150 years ago, on September 22nd, 1862, Abraham Lincoln issued preliminary notice of his intention to declare the freedom of slaves held in states then in rebellion. Tense weeks of deliberation passed before he made good, delivering the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1st, 1863. Louis P. Masur’s new book, Lincoln’s Hundred Days: The Emancipation Proclamation and the War for the Union, tells the full story of that eventful interlude. We recently asked Masur a few questions to help us better understand the churning context in which the Proclamation evolved.
What unifies my work is an interest in specific moments and texts. I’ve written books about the events of a year, a single photograph, and a seminal record album. Writing a short general history of the war refocused my attention on the period and paved the way for a more specialized study of the war’s greatest achievement. I realized that most accounts of emancipation skip quickly from the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation to the final decree and I wanted to understand that period more completely. For those who lived through those times, the hundred days, as the clock wound down to the Day of Jubilee, were fraught with excitement and fear, hope and confusion. I wanted to recapture the contingency and uncertainty of that time and, in doing so, shed new light on Lincoln and the Proclamation.
Q. What did Lincoln, his cabinet, and outside observers see as precedent for the Emancipation Proclamation? To what degree was it viewed as a break with the founding documents?
Frederick Douglass, the runaway slave and leading abolitionist, thought the decree bore comparison only to the Declaration of Independence. “The fourth of July was great,” declared Douglass, “but the first of January...is incomparably greater.” We have lost that sense of the momentousness of the Emancipation Proclamation and it is my hope that Lincoln’s Hundred Days helps us to recover and celebrate its significance. While some opponents of the Proclamation at the time saw it as a gross violation of the Constitution, many others saw it as a fulfillment of the founder’s vision that brought the Constitution into alignment with the Declaration’s assertion of human equality.
Q. Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation just weeks before the 1862 midterm elections. How political was his timing? Did he correctly anticipate voters’ reaction? How did he in turn respond to election results?
Lincoln was always deliberate and his slowness infuriated his critics. But once he acted, he did not look back. Lincoln had always been antislavery; now he took direct action to end the institution in areas of the Confederacy still in rebellion. He knew he would a pay a price politically, and he did. The Republicans suffered setbacks in the fall elections. But he did not retreat, contrary to the hopes of some and fears of others. Indeed, after the elections, he told a group of visiting Kentuckians “he would rather die than take back a word of the Proclamation of Freedom.”
Q. You marshal a number of voices—those of diarists, politicians, soldiers writing home—to bring immediacy to the events you discuss. Do you have a favorite observer?
It’s hard for me not be enamored of Count Adam Gurowski, a Polish exile and minor State Department official, who kept a diary that is scathing, idiosyncratic, and original. It was a tell-all in an age that valued propriety and decorum. And he had no qualms about sharing it with others; he published the first volume at the end of 1862. One reviewer called him “venomous.” A senator compared him to a whale in a tank. I quote him time and again not because I agree with him, but because he wrote with passion and honesty in a voice that rings across time.
Q. At the end of 1862, Lincoln issued an annual message to Congress that seemed to some like a retrenchment. Could you talk about what he proposed, and why?
Lincoln’s Annual Message of 1862 is a strange document. He proposed several constitutional amendments, one of which, if ratified, would have paid compensation to any state that abolished slavery by the year 1900. I think he was not backing away from the Emancipation Proclamation, but was giving in to his fear that the four slave states that remained in the Union would not abolish slavery and that perhaps his Proclamation would one day be ruled unconstitutional. Only at the end did he reach rhetorical brilliance: “the dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present…. In giving freedom to the slaves, we assure freedom to the free.” He would stand fast by his decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, he would make it even more far-reaching by authorizing the enlistment of black troops, and the only constitutional amendment he would fight for was the one that permanently abolished slavery throughout the United States.
Q. You open the book with Lincoln telling his cabinet a story by humorist Artemus Ward, and close it with Lincoln relating an anecdote to the hospitalized soldiers whom he’s visiting in Richmond in 1865. What does Lincoln the storyteller tell us about Lincoln the politician?
Lincoln’s storytelling is one of his great attributes, and served multiple purposes. No doubt the verbal skills, honed while riding circuit as a Western lawyer, helped make him popular with judges and juries alike. His ability to tell a funny story and laugh heartily must have raised his spirits and helped offset the other extreme of his temperament, a melancholy that often left him saddened and depressed. If his physical appearance was gawky, even off-putting, his joke-telling drew people to him and made him likeable. Lincoln shrewdly used stories and parables in more complex ways as well. They would disarm opponents, or offer an easily digestible truism that seemed to support whatever position he might be taking. The stories humanize Lincoln and remind us, as Count Gurowski observed, “In the midst of the most stirring and exciting—nay, death-giving—news, Mr. Lincoln has always a story to tell.”
Q. You discuss several popular and widely circulated images depicting Lincoln delivering the Emancipation Proclamation. How did you settle on the book’s jacket image?
There are many compelling images of emancipation and of Lincoln, but David Gilmour Blythe’s is one of my favorites because it neither sanctifies nor demonizes the president. It shows him as a man struggling to arrive at a solution to the problem of slavery in the midst of a war that threatened to destroy the nation forever. Lincoln is in his nightshirt. A slipper has fallen off of his foot. He is surrounded by books and petitions. It is an imagined frozen moment in which we can feel his struggle, and share in it.