In this comprehensive account of Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, William K. Klingaman takes a fresh look at what is arguably the most controversial reform in American history. Taking the reader from Lincoln's inauguration through the Civil War to his tragic assassination, it uncovers the complex political and psychological pressures facing Lincoln in his consideration of the slavery question, including his decision to issue the proclamation without consulting any member of his cabinet, and his meticulous attention to every word of the document. The book concludes with a discussion of what the Emancipation Proclamation really meant to four million newly freed blacks and its subsequent impact on race relations in America.
On January 1, 1863, Lincoln declared free all slaves found in states rebelling against the Union. This epochal event is popularly regarded as the definitive triumph of abolition and earned Lincoln the title "The Great Emancipator." Yet in the midst of the war, Lincoln wrote that his "paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery." Klingaman (1929: The Year of the Great Crash; etc.) explains that Lincoln's bedrock principle on emancipation was to use it only if it would advance the cause of winning the war. Emancipation was not undertaken out of moral necessity, although Lincoln certainly disapproved of slavery, even despised it. Klingaman's study of emancipation demonstrates the complexity of the pressures brought to bear on Lincoln, not only from the virulently antagonistic forces in the nation as a whole, but also from within Lincoln's own mind. Klingaman fairly sets forth the evidence for his thesis (emancipation as a war measure), drawing on Lincoln's writings, including the Emancipation Proclamation itself. Perhaps the most convincing part of the book is the author's analysis of how Lincoln sifted the risks and benefits of emancipation in the early phases of the war. Freeing the slaves too soon could backfire by alienating the border states, such as Kentucky, and by stiffening the South's resolve. Klingaman shows how Lincoln agonized over these risks, finally choosing a militarily and psychologically apt moment for the proclamation. Lincoln emerges from this study not as a heroic advocate of racial equality, something he never was, but as an astute, troubled and effective defender of the Union.