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A Scholar Grapples with Lincoln’s Legacy in a Lecture at TJSL

February 20, 2013


TJSL’s Center for Law and Social Justice presented a fascinating lecture on February 14: “How a Railroad Lawyer Became the Great Emancipator.”

The emancipator, of course, was President Abraham Lincoln, and the presenter was Albany Law School Professor Paul Finkelman. He set out to answer such questions as: Who really freed the slaves? Did the Emancipation Proclamation have “all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading,” as one scholar claims?

“Professor Finkelman was a great speaker,” according to Lance Henry 3L, who attended the event, which was also a faculty colloquium. “He came across as a historian who is passionate about the subject of the Emancipation Proclamation. Mr. Finkelman gave some insight into the struggles Lincoln faced during the civil war as well as some critique. He compared many events to the current movie, Lincoln by Steven Spielberg. He gave Spielberg a ‘C’ for historical accuracy, but he commended Steven Spielberg on showing the brilliance of Lincoln.”

According to Henry, Professor Finkelman spoke about how Lincoln drew distinction between his personal beliefs and his powers under the presidency. Mr. Finkelman explained how Lincoln’s personal beliefs were deeply against slavery, but his deep understanding of the constitution allowed him to recognize he did not have the power under the presidency to abolish slavery. He then elaborated on how Lincoln obtained that power – working with Congress to pass the Thirteenth Amendment.

“The lecture was extremely informative,” said Henry, who says he enjoyed the event. “Mr. Finkelman gave a very detailed account of Lincoln’s strategy to win the war. A slight detour came during the question and answer session when a student asked Mr. Finkelman about an op-ed piece he wrote in the New York time where he characterized Thomas Jefferson as a bit of a monster and certainly not a person to have a school named after him. Mr. Finkelman responded to the question by stating how we as a society have a tendency to glorify individuals and forget about the negative aspects of their character. He then detailed some of the negative aspects by speaking about the number of slaves Thomas Jefferson owned, what little he did for slavery, and a particular cruel incident between Thomas Jefferson and a sale of a slave.”

“Paul Finkelman covered an impressive range of legal and historical ground in his presentation and made a compelling case for viewing Lincoln as the driving force for emancipation, as opposed to someone who had to be pushed to pursue the idea as some others have argued,” said Professor Alex Kreit, Director of TJSL’s Center for Law and Social Justice.”