Lincoln Prize Goes to Book on Emancipation Proclamation

By A House Divided Linda Wheeler
Thursday, March 10, 2005

Make room on your bookshelves for this year's winners of the prestigious Lincoln Prize, two masterful books on Abraham Lincoln that are good reads and bring new scholarship to the most studied of American presidents.

"Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America," by history professor and author Allen C. Guelzo, took the first place prize of $35,000. His book puts a new face on one of the most familiar but little read or understood presidential proclamations.

Harold Holzer, co-chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission and vice chairman of the Lincoln Forum, won the second-place prize of $15,000 with his latest of 23 books on Lincoln and the Civil War. "Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech That Made Abraham Lincoln President," re-creates the setting for the little-known speech in New York City that brought Lincoln national attention and raised his profile as a presidential candidate.

The Lincoln Prize was co-founded and endowed by businessmen and philanthropists Richard Gilder and Lewis Lehrman, principals of the Gilder Lehrman Institute for American History in New York. Gilder, Lehrman and Gabor Boritt, director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College, established the prize in 1990. The college's Lincoln and Soldiers' Institute administers the prize.

The authors will be honored at a dinner April 21 at Richmond's Tredegar Gun Foundry, which was one of the Confederacy's primary cannon factories and is now a national museum. The next morning, Guelzo, Holzer and other historians will participate in a forum on how three key leaders of the day -- Lincoln, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Frederick Douglass, a former slave who became a prominent abolitionist -- responded to the challenge of emancipation.

This is Guelzo's second Lincoln Prize. In 2000, his book "Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President" shared the honor with John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger's book, "Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation."

Guelzo exhaustively researched his subject, and his work will be hard to top. He gives every version of the proclamation as Lincoln developed it and refined it. He writes about who influenced Lincoln and discounts others who claimed to have assisted the president in his meticulous wording of the document that Lincoln predicted would be his "greatest and most enduring contribution to the history of the war."

On the evening of Jan. 1, 1863, the day Lincoln signed the proclamation, a friend who saw him marveled that he was so calm on the day "he had given to the world a document of imperishable human interest, which meant so much to the country, and especially to four million of slaves, whose shackles were forever loosed."

His enemies, of which there were many, also saw it as part of Lincoln's legacy. But they called it a "bloody, barbarous, revolutionary and unconstitutional scheme" and predicted slave uprisings that would lead to the rape and killing of slave-owning families.

Guelzo carefully reconstructs Lincoln's path to the proclamation, beginning with a proposal to compensate slave owners in the border states for releasing their slaves and sending willing slaves overseas to create their own homeland. He ended up employing a very different approach, one that immediately freed all the slaves in the rebel states. This move aimed to abolish slavery and undermine the Confederacy by denying it workers.

His plan worked.

Holzer looks at Lincoln in his younger years, when he was a western lawyer and orator little-known to important East Coast politicians. Through one masterful speech in New York in February 1860, Lincoln became a leading contender to be the Republican Party's candidate for president that year.

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