CRB: The Great Emancipation

The new (Summer) issue of the Claremont Review of Books is hot off the press. The CRB is the flagship publication of the Claremont Institute and my favorite magazine. I want to persuade you to subscribe to it, which you can do here for the ridiculously low, heavily subsidized price of $19.95 a year and get immediate online access thrown in to boot.

Our friends at the CRB have let me pick pieces from the new issue to preview on Power Line. I have sought to select pieces that would give a representative sample of the riches on offer. I have of necessity passed over many truly outstanding pieces. Please check out the table of contents at the link above.

This years marks the sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, an event the CRB recognizes in this issue with a review by Michael Burlingame, Naomi B. Lynn Distinguished Chair in Lincoln Studies at the University of Illinois, Springfield. In “The Great Emancipation,” Burlingame asks: were Lincoln and the Republican Party “reluctant emancipators”? The impetus for Burlingame’s question is James Oakes’s “strikingly original” book, Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861–1865, winner of the 2013 Lincoln Prize. Burlingame judges Freedom National to offer “a fresh, convincing reinterpretation of the emancipation policies and practices of Abraham Lincoln and his party.”

Burlingame’s review represents the perfect marriage of book and reviewer. Burlingame is the author of the monumental two-volume biography of Lincoln that Johns Hopkins University Press has just published in paperback. There is no living scholar who knows more about Lincoln’s life than Burlingame.

Against those who argue that the proclamation marked a change in the purpose of the Civil War — from preserving the Union to abolishing slavery — Burlingame finds that Oakes marshals a wealth of evidence to show that it is better seen as the culmination of Republican policies that had already liberated tens of thousands of slaves. Following Oakes, Burlingame sets forth for us the emancipatory path: from the pre-war anti-slavery platform of the Republicans, through the commencement of the war and the gradual emancipation of slaves throughout the hostilities, up to the great emancipation.

At the same time Burlingame finds that Oakes convincingly explains Lincoln’s apparent hesitations and demurring. As Oakes writes, Lincoln “was always less concerned with how slavery was abolished than with ensuring that it was abolished.” It is in this light that Lincoln’s actions must be understood. “Lincoln,” writes Burlingame, “realized that millions of Northerners as well as Border State residents would object to any steps that might be construed as helping to change the war into an abolitionist crusade. Those men were willing to fight to preserve the Union but not to free the slaves. As president, Lincoln had to make the mighty act of emancipation palatable to them.”

Were Lincoln and the Republican party “reluctant emancipators”? Not at all.


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