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The Emancipation Proclamation

Three Views

Harol Holzer

Publication Year: 2006

The Emancipation Proclamation is the most important document of arguably the greatest president in U.S. history. Now, Edna Greene Medford, Frank J. Williams, and Harold Holzer—eminent experts in their fields—remember, analyze, and interpret the Emancipation Proclamation in three distinct respects: the influence of and impact upon African Americans; the legal, political, and military exigencies; and the role pictorial images played in establishing the document in public memory. The result is a carefully balanced yet provocative study that views the proclamation and its author from the perspective of fellow Republicans, antiwar Democrats, the press, the military, the enslaved, free blacks, and the antislavery white establishment, as well as the artists, publishers, sculptors, and their patrons who sought to enshrine Abraham Lincoln and his decree of freedom in iconography. Medford places African Americans, the people most affected by Lincoln's edict, at the center of the drama rather than at the periphery, as previous studies have done. She argues that blacks interpreted the proclamation much more broadly than Lincoln intended it, and during the postwar years and into the twentieth century they became disillusioned by the broken promise of equality and the realities of discrimination, violence, and economic dependence. Williams points out the obstacles Lincoln overcame in finding a way to confiscate property—enslaved humans—without violating the Constitution. He suggests that the president solidified his reputation as a legal and political genius by issuing the proclamation as Commander-in-Chief, thus taking the property under the pretext of military necessity. Holzer explores how it was only after Lincoln's assassination that the Emancipation Proclamation became an acceptable subject for pictorial celebration. Even then, it was the image of the martyr-president as the great emancipator that resonated in public memory, while any reference to those African Americans most affected by the proclamation was stripped away. This multilayered treatment reveals that the proclamation remains a singularly brave and bold act—brilliantly calculated to maintain the viability of the Union during wartime, deeply dependent on the enlightened voices of Lincoln's contemporaries, and owing a major debt in history to the image-makers who quickly and indelibly preserved it.

Published by: Louisiana State University Press


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pp. 1-5


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pp. v-7

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pp. vii-viii

Just over forty years ago I wrote a brief volume on the Emancipation Proclamation. My principal objective was to call attention to a document that was barely remembered and widely misunderstood. I traced the germination of the idea of emancipation in Abraham Lincoln's mind, his issuance of it at a propitious but dangerous moment in the nation's struggle for survival during the Civil War, and...

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pp. ix-x

A book co-authored by three historians, each living in a different city, each working on other projects simultaneously, inevitably spawns many debts to patient friends, family, and professional colleagues. We can never expect to repay them adequately but do wish to express our heartfelt appreciation for their help and encouragement....

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pp. xi-xii

But as Douglass hastened to add with just a touch of bitterness, the president had moved "in his own peculiar, cautious, forbearing and hesitating way" to reach at last the moment of his "righteous decree," even as "the loyal heart was near breaking with despair." Then Douglass changed course again to acknowledge that, however long delayed, Lincoln's order had nonetheless provided genuine...

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Imagined Promises, Bitter Realities: African Americans and the Meaning of the Emancipation Proclamation

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pp. 1-47

Believing that they were about to be taken out of Virginia and employed in defense of the purported new nation, Shepard Mallory, Frank Baker, and James Townsend presented themselves to the picket guard. The next morning they stood before the fort's commander, Maj.-Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, who had just arrived from duty...

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"Doing Less" and "Doing More": The President and the Proclamation—Legally, Militarily, and Politically

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pp. 48-82

It is generally accepted—in public opinion polls and historians' surveys—that Lincoln was America's greatest president. But he was also one of its greatest lawyers. Because the Civil War was in many ways a conflict of jurisprudence, Lincoln was able, as president and commander-in-chief in a time...

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Picturing Freedom: The Emancipation Proclamation in Art, Iconography, and Memory

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pp. 83-136

For the most part, his second inaugural address sounded more like a sermon than an oration. Slavery, the president gravely told the throng gathered in the plaza, had been one of those "offences" deserving of the wrath of God. The "terrible war" was the "woe due to those by whom the offence came." And it might yet come to pass,...

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APPENDIX: The First and Second Confiscation Acts

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pp. 137-140

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That if, during the present or any future insurrection against the Government of the United States, after the President of the United States shall have declared by proclamation, that the laws of the United States are opposed, and the...


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pp. 141-156


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pp. 157-162

E-ISBN-13: 9780807155486
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807131442

Page Count: 272
Publication Year: 2006