ALBANY, N.Y. — Feb. 27 is an important date in Harold Holzer's life for a couple of reasons, not the least of which it's his wedding anniversary.
The other is linked to Abraham Lincoln, the subject of numerous Holzer books, essays, lectures and television appearances over the years. It was on that date in 1860 when the tall, gaunt lawyer from Illinois gave a political speech at Manhattan's Cooper Union, an address Holzer and other historians credit with setting Lincoln on the path to the White House in that year's presidential election.
Feb. 27 serves as another milestone for Holzer when his 42nd book — "Emancipating Lincoln: The Proclamation in Text, Context, and Memory," is published Monday by Harvard University Press.
The book's release is timed to the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, which the nation's 16th president spent months contemplating, discussing and rewriting in 1862 before issuing it in September of that year, just days after Union forces turned back Gen. Robert E. Lee's Confederate Army at the bloody Battle of Antietam in Maryland.
Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation ordered the freeing of slaves in all the states still in active rebellion against the federal government. He considered it his greatest act as president. But the document "is now often viewed not as revolutionary but as delayed, insufficient, and insincere," Holzer writes in the introduction to his new book.
Over the next 255 pages, one of the leading Lincoln scholars asks readers to reconsider the document in the context of the political, military and racial realities of the Civil War and how those factors figured into the president's decision-making during the period leading up to his publicly releasing the preliminary Proclamation on Sept. 22, 1862. He signed the final Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863.
"I think he was plenty worried even how the North would react to emancipation and we have to appreciate that," Holzer said in an interview from his office in Manhattan, where he's a senior vice president at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Holzer calls Lincoln a master of public relations and politics who sometimes outsmarted himself in his efforts to win over Northerners to the idea of emancipating slaves. In an era when "White House leaks" meant there were holes in the roof at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Lincoln himself divulged details of his emancipation plans to his cabinet members and other allies, purposely giving vague hints and statements that today appear to show the president was waffling on the issue, Holzer said.
"I don't think the American people would have accepted emancipation if he hadn't done this, and now it's used to discredit (the Proclamation)," said the author, who's speaking Sunday afternoon at the Albany Institute of History and Art.
Holzer points out that Lincoln had told his cabinet he planned to go public with the Emancipation Proclamation in July, but was persuaded by his secretary of state, former New York Gov. William Seward, to hold off until the Union Army won a significant battle.
"Lincoln practically has this thing burning a hole in his desk or his pocket, and he literally can't release it," Holzer said.
After a string of disastrous defeats at the hands of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, Lincoln finally got the opportunity he was waiting for when federal troops defeated the rebels at Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862. Five days later, Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.
Speculation over Lincoln's emancipation plans had been fodder for newspaper editorials and Washington gossips that summer. Still, its release caused a sensation. Lincoln's fellow Republicans cheered, but rival Northern Democrats grumbled that the president was changing the goal of the war: to reunite the nation. Meanwhile, desertion among some Union regiments rose.
But anti-slavery supporters were elated with the document. "We shout for joy that we live to record this righteous decree," wrote ex-slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
Lincoln's critics said the Proclamation's wording lacked the impact Americans expected for such a momentous act issued by a president known for his eloquence, leading many to believe his heart wasn't in it. Such criticism is way off the mark, Holzer said.
"Don't sell him short on the heart that went into emancipation," he said.
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