Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Book Review: Did Lincoln Own Slaves?

Did Lincoln Own Slaves?: And Other Frequently Asked Questions About Abraham Lincoln by Gerald J. Prokopowicz (Pantheon, 2008), hardcover, 352 pages

Today many websites have an FAQ section, where "frequently asked questions" are answered. Applying this concept to the life and legacy of Abraham Lincoln, historian Gerald J. Prokopowicz asks and answers countless questions about the sixteenth president, including the gem mentioned in the title. Prokopowicz, chair of the history department at East Carolina University, is well-suited to the task, having served for nine years at the (now closed) Lincoln Museum in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where he likely heard most of these questions too many times to count.

In roughly chronological order, Prokopowicz proposes and answers questions touching key aspects of Lincoln's life, including his childhood, his adult life in Springfield, his presidency, the Gettysburg Address, and his assassination. The inquiries offer a wide perspective, responding as often to questions that might be asked by a curious child as to those from adults who have a more in-depth knowledge of history.

Prokopowicz is a pleasant authority, answering questions in a lively and engaging manner, frequently sharing a refreshing sense of humor. This writing style, along with an intelligent ordering of many questions, creates a surprising "page-turning" quality to the book, in spite of its basic Q & A approach. I expect that many will find the book to be an excellent read.

The years of study behind Prokopowicz's answers is evident as he shares knowledgeable, and often thorough, replies to the inquiries. Other Lincoln experts may argue that he comes down on the wrong side of some of the current debates in Lincoln scholarship -- I certainly disagreed with his assessments a time or two -- but cannot deny that he does a credible job explaining the contours of such controversies.

One such example is the book's title question -- did Lincoln own slaves? Rather than simply offering the basic answer, which is no, Prokopowicz uses it as a way to frame his consideration of modern doubts about portraying Lincoln as "The Great Emancipator, which is certainly one of the key current debates in the Lincoln world.

Long-time students of Lincoln are unlikely to learn much new in this book, though it does provide a handy reference to many of the common questions. Instead, this is a work intended to provide a helpful resource to the more casual student of Lincoln, who doesn't want to thumb through a biography -- and doesn't entirely trust an Internet search -- to answer basic questions about the sixteenth president.