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Lincoln's Dilemma

Blair, Sumner, and the Republican Struggle over Racism and Equality in the Civil War Era
Paul D. Escott

BUY Cloth · 288 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813936192 · $29.95 · Aug 2014
BUY Ebook · 288 pp. · ISBN 9780813936208 · $29.95 · Aug 2014
BUY Paper · 288 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813939834 · $19.95 · Mar 2017

The Civil War forced America finally to confront the contradiction between its founding values and human slavery. At the center of this historic confrontation was Abraham Lincoln. By the time this Illinois politician had risen to the office of president, the dilemma of slavery had expanded to the question of all African Americans’ future. In this fascinating new book Paul Escott considers the evolution of the president’s thoughts on race in relation to three other, powerful--and often conflicting--voices.

Lincoln’s fellow Republicans Charles Sumner and Montgomery Blair played crucial roles in the shaping of their party. While both Sumner and Blair were opposed to slavery, their motivations reflected profoundly different approaches to the issue. Blair’s antislavery stance stemmed from a racist dedication to remove African Americans from the country altogether. Sumner, in contrast, opposed slavery as a crusader for racial equality and a passionate abolitionist. Lincoln maintained close personal relationships with both men as he wrestled with the slavery question. In addition to these antislavery voices, Escott also weaves into his narrative the other extreme, of which Lincoln was politically aware: the virulent racism and hierarchical values that motivated not only the Confederates but surprisingly many Northerners and which were embodied by the president’s eventual assassin, John Wilkes Booth.

Sumner, Blair, and violent racists like Booth each represent forces with which Lincoln had to contend as he presided over a brutal civil war and faced the issues of slavery and equality lying at its root. Other books and films have provided glimpses of the atmosphere in which the president created his Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln’s Dilemma evokes more fully and brings to life the men Lincoln worked with, and against, as he moved racial equality forward.

A Nation Divided: Studies in the Civil War Era


This really is a new perspective on the period and on the men. Lincoln, among his other attributes, was a consummate politician, which this book demonstrates. Many Americans saw that attribute in the film Lincoln, but it’s clear that the president exercised his leadership abilities long before the debate over the Thirteenth Amendment.

David Goldfield, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, author of America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation

Paul D. Escott has written about an important topic that Americans prefer not to acknowledge or address. His careful research and new analysis will prompt both scholars and general readers to rethink their understanding of Abraham Lincoln and American race relations.

Gordon McKinney, Berea College, author of Henry W. Blair's Campaign to Reform America: From the Civil War to the U.S. Senate

Among white northerners generally, far more opposed emancipation, even at war’s end, than supported black equality. Paul Escott places Lincoln squarely in that world, shows how he moved along the spectrum of racial views, and how he struggled, inside and out, at every step along the way. This book, together with his previous work, establishes Escott as this generation’s leading scholar on Lincoln and the problem of racism in Civil War America.

H. David Williams, Valdosta State University, author of I Freed Myself: African American Self-Emancipation in the Civil War Era

Usually politicians 'evolve' in a change of tactics, not of heart. In Lincoln's Dilemma Escott paints subtle portraits of the evolution in three men's hearts on the great question of their age (and ours)--that of race and racism. The result is a magnificent taxonomy of the nineteenth-century white racial mind

Stephen Berry, University of Georgia, author of House of Abraham: Lincoln and the Todds, a Family Divided by War

Escott has numerous publications on the Civil War era (e.g., The Confederacy, CH, Nov'10, 48-1661), and it shows in this book. The research is thorough, the text is meticulously organized and presented, and the conclusions are reasoned and sound.

S. J. Ramold, Eastern Michigan University, Choice

In this lively political history, Paul Escott utilizes the philosophical tension between twoimportant branches of the Republican coalition to explain Lincoln’s progressiontoward emancipation and his sometimes conflicted vision of race in a postwar society.... The result is a compelling political narrative.

North Carolina Historical Review

"Escott’s well-reasoned book is a worthy addition to the sizable literature on Lincoln and race. Drawing on mostly synthetic research, he provides a valuable context for and somewhat original take on our greatest president’s evolving racial views and policies. It is yet another fine book by a superb historian."

Michael Thomas Smith, McNeese State Univeristy · The Journal of Southern History

About the Author(s): 

Paul D. Escott is Reynolds Professor of History at Wake Forest University and the author of Slavery Remembered: A Record of Twentieth-Century Slave Narratives, winner of the Mayflower Cup, and "What Shall We Do with the Negro?": Lincoln, White Racism, and Civil War America (Virginia).

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