From Publishers Weekly
This impressive work is a splendid history of the genesis, issuance and aftermath of Lincoln's epoch-making Emancipation Proclamation. Not surprisingly, it focuses on the president, whom Guelzo (whose Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President won the 2000 Lincoln Prize) presents in all his prudent, acute genius. As is well known, the recovery of the Union, not emancipation, was always uppermost in Lincoln's aims. Therefore, he had to convince himself that options other than emancipation-principally treating escaping slaves as contraband of war or compensating slaveholders for their freed slaves-were unworkable and likely to retard Northern victory before concluding that the slaves' emancipation would advance the cause of war as well as end an evil. The history of how Lincoln convinced himself is Guelzo's main subject. The political and legal reasoning behind Lincoln's series of hugely difficult decisions has never been presented so well before nor in such authoritative detail. And rarely has Lincoln's cautious approach seemed, paradoxically, so fit and so bold. His ability both to listen to others and to explain with clarity and eloquence why he had taken the decision he did stands out, as does his firmness of resolve in the face of violent criticism. In this fast-paced and riveting work, whose details propel rather than retard it, the president stands forth not so much as the deeply compassionate and thoughtful man he was but rather as a man of inordinate understanding of his fellow citizens and of the needs of his fractured nation. It's hard to imagine that this book will soon be surpassed as the definitive work on its subject.
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Analysts as diverse as Frederick Douglass and historian Richard Hofstadter have ardently criticized Lincoln's "passive" attitude toward abolition. These critics frequently point out that the Emancipation Proclamation was, in practical terms, meaningless, since it freed only those slaves in areas under Confederate control and left slaves in the Union border states in bondage. In this fine work of counterrevisionism, history professor Guelzo strives to resurrect the traditional image of Lincoln as the Great Emancipator. Despite Lincoln's frequent assertions that the preservation of the Union was his paramount goal, Guelzo insists that Lincoln was committed to abolition once hostilities commenced. His repudiation of efforts by John Fremont to liberate slaves were merely tactical retreats, according to Guelzo, and when he deemed the moment appropriate, Lincoln struck a mortal blow against the institution. Guelzo marshals considerable evidence to support his views, but this is hardly the final word on the subject. Still, his work is a valuable counterweight to those who too easily dismiss the importance of the document and Lincoln's role in eliminating slavery. Jay FreemanCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved