What the American Revolution began, the Civil War completed: Allen Guelzo on the Emancipation Proclamation

Paul Huard (left) and Allen Guelzo (right). I regret the stupid grin on my face, but Dr. Guelzo had just cracked a typically clever joke.

In 2010, I was fortunate to study for a week under the direction of Allen Guelzo, professor of history and director of the Civil War Era Studies Program at Gettysburg College. The summer institute was the result of the generosity of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, an organization I have only half-jokingly described as treating historians and teachers of U.S. history like rock stars. The seminar on Abraham Lincoln was easily one of the best scholarly experiences I had in recent years and it was a pleasure to finally meet the man whose works (such as Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America) are among the most insightful tomes on Mr. Lincoln and the U.S. Civil War. Recently, the Wall Street Journal published an article by Dr. Guelzo about the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Now that the piece is no longer subscriber-only content, I can share the essay. Though brief, it captures what Lincoln thought was at the heart of the U.S. Civil War. “The American republic was an ‘experiment’ to see if ordinary people, living as equals before the laws and without any aristocratic grades or ranks in society, really were capable of governing themselves,” Guelzo writes. Emancipation, he says, was Lincoln’s “central act” of the presidents administration and “certainly there has been no presidential document before or since with quite its impact.” I consider that assessment a concise expression of a reason why Lincoln is often considered the man whose Romantic sense of nationalism and liberty finally added the “complete” understanding to the Declaration of Independence that was already there for all to see. But it took the deadliest war in American history to complete what Jefferson and the Patriot cause began.

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Filed under Commentary, History of the Declaration of Independence, Scholarship and Historians

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