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Lincoln, Liberty, and the Law

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 41, Number 4, December 2013
pp. 672-679 | 10.1353/rah.2013.0116

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The image is powerful. In a dimly lit room in the White House, a resolute Abraham Lincoln demands of his cabinet that the nation seize the moment and grant freedom under the Constitution to four million African Americans. The compelling saga of Lincoln the reformer wheedling, cajoling, even bribing various congressmen to support the Thirteenth Amendment in the winter of 1865 might surprise some moviegoers and frustrate critical historians. Yet director Stephen Spielberg’s blockbuster film Lincoln crafts a worthy, if flawed, effort to walk the American people down the rocky road of emancipation. This cinematic moment has contributed to the long-standing controversy that exists in the academic community and periodically within popular culture over Lincoln’s role as a champion of African Americans. Focusing upon the last months of the Civil War, Spielberg represents those dedicated to the notion that the “Man from Springfield” weighed into the cause of blacks with moral passion and caring determination. Many scholars would demur, arguing that Lincoln, throughout the war, was motivated more by pragmatism than morality in charting his course from emancipation to amendment.

Every generation creates its own Lincoln, even when it involves hunting vampires or battling zombies. Americans following World War II grew up on more iconic images of actors Henry Fonda and Raymond Massey as the amiable, honest rail-splitter. Those who read historian Richard Hofstadter’s The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (1948) were likely disappointed at Spielberg’s portrayal. Hofstadter critiqued Lincoln, notably emphasizing his ongoing concern for the white laboring classes, and appraising the Emancipation Proclamation as having “all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading” (1964 ed., p. 131). As the concept of black agency has risen and historians have become more iconoclastic, Lincoln’s role in the emancipation debate has been further challenged. Within the past generation, the literature on the subject has grown prodigiously. African American historians offer differing viewpoints. John Hope Franklin, The Emancipation Proclamation (1995) credits Lincoln and lauds the document for having both practical and moral purpose. In dramatic contrast, Lerone Bennett, Jr.’s Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream (2000) emphasizes Lincoln’s racism and virtual obsession with colonization. For Bennett, the text was issued only as a matter of military and diplomatic necessity.

William K. Klingaman, Abraham Lincoln and the Road to Emancipation: 1861– 1865 (2002), and George Fredrickson, Big Enough to Be Inconsistent: Abraham Lincoln Confronts Slavery and Race (2008), both depict Lincoln as the moderate, pragmatic political compromiser. Allen C. Guelzo, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the End of Slavery in America (2004) reestablishes Lincoln in the center of emancipation, portraying him as a man of courage and principle who daringly advanced his views on abolition. Eric Foner, The Fiery Trail: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (2010) traces Lincoln’s evolutionary position on race and emancipation. Finally, William A. Blair and Karen Fisher Younger, Lincoln’s Proclamation: Emancipation Reconsidered (2009), and Michael Vorenberg’s edited volume The Emancipation Proclamation: A Brief History with Documents (2010) assemble talented scholars who ponder Lincoln’s complexity, the role of African Americans, and the wide-ranging impact of the document. With no shortage of new opinions, three distinguished historians now add their perspectives.

“That reminds me of a story from back home. . . ,“ Lincoln would begin, often to the amusement—but sometimes to the collective sighs—of his audience. A master raconteur, the president relied heavily on the tall tale or homespun yarn to make a salient point. Historian Louis P. Masur, in Lincoln’s Hundred Days: The Emancipation Proclamation and the War for the Union, places those stories in context, revealing how Lincoln utilized humor to compensate and disarm, to instruct and amuse. Masur’s well-crafted volume takes the reader through the period between September 22, 1862, and January 1, 1863—from the preliminary to the final decree—focusing upon the ebb-and-flow of events and pressures on Lincoln. Both documents evoked immediate criticism, seen either as too conservative or too radical in substance. More liberal twentieth-century historians and civil rights groups have launched their attacks, and the celebration of the Thirteenth Amendment has further marginalized and devalued the...

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