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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 aweinspiring. 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
John William Draper, History of the American Civil War (New York: Harpers and Brothers, 1868), 611.
Ibid., 597.
Ibid., 605.
Ibid., 607.
Ibid., 611.
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.
James H. Cathey, The Genesis of Lincoln: Truth is Much Stranger than Fiction (s.l. : s. n., c. 1899), 13.
Ibid., 149.
Ibid., 160.
Ibid., 146.
Lord Charnwood, Abraham Lincoln (New York: H. Holt and Co., 1923), iv.
Ibid., 324.
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
Richard Hofstadter, The American Political Tradition and the men who made it (New York: Alfred A. Knopf,
1948), 92.
Ibid., 125.
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
Hofstadter, 127.
Ibid., 131.
Ibid., 131.
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 nonintervention 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.
Hofstadter, 132.
Colin R. Ballard, The Military Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: The World Publishing Company, 1952),
Ibid., 138.
Ibid., 139.
Ibid., 139.
Ibid., 145.
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 nonideological 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
David Herbert Donald, Lincoln Reconsidered (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press Publishers, 1981, Reprint
edition from 1956), 18.
Ibid., 19.
Ibid., 69.
Ibid., 70.
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
Donald, 134.
Ibid., 135.
Ibid., 137.
Ibid., 138.
Courtlandt Canby, Lincoln and the Civil War: A Profile and a History (New York: George Brazillier, Inc., 1960),
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
Canby, 292.
Ibid., 292.
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
John Hope Franklin, The Emancipation Proclamation (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company Inc.,
1963), x.
Ibid., x.
Ibid., 20.
Ibid., 26.
Ibid., 95. Other, more critical, historians have attributed this statement of Lincoln to mere political rhetoric rather
than any true heartfelt desire.
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 postrevisionist 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
Franklin, 138.
Mark M. Krug, “The Republican Party and the Emancipation Proclamation” Journal of Negro History, 48 (April
1963), 99.
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
Krug, 114.
Henry V. Jaffa, Equality and Liberty: Theory and Practice in American Politics (New York: Oxford University
Press, 1965), 142.
Ibid., 156.
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
Jaffa, 164.
Ibid., 166.
V. Jacque Voegeli, Free but Not Equal: The Midwest and the Negro during the Civil War (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1967), 38.
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
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
Voegeli, 47.
James M. McPherson, Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution (New York: Oxford University
Press, Inc., 1991), 31.
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
McPherson, 32.
Ibid., 34.
Ibid., 41.
Ibid., 42.
James A. Rawley, Abraham Lincoln and a Nation Worth Fighting For (Wheeling, Illinois: Harlan Davidson,
1996), x.
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
Rawley, 91.
Ibid., 105.
Ibid., 222.
Ibid., 229.
Ibid., 229.
Herman Belz, Abraham Lincoln, Constitutionalism, and Equal Rights in the Civil War Era (New York: Fordham
University Press, 1998), 11.
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
Belz, 52.
Ibid., 103.
Ibid., 105.
Ibid., 118.
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
Belz, 102.
Alan C. Guelzo, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President (Grand Rapids, Michigan: W. B. Eerdmans Publishing
Co., 1999), 332.
Ibid., 332.
Ibid., 332.
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
Guelzo, 337.
Lerone Bennett Jr., Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream (Chicago: Johnson Publishing Company,
2000), preface.
Ibid., 6.
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.
Ibid., 9-10.
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
Bennett 14.
Ibid., 23.
Ibid., 23.
Ibid., 30.
Ibid., 38.
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
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.
Bennett, 555.
Brian R. Dirck, Lincoln and Davis: Imagining America, 1809-1865 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas,
2001), 3.
Ibid., 192.
Ibid., 192.
Ibid., 216.
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…
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