Book Review: The Emancipation Proclamation

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Ages 9-12

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The Emancipation Proclamation was one of the most important yet least understood documents in American history. Signed and announced by President Abraham Lincoln in the midst of the American Civil War, the Proclamation didn't exactly do what is common thought to have done. It didn't end slavery. It didn't even free slaves in the American North.

The author of this book, Marianne McComb, does an excellent job of explaining the historical context that Lincoln's announcement enters into. She also expertly discusses the political ramifications of decisions that Lincoln's advisors had urged him to make: If he freed all the slaves, he risked losing huge support; yet even in freeing the slaves in Southern states, he came under fire from abolitionists for not doing enough.

It is a little-known fact (at least to many Americans) that the Emancipation Proclamation freed only those slaves who were living in states that were at war with the U.S. Government. In other words, only Southern slaves were freed. And since these Southern states no longer recognized the authority of the United States, Lincoln's grand idea didn't amount to much in the real world.

But it was as a symbolic gesture that the Emancipation Proclamation had its broadest appeal, and it is this symbolism that McComb explores in fullest detail. Interweaving discussions of the Fugitive Slave Law and the pre- and post-Civil War climate, the author presents a compelling picture of just how much—and how little—Lincoln's Proclamation did.

The illustrations, from the vast stable of National Geographic's archives, are stellar as always, including the only known picture showing Lincoln at Gettysburg. This book is part of a new American Documents series. If the subsequent books are anything like this one, the series will be yet another strong entry in the long-running line of great National Geographic publications.

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David White