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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

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BLOCK: Spool back in time 150 years to the summer of 1862, the Civil War is raging and President Abraham Lincoln is starting to scribble away at a document, an ultimatum to the rebellious states: Return to the Union, or your slaves will be freed.

Emancipation was a military necessity, the president later confided to his Cabinet. Lincoln called it absolutely essential to the preservation of the Union. We must free the slaves, Lincoln said, or be ourselves subdued.

HAROLD HOLZER: He knew that emancipation would start the tidal wave of freedom and that it was irreversible once it started, but he also knew that more work would be required.

BLOCK: That's Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer who offers a rethinking of the Emancipation Proclamation in his new book, titled "Emancipating Lincoln." It's his 42nd book on Lincoln and the Civil War.

To those revisionist critics who now say the proclamation was weak, delayed, insufficient and insincere, Holzer counters, not so. He says Lincoln very carefully calibrated the timing and delivery of this act.

HOLZER: He did things in this run-up that are perplexing, sometimes unattractive, sometimes scary, to prepare the country in his mind for what was going to be a revolutionary moment.

BLOCK: Remember, the country was at war. The stubborn culture of racism made a pro-freedom policy a perilous idea. Lincoln knew it could bring down his administration and the Union.

Holzer says Lincoln had to fear a virulent backlash from conservative northern Democrats opposed to racial equality. And he risked triggering secession from the border states, the slave-owning states that had not joined the Confederacy: Maryland, Delaware, Missouri, and above all, his birth state, the crucially strategic Kentucky.

HOLZER: Lincoln worried that he wanted to have God on his side, but he must have Kentucky.

BLOCK: So it was in that context in August of 1862 that Lincoln hosted at the White House a deputation of free Negroes, prominent African-Americans. His message to them: It was not you shall be free. No. It was this: It is better for us both to be separated.

HOLZER: And he blames them for the war. Says if, you know, if it wasn't for your presence here - as if it was voluntary in the beginning - this wouldn't be happening. Go where the ban is not upon you, he tells them. Go to the Caribbean, go to Africa. Yeah, they're cruel words. They're harsh words. They're unfriendly.

BLOCK: So how to understand this bitter pill of prejudice, as Holzer calls it? Well, he says, it's telling that President Lincoln had summoned newspaper reporters to that meeting.

HOLZER: He wanted this message out. And what's important to keep in mind is that he had written the Emancipation Proclamation. It was languishing in a drawer. It was - or burning a hole in his pocket. He knew he was going to do this, but he wanted Northern Americans who were dubious about marching toward racial equality to be assured that he was not doing this for the black race. He was doing this for the Union, to reunite the country, to defeat the rebellion, and he had no concern about blacks, their feelings, their residence. He does have his finger in the wind.

BLOCK: Holzer says Lincoln was trying to mold public opinion to make the proclamation palatable. And the president was waiting for the right moment - a Union victory on the battlefield - which finally came at Antietam. Within a week of that victory, Lincoln gave the rebellious states 100 days to obey this ultimatum.

HOLZER: Either return to your legal balance with the Union, end this rebellion, or your slaves will be then, henceforward, and forever free.

BLOCK: There was an immediate backlash. Lincoln's Republican Party was punished at the polls in the 1862 elections. Then on January 1, 1863, Lincoln was to issue the final decree at the White House.

HOLZER: It was New Year's Day and by tradition there was a party. And Lincoln went downstairs early and began receiving guests. And the afternoon comes and goes, and African-Americans are gathered in churches, telegraph operators are already keyed up to bring the glorious news to the church whenever it arrived, and nothing happens.

BLOCK: Why the delay? Well, as Harold Holzer tells it, Lincoln had found a mistake in the handwritten proclamation brought for his signature. The whole thing had to be redone. Back it went to the scribe. It took hours.

HOLZER: And then something fascinating happened. He picked up his pen and put it down. And then he picked it up again and put it down. And people in the room wondered, well, maybe he isn't going to issue it after all. Maybe he just can't bring himself to do it. And then he suddenly began rubbing his fingers with his other hand, rubbing his right hand with his left.

And he said, you know, I've been shaking hands for hours, and my hand is almost paralyzed. If I sign the proclamation in a quaking hand, even though my whole heart is in it, people will look at my signature in a hundred years and think, he hesitated. And he just continued to massage his hand. And then he picked up the pen and signed his full name, which he only did on official documents. And then he looked at the signature, Abraham Lincoln, and said very proudly, there, that will do.

BLOCK: Those words, that will do, just seem like such a paltry way of encapsulating what had just happened.

HOLZER: Well, he had said right before that, if my name ever goes into history, it will be for this act. He sensed immediately that he had become one of the immortals.

BLOCK: One misconception about the Emancipation Proclamation would be that once it's signed, boom, slaves are free - far from that.

HOLZER: Far from that.

BLOCK: Far, indeed. Some areas of the South that had already fallen under Union control were not covered by the proclamation. Also exempt were the four border states that owned slaves but had not seceded, so nearly half a million people remained enslaved there. And in the Confederate states, freedom came only as the Union soldiers advanced.

HOLZER: Soldiers were armed with these tiny reproductions of the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln had ordered hundreds of thousands of them printed. Suppose an officer gets to a plantation owner that might not understand what he had to sacrifice: Here it is. These guys are free. You've got to pay them or let them go. One or the other. And that's how it worked, mile by mile in Southern territory.

BLOCK: On the cover of Harold Holzer's book is an engraving that shows a scene from April 4, 1865. It's President Lincoln holding the hand of his young son Tad as he enters Richmond, Virginia, just two days after Confederate forces had fled their capital. Jubilant African-Americans tossed their hats in the air as they greet him.

HOLZER: They rushed over to him and cheered and knelt. And Lincoln famously said - and there were witnesses there - please don't kneel to me. You must kneel only to God and thank Him for your freedom. This was Lincoln's real emancipation moment. These black workers were actually, that moment, free under the terms of the proclamation. Here is the Emancipation Proclamation in action.

We know also that one particularly wizened old man who was working on the dock, was wearing a big straw hat, his reaction to Lincoln when he saw him was to doff his cap in a very grand way and bow to Lincoln. Lincoln took his cap off and tipped his hat to the black man. There were white women mostly - the man had fled - hiding behind curtains on the second floor of the homes surrounding the shoreline who were reported to have been looking on with horror at this simple but deeply moving and meaningful gesture.

This was Lincoln acknowledging, after all those years of struggle, with the end finally in sight, that this was going to be a different society, a society of mutual respect and not subjugation.

BLOCK: But that moment of quiet triumph was fleeting. Just 10 days later, President Lincoln was assassinated.

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BLOCK: Harold Holzer's book is "Emancipating Lincoln: The Proclamation in Text, Context and Memory." You can see the engraving from the book jacket and other images inspired by the Emancipation Proclamation at npr.org.

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