About the Book
In this succinct study, Edna Greene Medford examines the ideas and events that shaped President Lincoln’s responses to slavery, following the arc of his ideological development from the beginning of the Civil War, when he aimed to pursue a course of noninterference, to his championing of slavery’s destruction before the conflict ended. Throughout, Medford juxtaposes the president’s motivations for advocating freedom with the aspirations of African Americans themselves, restoring African Americans to the center of the story about the struggle for their own liberation.
Lincoln and African Americans, Medford argues, approached emancipation differently, with the president moving slowly and cautiously in order to save the Union while the enslaved and their supporters pressed more urgently for an end to slavery. Despite the differences, an undeclared partnership existed between the president and slaves that led to both preservation of the Union and freedom for those in bondage. Medford chronicles Lincoln’s transition from advocating gradual abolition to campaigning for immediate emancipation for the majority of the enslaved, a change effected by the military and by the efforts of African Americans. The author argues that many players—including the abolitionists and Radical Republicans, War Democrats, and black men and women—participated in the drama through agitation, military support of the Union, and destruction of the institution from within. Medford also addresses differences in the interpretation of freedom: Lincoln and most Americans defined it as the destruction of slavery, but African Americans understood the term to involve equality and full inclusion into American society. An epilogue considers Lincoln’s death, African American efforts to honor him, and the president’s legacy at home and abroad.
Both enslaved and free black people, Medford demonstrates, were fervent participants in the emancipation effort, showing an eagerness to get on with the business of freedom long before the president or the North did. By including African American voices in the emancipation narrative, this insightful volume offers a fresh and welcome perspective on Lincoln’s America.
Edna Greene Medford is a professor of history and the department chair at Howard University. She is a coauthor, with Frank J. Williams and Harold Holzer, of The Emancipation Proclamation: Three Views. She served as director for History of New York’s African Burial Ground Project and edited Historical Perspectives of the African Burial Ground: New York Blacks and the Diaspora.
“Edna Greene Medford’s new volume achieves a nearly impossible feat: a graceful and elegant synthesis of some of the best new scholarship on Lincoln’s road to emancipation, a compact chronological outline of the political and policy shift highlights during the Civil War, and a narrative enriched with contemporary black voices and African American agency. Her solid and engaging study will prove invaluable to scholars and students alike, as this accessible and authoritative volume fills an important gap.”—Catherine Clinton
, Denman Chair of American History, University of Texas at San Antonio
“Medford presents in this brief volume an understanding of the complexity of emancipation during the Civil War by approaching it from the bottom up rather than the top down, giving African Americans their proper place in the struggle. Neither strident nor patronizing but with judiciousness, Medford brings all the players and factors into this controversial, yet essential, act in an illuminating way. This is a must read for all who are interested in freedom.”—Frank J. Williams
, founding chair of the Lincoln Forum
“Medford’s riveting account of emancipation does justice to the role of President Abraham Lincoln in the freeing of the slaves and to the role of African Americans in their self-emancipation. Her research is thorough, her prose flowing, and her insights cogent. Medford has created a masterpiece in brief that students of Civil War and African American history must read.”—John F. Marszalek
, executive director of the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library at Mississippi State University
“Today’s reassessment of ‘the central act’ of Lincoln’s administration requires sound, thoughtful analysis, and Medford delivers. Prudently she separates myth from reality. Medford broadens emancipation history to embrace many active participants, including the impatient and fervent African Americans who agitated for freedom even before the United States of America was born. Comprehensively researched and wonderfully readable, this book strikes a fine balance between the traditional narrative of Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation and the essential role of others. Just as emancipation ushered in an expectation of equality and fairness, today’s general and diverse audience will appreciate that this work has something important to say about the construction of America’s new birth of freedom.”—Orville Vernon Burton, author of The Age of Lincoln