Saturday, September 29, 2012

Delivering freedom

In Lincoln's Hundred Days: The Emancipation Proclamation and the War for the Union, Rutgers professor Louis Masur marks an important anniversary with panache

The following review has been posted on the Books page of the History News Network.    

Louis P. Masur's latest book stands at the intersection of two important long term trends in Civil War historiography (and, by extension, U.S. historiography generally). The first a post-1960s emphasis on foregrounding the racial dimension of the conflict, asserting slavery was the precipitating cause and abolition as the primary significance of its outcome. This would almost be so obvious among scholars to not bear mentioning if such emphasis was not primary before the late 20th century, and if there didn't remain vocal segments in the culture at large that explicitly reject it. The other, more recent trend is a new emphasis on political history, in effect closing a circle that began with a move toward social history in the 1970s and '80s and cultural history in the 1990s and 2000s. In recent decades historians have tried to affirm their commitment to a democratic discourse by affirming the agency of individual actors at the ground level rather than the Words and Deeds of Great Men. Like all well-intentioned (or perhaps just intellectual marketplace-driven) trends, however, such tendencies have perhaps reached the point where they conceal more than they reveal. Who's running the government at any given time really may matter after all.

Given this context, there may well have been a spate of Emancipation Proclamation books even if its 150th anniversary was not at hand (President Lincoln issued the preliminary Proclamation on September 22, 1862, and the final one putting it into effect on January 1, 1863). In recent years, a string of heavyweight scholars -- among them Allen Guelzo, Harold Holzer, and, going back a bit further, John Hope Franklin -- have made it the subject of volume-length studies. This is interesting when one considers the traditional perception of the E.P., captured most vividly by Edmund Wilson, who in Patriotic Gore famously described it as having "all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading." But just as the center of gravity in the military history of the war has shifted from Gettysburg to Antietam, so too is the E.P. getting a second look as a document as carefully crafted, and eloquent in its own way, as the Gettysburg Address.

Louis Masur is uniquely well situated to make this historiographic adjustment, and does so with the seasoning and dash of a scholar at the height of his powers. There are few historians whose work has ranged more widely than his has, not only in spanning the transition from social history to cultural history -- his work has covered topics ranging from capital punishment to the music of Bruce Springsteen -- but also in terms of having a particular feel for the Civil War history, evident in his fine anthology The Real War Will Never Get in the Books (1995) and his masterfully brief 100-page narrative The Civil War (2011). These strengths coalesce in a study notable for its deftness, whether in terms of mining midterm electoral results or in sketching the series of artists who made visual records of Lincoln and his cabinet.

Masur cleverly frames this narrative in terms of a now familiar presidential trope of 100 days. This is a metric that first emerged in the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, and has since been applied as a way of assessing every recent president. In the case of  the E.P., it turned out -- Lincoln himself didn't realize it at first -- there there were exactly 100 days between its issuance and implementation. In and of itself, 100 days is not a particularly useful or persuasive criterion for measuring presidential effectiveness, and Masur's story effectively begins with the outbreak of the war, covering about a hundred pages before we get to the heart of the book described in the title. But this device of centering his narrative on the hundred days does clarify that the months between between September and January were truly a crucible of American history, when a sense of uncertainty surrounded the E.P., both in terms of whether it would really be executed, and whether it really would matter.

What emerges in that narrative -- something that has often been commented upon about Lincoln, but which comes into focus in a way that simulates real time -- is his truly heroic sense of patience in formulating a policy, selling that policy, and resolutely standing by it in the face of terrific pressures. Masur makes clear that Lincoln had to change his mind in arriving at the Proclamation. For a long time he believed he key to ending slavery rested with the border states, whose leaders he hoped to convince to relinquish it gradually. "Lincoln had long believed that the abolition of slavery in Kentucky, Missouri, Delaware and Maryland would help to end the rebellion and lead to emancipation in the Confederacy," Masur writes. "He [finally] realized, if anything, it would have to be other way around." It was this key insight in breaking his mental set, his willingnesss and ability to surrender hopes (like colonization of freedmen to Central America) and face difficult realities, that made him a truly far-sighted leader. And it was his communication skills, in being able to articulate every side of an issue, that made him an effective politician with an acute sense of timing, in implementing policy.

Masur rounds out his his tri-partitite narrative by limning the aftermath of the E.P. culminating in the moving story of Lincoln's visit to Richmond in April of 1865, surrounded by throngs of grateful former slaves, and a reaction to this gratitude that amounts to greatness in its sincere humility. In so doing, he succeeds in the larger goal of the book, which is to make the story of the Emancipation Proclamation a synecdoche for the war itself. As such, it's a story of triumph bounded on either side by violence and tragedy. Sort of like American history itself.