Thomas Sowell

Since Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863, you might think that there would be no need for a new book about it today.
Unfortunately, there is very much a need for a new book on the subject, not only because of the gross neglect of history in our schools and colleges, but also because of the completely unrealistic view of the world -- past and present -- that prevails, not only among the ignorant but among the intelligentsia as well.

 Since the 1960s, it has been fashionable in some quarters to take cheap shots at Lincoln, asking such questions as "Why didn't he free all the slaves?" "Why did he wait so long?" "How come the Emancipation Proclamation didn't just come right out and say that slavery was wrong?"

 People who indulge themselves in this kind of self-righteous carping act as if Lincoln was someone who could do whatever he damn well pleased, without regard to the law, the Congress, or the Supreme Court. They might as well criticize him for not discovering a cure for cancer.

 Fortunately, there is an excellent new book, titled "Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation" by Professor Allen C. Guelzo of Gettysburg College, that sets Lincoln in the context of the world in which he lived. Once you understand the constraints of that world, and how little room for maneuver Lincoln had, you realize what courage and brilliance it took for him to free the slaves.

 Just one fact should give pause to Lincoln's critics today: When Lincoln sat down to write the Emancipation Proclamation, the Supreme Court was still headed by Chief Justice Roger Taney, who had issued the infamous Dred Scott decision, saying a black man had no rights which a white man needed to respect.

 This was a Supreme Court that would not have hesitated to declare the freeing of slaves unconstitutional -- and Lincoln knew it. The Dred Scott decision was not yet a decade old at the time.

 There would have been no point in issuing an Emancipation Proclamation that didn't actually emancipate anybody. Ringing rhetoric about the wrongness of slavery would not have gotten the Emancipation Proclamation past Taney and his Supreme Court.

 Since Lincoln's purpose was to free millions of human beings, not leave some rhetoric to be preserved in the anthologies, he wrote the Emancipation Proclamation in dry legalistic terms that disappointed thoughtless critics in his time and ours, but got it past the Supreme Court.

Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

Creators Syndicate

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