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Title of the "Great Emancipator" restored to Lincoln
on May 28, 2006
It has become fashionable in recent decades for historians and commentators from the extremes of the ideological spectrum to depict Lincoln as a cautious racial conservative, even a racist, only brought in the end to reluctantly embrace the destruction of slavery as a measure to win the Civil War. In such a view, Lincoln is far from the traditional "Great Emancipator"; instead he is limited to following in the wake of those persons more forward-looking, more morally courageous than Lincoln himself. Richard Striner's book persuasively demolishes such a picture and, on the contrary, portrays Lincoln as a dedicated enemy of slavery (and a friend to racial equality, at least in 19th century terms) who labored consistently and at great length to at last crush the hated institution. Striner does this with a careful survey of Lincoln's career from his earliest political days until his death. And Striner boldly takes on each of the quotes from Lincoln speeches and writings that are usually used to "reveal" Llncoln as a racial conservative who adopted emancipation much against his real will, showing those quotes in their broader contexts, describing not only what else was going on at the time and what else Lincoln was simultaneously doing, but also examining those quotes in context of what else was said in that particular speech or document. Lincoln was a politician of great skill, willing to publically advocate a course seemingly adverse to his real goals but, in the long run, laying down a pathway towards accomplishing those goals. And, perhaps more than any other American president, Lincoln was a master of language, sometimes crafting a phrase, a sentence, or a paragraph that superficially says one thing while meaning, upon close examination, something else.
Stiner also provides a valuable look at the very real fears that Lincoln and his associates had in the years leading up to the Civil War that slavery was on a road towards expansion, not extinction. Moreover, Striner shows that the South's leading spokespeople on the subject of tariffs (sometimes cited as the "real" underlying cause of Southern secession, instead of the uncomfortable issue of slavery) privately admitted that their real concern was slavery, with tariffs providing a convenient stalking horse at a particular moment. The shadow of slavery lay darkly over antebellum America, and Striner's book retores the portrait of Lincoln as a dedicated leader in bringing the country forward to the end of the "peculiar institution".