Book Review: Lincoln’s Gamble

My copy of the book.

I hadn’t realized I would finish a book about Lincoln’s stop-and-start path toward issuing the Emancipation Proclamation on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but I suppose it is fitting and poetic that I did. In fact, as I read Todd Brewster’s 2014 book, Lincoln’s Gamble: The Tumultuous Six Months That Gave America the Emancipation Proclamation and Changed the Course of the Civil War, I was reminded of King’s words in “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” 100 years after that Proclamation: “For years now I have heard the word “wait.” It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This “wait” has almost always meant “never.”” And later in the Letter, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice …” King goes on, but I don’t need to belabor the point that would put the haggard Lincoln into submission, surely if he had read those words.

The thesis of Brewster’s book, as I interpret it, which covers the six-month period when Lincoln first spoke of his intention to free the slaves on July 12, 1862, to signing the Proclamation on January 1, 1863, is two-fold: a.) Lincoln initially, and even up to the 11th hour, thought there could be a way to free the slaves while still cajoling the rebellious traitors, and even being conciliatory, and giving “reparations” of a kind, to the slave-masters. He also worried about what American society would look like, quite literally, after freeing the slaves, and his answer to that was colonization, aka sending (deporting) freed blacks to Liberia and other parts of Africa. He couldn’t imagine blacks and whites living together, especially blacks who had been so “degraded” by slavery; b.) Lincoln’s shifting viewpoint on the aforementioned has a direct relationship to his viewpoint on strategizing and overseeing the Union Army in its war against the Confederacy, which up to the point of the Emancipation Proclamation, was not going well. Until they had that cause at their backs (and the influx of black soldiers!), the Union’s efforts beforehand seemed plodding and half-measured at best.

Before I go further, though, I want to comment on the writing itself: Brewster wrote an exceedingly accessible book about Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War, and the Emancipation Proclamation. This is not a thick academic book and it certainly doesn’t read like an academic book. For that reason, I would recommend it to those who want to learn more about history, but (for good reason!) are often intimidated against doing so. Perhaps the most charming aspect of the book is how self-aware Brewster is throughout with his parenthetical asides, which are often sarcastic and quippy, his questioning of Lincoln’s shiftiness, and even his awareness that he (at the time) was writing the 23,275th book about Lincoln. That writing a book about Lincoln, whether more myth-making or zealous myth-debunking, or something in between (which is more his book), is always going to be difficult. Because, as I’ll get to, the Emancipation Proclamation represented a second “birth” of the United States, and as such, Lincoln took on the godly stature conferred to the Founding Fathers behind the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and add to that his assassination in 1865, and Lincoln has been compared to Christ in his sacrifice for the “sins” of a country torn asunder and to be rejoined in Union. And then there are those who swing too far the other way, Brewster says, claiming Lincoln is an illegitimate, cynical racist, who didn’t do enough or some such. To be sure, the reason I thought about King’s Letter while reading this book is that at many a time, Lincoln seems to be evoking the white moderate position of “wait.” Which Lincoln was in popular company with such a sentiment, hoping that slavery would incrementally be phased out, die its own withering, but passive, death; and even after more than 200,000 Union soldiers already died, including at the atrociously barbaric Battle of Antietam in September 1862, Lincoln was still on his crap about colonization and weirdly, proposing that slavery could be phased out by 1900. Could you imagine? Nonetheless, Lincoln would get to the right place, which was signing and issuing the Emancipation Proclamation.

Now, as a young lad, I was skeptical of Lincoln for many of the reasons Brewster mentions, such as Lincoln’s own racist personal feelings toward African Americans (in other words, many of those who found the institution of slavery repugnant and worth ending, nevertheless thought whites and blacks couldn’t coexist, that blacks were an inferior race (and they were using “science” of the time to back them up!), and were concerned about miscegenation), suspending habeus corpus and targeting journalists in the North over criticisms of the war, Lincoln, the potential for a draft, and most related to this book, the Emancipation Proclamation itself. I didn’t understand it: Lincoln’s Proclamation freeing the slaves only applied to the rebellious states the United States government had no control over! But reading Brewster’s book, the latter clicked with me in a way it hadn’t quite previously. The Emancipation Proclamation was indeed tantamount to the Declaration of Independence and a rebirthing of the American founding, i.e., that the fact of its utterance was enough to be radical and revolutionary, no matter its practical implication (although, like the Declaration leading to the Constitution, what followed from the Emancipation Proclamation were the vital Reconstruction Amendments), because its signal was a contradiction of the status quo, both the moderate status quo and certainly, the rebellious Southern status quo. In that way, I appreciate “Lincoln’s gamble” (a risky gamble in the same sense of the founders’!) and the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation more than I ever have before.

Other smaller aspects of Brewster’s book I found interesting from a history perspective is how instrumental technology was in this period to both Lincoln and the Civil War and people’s perspective of the war. In this case, the technology was the telegraph, which Lincoln used often to receive battlefield updates, and it seems, drafted his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in the telegraph office by the White House, and photography, which was used to capture war in a way never before seen, like the aforementioned bloodletting at Antietam. Or another theme I notice in any American history book I read, like I did with The Children’s Blizzard, is how young America is. Case-in-point, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court at this time was Roger Taney, a Lincoln antagonist, most remembered for the horrendous 1857 Dred Scott decision, who was born in 1777. That is, he was born 10 yeas before the United States Constitution was written, and yet, he was the Chief Justice during the time of the Civil War. We are a young country.

The last two years and going into this year, I’ve been fascinated by the Civil War period, learning more about the Reconstruction period that followed, and of course, Abraham Lincoln himself, so, I’ve been trying to read as much as I can. I don’t think I’m saying anything bold (23,000-some books, surely thousands more since then!) when I say that Lincoln is such a interestingly complex historical figure to study and try to understand. But a throughline of his that I’ve noticed when I do read about him is the sense of melancholy (the word they used then because depression wasn’t yet in the lexicon) that pervaded his every step and is in every depiction of him. And there is an apt description of his melancholy, his tiredness, that I think is also a microcosm of the weariness at the heart of the American Civil War and the procrastination attendant the slavery question — and on a personal note, I found it highly relatable as a way of describing the feeling one has when overtaken by depression, or melancholy — on page 210 of the hardcover edition, Lincoln was advised he ought to rest and he responded, “I suppose it is good for the body, but the tired part of me is inside and out of reach.”

Fortunately for America, the cause of liberty, and the new cause Lincoln helped to birth, equality before the law, Lincoln was able to at least tap into the better (and more energized?) angel of his nature, to paraphrase the famous poetic phrase from Lincoln’s first inaugural address in 1861.

A passage from the book because it’s always worth remembering that Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy, laid out exactly what their intention was with their new government. They wanted to protect their slave empire and tried to wrap it in the pseudoscience of the day about the races.

2 thoughts

  1. Over the years I’ve read perhaps 30+ books covering colonial America through the failed reconstruction period, including biographies of the first 13 presidents (currently reading Pierce, #14). America is a divided nation today, but by comparison to the era preceding the Civil War (especially 1830s – 1850s) we scarcely know the meaning of the word divided.

    Liked by 1 person

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