- Exploring Lincoln: Great Historians Reappraise Our Greatest President ed. by Harold Holzer, Craig L. Symonds, and Frank J. Williams
Drawing together sixteen essays from the Lincoln Forum’s recurring Gettysburg conference on the Civil War, this well-rounded volume offers the reader a glimpse of recent and emerging scholarly discussions in the crowded field of Lincoln studies. The contributions fall into loose thematic groupings, covering the political aspects of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, his personal and family life, and his wartime leadership, and include a handful of analytical studies on Lincoln’s contemporaries, both friend and foe. Unsurprising given the impressive assemblage of contributors, most of the chapters draw heavily on recent monographs by their respective authors or extend those works into closely related research directions.
Some contributors visit understudied elements of Lincolniana. For example, William C. Harris’s chapter on the 1860 election revisits the complex political mechanics that secured Lincoln’s nomination and eventual election as president, providing a cohesive play-by-play of the campaign as a political narrative. The reader will also find new insights on two much-neglected subjects. First is Barnet Schecter’s probe of rumors on the Union home front about [End Page 679] Confederate conspiracies during the New York City draft riots of 1863, which would stand out among the largest political uprisings in American history were it not for the shadow of the war itself. Second, and one of the most interesting contributions by far, is Amanda Foreman’s examination of the Emancipation Proclamation’s reception in Britain. Using the journalistic debate over the war as a backdrop, Foreman follows the proclamation’s dissemination and its extended effects on British politics in framing slavery as a war issue. Her conclusion that the British reception of the proclamation was shaped as much by the Confederate misreading of the proclamation’s effects as by the policy itself is intriguing.
A substantial portion of the book is perhaps expectedly devoted to the Emancipation Proclamation, including essays by Eric Foner and Richard Striner. While the book is structured as a reappraisal of Lincoln premised on new research avenues, it is here that the volume hovers closest to the historiographical conventions of the past half-century, particularly with its emphasis on finding a pathway to a more assertive strain of abolition in the pronounced moderation of Lincoln’s antislavery program.
Foner does differentiate his thesis somewhat by both accepting Lincoln’s moderate pragmatism and acknowledging its neglect, before turning to emancipation as an evolutionary narrative that brings Lincoln in line with this broader conclusion. For Striner, Lincoln’s less racially enlightened statements from his battles with Stephen A. Douglas take on a more esoteric character. They were, Striner claims, “just a clever trick by a crafty attorney” who used passages with “alternate meanings” so that what “could seem racist” was really a political ploy to account for a racist electorate (p. 169). Thus readers find a politically strategic Lincoln who “masked his revolutionary impulse,” which was, in reality, always there (p. 175).
There are problems with both approaches in that they tend to read more into Lincoln than the historical evidence can consistently sustain. Lincoln did move toward military emancipation as a war necessity and came to support limited black suffrage, although cautiously and only as a tempered suggestion to Louisiana’s military governor. Lincoln actually clung to the idea of compensated emancipation as late as the February 1865 cabinet meeting that followed the Hampton Roads conference earlier that month. Both Foner and Striner also read eventual abandonment into Lincoln’s public silence on colonization after January 1, 1863, although the latest evidence supports a very different story. After the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln specifically refocused this program into closely guarded diplomatic arrangements with foreign governments to avoid the political wrangling and graft that colonization had attracted in its public phase...