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Emancipating Lincoln: The Proclamation in Text, Context, and Memory (The Nathan I. Huggins Lectures) Hardcover – January 30, 2012

3.8 out of 5 stars 8 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


With a refreshing blend of analytical rigor and common sense, Harold Holzer places the Emancipation Proclamation in the context of its own time and circumstances, showing how Lincoln prepared public opinion for this controversial act, grounded it in his legal powers as commander in chief, and promoted its growing acceptance with eloquent paeans to freedom as a goal of the Civil War. This is a welcome new study of the Proclamation. (James M. McPherson, author of Battle Cry of Freedom and Abraham Lincoln)

As the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation approaches, Harold Holzer has given us a splendid book that provides essential historical framing for the document, its reception, and the trajectory of Abraham Lincoln's reputation as the Great Emancipator. A most enjoyable and informative read. (Gary W. Gallagher, author of The Union War and The Confederate War)

A succinct, readable, and essential guide to Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. (Henry Louis Gates Jr., W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, Harvard University)

Holzer uncovers a complex, imperfect man who was guided by practical considerations as he struggled to both preserve and perfect the Union. A welcome, balanced, and necessary addition to Lincoln scholarship. (Edna Greene Medford, Howard University)

Holzer's tripartite narrative deals first with the historical context of the Proclamation, laying out Lincoln's exquisitely difficult political, legal, moral and martial calculations as he gradually widened his circle of confidants, labored to manipulate public opinion and slyly prepared the nation for his momentous decision. He spent months refining the announcement released after Antietam and steadfastly signed the promised executive order. The author then moves to a discussion of the Proclamation's rhetorical deficiencies (Richard Hofstadter said it contained "all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading"), explains why our most eloquent president wrote so uncharacteristically and points us to contemporaneous speeches and letters for the "poetic accompaniment" to what was, after all, preeminently a legal document. Finally, Holzer turns to the iconography surrounding Lincoln and emancipation, tracing images from the early kneeling-slave, peculiarly disconcerting to modern audiences, on through to treatments by contemporary artists such as Rauschenberg, Basquiat and Kara Walker. This visual evidence effectively underscores his larger point about our troublesome, still evolving understanding of the Proclamation's place in our history. A fine introduction to what promises in 2013 to become a nationwide discussion. (Kirkus Reviews 2012-01-01)

Tracing the history of the iconography of Lincoln and the Proclamation, Holzer deftly leads readers through American racial politics from the Civil War to the election of President Obama...Images of the Proclamation and political cartoons shed light on the text and its reception in 1863. (Publishers Weekly 2011-12-12)

In this readable and revealing book, renowned Lincoln scholar Holzer investigates the process whereby Lincoln drafted, vetted, and presented the Emancipation Proclamation and also the ways people have come to understand and use the proclamation for myriad purposes. Especially important is Holzer's demonstration that Lincoln wrapped the proclamation's revolutionary promise in "leaden" legal language to ensure its Constitutionality and its palatability to loyal slaveholders, Northerners, and others still uneasy with the prospect of ending slavery. Also instructive is Holzer's examination of the Lincoln image as the "Great Emancipator" and the kneeling slave motif in picture, sculpture, and imagination, which images have contrasted with the more contested ones of Lincoln in print. The result is a book that through close textual analysis and attention to historical context gives the Emancipation Proclamation its due and shows Lincoln as a deft politician and prose master who understood how to fit the language to the moment and thereby realize a promise for all time. Highly recommended for anyone wanting to learn about how freedom came to be. (Randall M. Miller Library Journal (starred review) 2012-01-09)

Emancipating Lincoln is a long-overdue contextual analysis of Lincoln's evolving emancipation program and its place in historical memory. Holzer, an authority on Lincoln..., pinpoints when, why and how the president moved toward freeing the slaves. (John David Smith Charlotte Observer 2012-02-06)

Holzer's book brilliantly and quite convincingly aims to restore Lincoln's place as a courageous American civil rights pioneer by considering the 16th president's actions, attitudes, and the Emancipation Proclamation itself within the political, military, and racial context of the time...In putting Lincoln's greatest achievement in historical context, Holzer has done the Emancipator, and historical scholarship in general, a valuable service. (Chuck Leddy Boston Globe 2012-03-05)

What emerges from Holzer's research is a portrait of Lincoln as a man of vision who was adept at manipulating the news media. He was also discreet, even with his friends (both political and personal)...Holzer describes Lincoln's care in selecting the proper words, the right timing and the right context to effect the enactment of the proclamation. The portrait that emerges is one of a leader able to build consensus during the development of an important policy and in the middle of a war. (Michael L. Ramsey Roanoke Times 2012-03-23)

Crucial insights into Lincoln's dodgy and downright dissembling strategy in formulating and promulgating the Proclamation during the darkest months of the Civil War are brightly illuminated by Harold Holzer on the eve of the document's 150th anniversary. Holzer, a Lincoln scholar and vice president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, puts the fine points on the limited declaration, and embellishes the effect it produced through an excursion into the iconography, art and memorials depicting "The Great Emancipator."...In fusing the politics and the "art" of the Proclamation, Holzer adds handsomely to the Lincoln canon with this modest but highly insightful work. (Jonathan E. Lazarus Star-Ledger 2012-06-17)

Lincoln published a preliminary proclamation on September 22, 1862, warning Confederate states of his intention to issue a final edict on January 1...Holzer argue[s] persuasively that the progression of events during that critical autumn of the war were full of contingencies and that the final outcome was by no means certain...Provide[s] detailed and careful renderings of these events and of Lincoln's intellectual journey. (James M. McPherson New York Review of Books 2012-11-22)

Perhaps Holzer’s most outstanding recent work is Emancipating Lincoln. Compact and precise--just 172 pages of text and 23 pages of notes--the book is a model of lucid historical writing. There is probably no important document in our country’s history that even Civil War students know so little about than the Emancipation Proclamation.” (Allen Barra Daily Beast 2014-02-17)

About the Author

Harold Holzer is Director of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College.

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Product Details

  • Series: The Nathan I. Huggins Lectures (Book 5)
  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; First Edition edition (February 27, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674064402
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674064409
  • Product Dimensions: 1 x 5.8 x 8.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,381,328 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Todd Bartholomew VINE VOICE on March 16, 2012
Format: Hardcover
While the appellation of "Nathan I. Huggins Lectures" may conjure up images of a collection of dreary lectures, "Emancipating Lincoln" is anything but! With this book Holzer seeks to strip away much of the misinformation, errors, legends, and misinterpretations surrounding Lincoln's reasoning for creating the Emancipation Proclamation, the machinations that went on publicly and privately after he drafted it yet before he released it, and what the Emancipation Proclamation really meant once signed. As we near the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation this book couldn't have been timed better or more greatly needed than now. Holzer is brief and to the point, yet enlightens readers at every turn with tremendously revelatory information in a prose that crackles with life and vitality.

One great example Holzer gives is Lincoln publicly admonishing black Abolitionists that free men of color should either voluntarily or forcibly be returned to Africa. On its face this would appear that Lincoln was a racist, wishing to rid the United States of freed slaves, but the reality was the press was present and he needed them to relay to the Union, and especially Border States, the idea that the war was not about liberating slaves but about preserving the Union. At this point the war was not going well and making the war more broadly about emancipation would have turned public opinion against him at a time where the tide of war was at best uncertain. It is those kinds of insights which makes "Emancipating Lincoln" such a fascinating read. Another great insight is the clarification of the oft-repeated mistake that the Proclamation freed all slaves; it did not.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
We have a pre-eminent Lincoln historian, a fabled editor, Harvard Press and the remarkable (and conflicted) freeing of 4,000,000 slaves. The publication obviously could not be more timely. Given these pedigrees, I had every reason to expect another magisterial triumph, particularly at $24.95 (if Prime).

What I suggest we have, however, is an exceedingly slender 172 pages (small in every respect and wide margins to boot). An afternoon's interesting reading.

The writing is, as always with Holzer, lively and crisp and the research and analysis insightful. There's just not enough of it (for me at least), and no new earth is plowed.

The illustrations (part of the "iconography" Holzer ably brings to all he does) are interesting but not compelling enough to justify the purchase price.

Ironically, I searched in vain for the actual texts of the three versions of the Proclamation. Only two illustrations contain the text (have your magnifying glass at hand).

To be sure, the historians are on the money in the positive jacket blurbs. But here's the thing: we're accustomed to so much more from Mr. Holzer; the Proclamation, on its 150th Birthday and at any time, deserves more; and Amazon customers must choose how to spend $25.00.

At the risk of committing Holzer heresy, it's recommended one take a pass. Perhaps podcasts of the lectures are available (listen also to the recent NPR interview). Unless one is a serious Lincoln book collector, this fine read can await.

Personally, for a fuller treatment, I'd respectfully recommend Professor Guelzo's 2006 "Emancipation Proclamation," currently $10 in paperback and $12 in Kindle.
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Format: Hardcover
Of all the figures in American history, Abraham Lincoln has perhaps the largest bibliography (with the possible exception of George Washington) from hundreds of authors who have, in some form or another, added their insights into the celebrated figure that was our nation's 16th President.

Similarly, of all the contemporary historians writing on Lincoln today, there are not many who possess the same breadth of knowledge on Lincoln as Harold Holzer. Mr. Holzer is a prolific Lincoln historian and was the former co-chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. His works have added a significant and influential take on Lincoln for our generation. This trend continues in Emancipating Lincoln, a three-part book that examines the Emancipation Proclamation in context as a practical document, as well as an event of incredible historical significance. Lincoln the shrewd politician comes strongly into play in this slim volume, as does the Proclamation's place in American art and iconography. In fact I felt that the book's greatest strength is that it is not a straight history of how the Proclamation was conceived and implemented. Mr. Holzer offers a much wider examination of the document's purpose, immediate effect (which was, in a way, quite narrow), and overall influence. I finished this book with a strong appreciation for the way that Mr. Holzer was able to demonstrate the Emancipation Proclamation's importance on so many different levels.

The reason I give this book four stars is simply because I felt like there was so much more that Mr. Holzer could have offered on the Proclamation and the events surrounding it. I recognize that the book, based off the author's Nathan I.
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