The Moral Grandeur of a Bill of Lading
In 1948 the great historian Richard Hofstadter began a frontal assault on the iconic image of Abraham Lincoln in American history and culture. Hofstadter’s Lincoln was a cynical politician, “among the world’s great political propagandists.”1 Since then other scholars have focused on the racist language in some of Lincoln’s prepresidential speeches, his support of colonization long after it was discredited, and his refusal until late in his administration to support black political rights.
Most controversial of all has been the evaluation of Lincoln’s commitment to black freedom and the nature and timing of the Emancipation Proclamation. It took Lincoln more than a year to propose emancipation and even then he seemed to vacillate, apparently willing to withdraw the preliminary proclamation if the rebellious states would return to the Union.2 He did not issue the final Emancipation Proclamation until nearly two years into the war. When finally issued, the proclamation did not free all the slaves in the United States. Hofstadter offers a caustic critique of the final document. Lincoln was one of the greatest craftsmen of the English language in American political history. But here, in the most important moment of his life, he is a pettifogger, drafting a turgid and almost incomprehensible legal document that had, in Hofstadter’s words, “all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading.”3 Unlike almost everything else Lincoln wrote, the proclamation itself was dull. Even historians who admire Lincoln think it was “boring” and “pedestrian.”4
On the surface, these criticisms of Lincoln are somewhat plausible. In the end, however, a careful understanding of Lincoln’s own ideology and philosophy, the constraints of the Constitution, and the nature of the Civil War suggest that such attacks ultimately miss their mark. Lincoln’s strategy and policy turn out to be subtle, at times brilliant, and ultimately