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At the White House, President and Mrs. Abraham Lincoln welcomed the new year by hosting the customary holiday reception. For hours, they greeted visitors by the hundreds—"gorgeous dignitaries," military officers, and "diplomats in gold lace," according to one local newspaper—just as presidents and first ladies had done for years in peace and war alike. But this was to be no ordinary New Year's Day at the White House. Today, history would be made.
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In this essay I analyze the debate over Abraham Lincoln's role in the emancipation of African American slaves. Speaking both to contemporary public memory and the evidence of history, I contend that when Lincoln discussed or wrote about emancipation between 1860 and 1863, his rhetoric exhibited a dialogic form that shifted responsibility from the president to congressional leaders and common citizens. I conclude that Lincoln's dialogic rhetoric does not signal his opposition to emancipation but rather his deep belief that emancipation would become meaningful only after the considered deliberation and action of the American people.
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On this New Year's afternoon, Abraham Lincoln took pen in hand, dipped it in ink, and then, unexpectedly, paused and put the pen down. To his surprise, and to the surprise of all the witnesses looking on, Lincoln’s hand was trembling. It was not, the President later insisted, "because of any uncertainty or hesitation on my part." As he put it at that decisive moment: "I never in my life felt more certain that I am doing right than I do in signing this paper." But greeting so many New Year's guests downstairs had taken a toll. "I have been shaking hands since 9 o'clock this morning, and my hand is almost paralyzed," Lincoln explained. And he did not want his signature to look hasty. "If my name ever goes into history it will be for this act," he told the people gathered in the room, "and my whole soul is in it. If my hand trembles when I sign the proclamation, all who examine the document hereafter will say, 'He hesitated.'"