Emancipating Lincoln seeks a new approach to the Emancipation Proclamation, a foundational text of American liberty that in recent years has been subject to woeful misinterpretation. These seventeen hundred words are Lincoln’s most important piece of writing, responsible both for his being hailed as the Great Emancipator and for his being pilloried by those who consider his once-radical effort at emancipation insufficient and half-hearted.
Harold Holzer, an award-winning Lincoln scholar, invites us to examine the impact of Lincoln’s momentous announcement at the moment of its creation, and then as its meaning has changed over time. Using neglected original sources, Holzer uncovers Lincoln’s very modern manipulation of the media—from his promulgation of disinformation to the ways he variously withheld, leaked, and promoted the Proclamation—in order to make his society-altering announcement palatable to America. Examining his agonizing revisions, we learn why a peerless prose writer executed what he regarded as his “greatest act” in leaden language. Turning from word to image, we see the complex responses in American sculpture, painting, and illustration across the past century and a half, as artists sought to criticize, lionize, and profit from Lincoln’s endeavor.
Holzer shows the faults in applying our own standards to Lincoln’s efforts, but also demonstrates how Lincoln’s obfuscations made it nearly impossible to discern his true motives. As we approach the 150th anniversary of the Proclamation, this concise volume is a vivid depiction of the painfully slow march of all Americans—white and black, leaders and constituents—toward freedom.