancipation Proclamation: Three Views, by Harold Holzer, Edna Greene Medford, and Frank J. Williams.

Fittingly, the authors choose to open their absorbing study of the Emancipation Proclamation with the words of Frederick Douglass – one of the most compelling figures of nineteenth-century United States history – to illustrate the varied reactions to a document that has traveled a “bumpy historiographical road.” Praising Abraham Lincoln’s (preliminary) Emancipation Proclamation as a “righteous decree” while questioning the president’s “hesitating and forbearing” caution, Douglass was both admirer and critic – a reaction that the authors suggest presaged the “complicated, almost schizophrenic, response [the document] has elicited.” As the authors point out, since 1862, analysis of the Emancipation Proclamation has developed into two opposing camps – one highlighting the document as the crowning achievement of Lincoln the Great Emancipator, the other focusing on the proclamation as an act of wartime desperation issued from the pen of a racist president.

To their credit, the authors do not simply argue from the comfortable (and well worn) position of one side of the historiographical debate or the other. Rather, they tap into contemporary reactions issued from diverse groups, including, significantly, those who were the subject of Lincoln’s decree – slaves – to illustrate the importance of the widely ranging series of responses, interpretations, and efforts of commemoration. While the subtitle of this book could imply a sustained debate contesting the contemporary meaning and legacy of the Emancipation Proclamation, the three contributors to The Emancipation Proclamation provide complementary arguments - each individual analysis accenting a particular context.

Edna Greene Medford examines how black Americans derived meaning from a document beyond the author’s intentions and seized every opportunity as active agents in freedom, Frank J. Williams argues that Lincoln’s genius for the law provided the means to maneuver around the inherent conflict between his constitutional obligations and his hatred of slavery, and Harold Holzer maintains that the “central document” of Lincoln’s administration gained prominence not during his lifetime, but through artistic representation and Lincoln iconography in the post-war realm of public memory. The overall result is a single volume that both admonishes reductionism and eschews present-minded critique.

Holzer, Medford, and Williams, together with eminent historian John Hope Franklin, who provides the foreword, should be applauded for collaborating on this succinct, well documented, and thought provoking study. Perhaps, a more nuanced analysis discussing the varied responses of “common” Civil War soldiers would further strengthen this volume by illustrating how the issues of slavery and emancipation reached white America beyond the upper echelons of politics and the military. This criticism aside, students of the era will greatly benefit from a collection of essays that illustrates how the Emancipation Proclamation was, in the words of Lincoln, “the great event of the nineteenth century.”



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