The problem is less Kaplan’s depiction of Lincoln than his view of Adams. Both were antislavery politicians, but he considers Adams an 'antislavery activist' as well—something that, by Kaplan’s own definition, does not hold ... But the central problem is this: Adams’s political positions on slavery and race were far more similar to Lincoln’s than they were different ... His eagerness to highlight Lincoln’s failure to embrace racial equality forces him to downplay the Emancipation Proclamation’s true significance ... Kaplan has found an important subject for a book, but he has misidentified the abolitionists. Had he focused more on genuine antislavery activists and less on politicians, he might have arrived at a different conclusion.
Anyone who wants to understand the United States’ racial divisions will learn a lot from reading Kaplan’s richly researched account of one of the worst periods in American history and its chilling effects today in our cities, legislative bodies, schools and houses of worship ... Kaplan’s prose could be improved by sharper editing, since he repeats himself. Yet his central point is strong — that the divisions that defined the national debate over slavery, abolition and the U.S. Constitution continue today and will long into the future.
Kaplan is at his best with his brief portraits of a diverse cast of characters...These vignettes succeed in highlighting the wide array of responses to the slavery issue in Lincoln’s America. However, Lincoln and the Abolitionists never quite gels. As the bifurcated title and subtitle suggest, it lacks a clear focus. In addition, there are numerous historical errors, some trivial, but many egregious ... as a full portrait of Lincoln’s views on slavery and race, the account is, to say the least, one-dimensional ... When it comes to the fraught question of Lincoln’s views on race, Kaplan again oversimplifies a complex situation ... Kaplan, in other words, employs racism as a deus ex machina — something that exists outside of history but that can be invoked as the ultimate explanation for historical events. Yet if racism is constant and immutable, how did millions of Northerners come to embrace emancipation and the laws and constitutional amendments of Reconstruction? A better approach is to see racism as part of history. Racism, like anything else, rises and falls over time. And sometimes people change.