Emancipation Proclamation: Lincoln and the Dawn of Liberty

Jacket• History related title
• Age Range: Grades 6th-adult
• Author: Tonya Bolden
• Title: Emancipation Proclamation: Lincoln and the Dawn of Liberty
• Publisher: New York : Abrams
• 2013
• 120 pages.
• ISBN: 978- 1-4197-0390-4
• Awards: 2013 Orbis Pictus recommended book ~ Starred reviews: Kirkus, School Library Journal, Booklist, Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books.
• Author’s website: http://www.tonyaboldenbooks.com/

Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was a pivotal moment in history. Bolden unpacks the moment: revealing the complex interplay of events and personalities that shaped Lincoln’s thinking and strategy leading up to the proclamation that changed America forever.

This is a gorgeous book: lovingly and effectively designed. It is filled with well-reproduced large format historic prints, photographs and documents that draw the reader in. The abundance of period images, which include some remarkable political cartoons, help hold interest and allow readers to interact directly with primary sources: drawing their own conclusions and enriching the reading experience.

Bolden has done a remarkable job: reintroducing complexity and tension both to a moment in time that seems preordained and to a president we have made too saintly. The problem with simply accepting the Emancipation Proclamation is that we miss an opportunity to understand how hard won and how difficult and dangerous a decision it was. We make it dull by accepting it too easily. In assuming ‘of course Lincoln freed the slaves’ we miss both an opportunity to appreciate Lincoln’s human nature and to see how his thinking evolved and what he himself believed to be his highest duty. We rob ourselves of any real historical understanding and thus are ill equipped to understand the history being made in our own lifetimes.

Bolden provides context to understand the forces affecting the emancipation decision. We learn that in 1861 most escaped slaves were returned by Union forces to their Confederate owners. Primary sources, images and Bolden’s text, help us see how the Union moved from enforcing the 1850 Fugitive Slave law to, by 1862, passing the Confiscation Act that freed escaped and captured slaves and the Militia Act that allowed blacks to serve in the U.S. Army.

Readers are shown that the decision of states to secede or remain loyal wasn’t a binary choice. Crucial pro-union states like Maryland, which surrounds the Capital, and Kentucky and Missouri, which allow access to the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, were divided in their support of the Union. Marylanders rioted and killed Union troops passing through their state. Understanding the great range of opinion and what fears and hopes drove those beliefs affords readers a far more nuanced understanding and is much more interesting. We learn that, as feared by many political leaders, the Republicans were punished at the polls in the mid-term elections following the Emancipation Proclamation. Knowing how divided opinion was both in the North and South sets readers up to understand why the Emancipation Proclamation wasn’t the end of the struggle for civil rights. As Frederick Douglas so presciently noted in 1862, “the slave having ceased to be the abject slave of a single master, his enemies will endeavor to make him the slave of society at large.”

Along the way Bolden introduces us to remarkable characters, some like Frederick Douglass are well known but others, nearly as fascinating, have been overlooked by history. Seeing the range of opinion and concern, being introduced to multiple voices from the time, helps to take the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln and Civil War History out of the box we have put it in.

The only questionable element in Emancipation Proclamation is Bolden’s decision to tell parts 1 and 3 in the third person plural. She uses the personal ‘we’: speaking from the perspective of African Americans and abolitionists. While this approach does make the narrative more immediate and personal it occasionally confuses, as the reader puzzles who is actually included in the ‘we’.

In her epilogue Bolden asks big and challenging questions, which before reading her text might have seemed simple to answer. Addressing the reader in first person she briefly outlines her perspective on the Emancipation Proclamation and introduces the 13th amendment, abolishing slavery. A seven-page timeline from 1860-1865 highlights key events associated with the emancipation of slaves. A glossary defines key terms. Notes provide sources for quotes. There is a page and a half of selected sources. Unfortunately Bolden does not share her criteria for selection or annotate any of her sources. Her acknowledgements include thanks to two experts who she consulted. Helpfully image credits provide the provenance of the many remarkable images included in the text. An extensive and specific index helps readers find exactly the topic they seek.


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