Did Lincoln Own Slaves?
On April 14, 1876, on the eleventh anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, Frederick Douglass eulogized the sixteenth president at the dedication of the Freedmen’s Memorial in Washington, D.C. Claiming there was little need to speak at length about Lincoln’s life because that “ground has been fully occupied and completely covered,” Douglass went on to say,The whole field of fact and fancy has been gleaned and garnered. Any man can say things that are true of Abraham Lincoln, but no man can say anything that is new of Abraham Lincoln. His personal traits and public acts are better known to the American people than are those of any other man of his age. He was a mystery to no man who saw him and heard him.
Douglass was certainly correct in saying that Lincoln was better known to most Americans than any other person of his time. Was he, however, correct in arguing that nothing new remained to be said of the man? That is almost certainly not the case if Gerald R. Prokopowicz’s Did Lincoln Own Slaves? And Other Frequently Asked Questions About Abraham Lincoln is an accurate reflection of the state of Lincoln studies.
The most frequently asked question about Abraham Lincoln may not be whether he owned slaves but whether the world really needs yet another book about him. Exact figures are impossible to find, but it is clear that more has been written about the sixteenth president of the United States than about any other Americanor almost anyone else, for that matter. Despite Douglass’s skepticism about the possibility of saying anything new on the subject, more than fifteen thousand books have been published about Lincoln since his assassination in 1865. That number averages to more than one hundred entirely new Lincoln books a year, and that rate was certainly increasing during the bicentennial year of Lincoln’s 1809 birth. An Amazon.com search of books about Lincoln published during 2008the year before the bicentennialyielded 427 new titles, a figure more than double the combined totals for new books that year about Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush.
At a conservative estimate, fifteen thousand Lincoln books must contain at least three million pages, with more than one billion words. Such staggering numbers again beg the question: With so much already published about Lincoln, what can possibly remain to be learned about the man that is not already known? What questions about him can there be that have not already been answered?
In his brief introduction to Did Lincoln Own Slaves?, Prokopowicz addresses these issues immediately. He begins by citing a remark attributed to the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy: “Historians are like deaf people who go on answering questions no one has asked them.” After pointing out that professional historians have a duty to ask innovative questions that others may have not yet posed, he steps back to consider, “But who are we to say that whatever questions the public may already be asking about history are not the ’right’ ones?” Similar questions might be asked of all scholarly fields in the arts and social sciences. After all, whom should scholarship serve?
Prokopowicz answers that question implicitly by explaining that the purpose of his book is to answer questions about Lincoln that are asked by members of the public, not by scholars. In this, he succeeds brilliantly. Always fascinating and often witty, his book is such a pleasure to read that one wonders why its question-and-answer format is not used more frequently by scholars. Moreover, subject matter has a great deal to do with the book’s strengths. It should be safe to say few questions are frequently asked about Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, or James Buchanan, Lincoln’s immediate predecessors in the presidency. Lincoln stands out because he succeeded in the face of the most difficult challenges faced by any president in U.S. history. In addition, as Prokopowicz’s book demonstrates repeatedly, Lincoln was also an endlessly fascinating human who continues to be full of surprises. There are reasons that thousands of books have been written about him.
Although Prokopowicz is himself a distinguished scholar, he is also peculiarly well placed to know what questions members of the public actually ask about Abraham Lincoln. For nine years, he was resident historian at the Lincoln Museum in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where he talked with visitors on an almost daily basis. The words “frequently asked” in his book’s title are clearly more than mere hyperbole. At the same time, those words might be read as a warning flag. Readers approaching a book titled Did Lincoln Own Slaves? And Other Frequently Asked Questions About Abraham Lincoln might expect it to be a collection of trivia. The book however, is anything but that. In roughly 250 pages of its main text, it poses more than 325 questions that are arranged in roughly the same chronological sequence as...
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