- Lincoln Emancipated: The President And the Politics of Race
- Northern Illinois University Press, 189 pp.
Lincoln and the Greatest Question of All
Sixteen thousand books, it is said, have been written about Abraham Lincoln, a greater number than books about any other figure in history except Jesus Christ and Napoleon Bonaparte. Is that perhaps an exaggerated figure? The Library of Congress catalog lists just 2045 books on Lincoln, including those for children, although–with due respects to that noble institution–its collection may conceivably lack a few books that have been published in Georgian or Swahili. In any case, even the average good reader has read enough about our Republic’s great President to want to know what a new Lincoln book offers.
The work reviewed here, edited by Professor Brian Dirck of Anderson University in Indiana, provides thoughtful essays by seven academic specialists on Lincoln and his times, who go deeply into Lincoln and his views on slavery and on race. What his views were on race, in particular, may be difficult to discern, but we need to make the attempt if we are to understand what the Civil War was all about. This book will help us; it will also leave us with unanswered questions.
There is no question but that Lincoln believed strongly that slavery was an evil–and a key evil. In March 1860, a year before the Civil War began, Lincoln told an audience in New Haven that “whether we will or not, the question of Slavery is the question, the all absorbing topic of the day.” That was when many, perhaps most, Americans still thought civil war might be avoided. In August 1862, when the war was in its second year, Lincoln wrote Horace Greeley an often-quoted letter stressing that his main intent was to save the Union, and that if he could accomplish that by freeing all the slaves he would–but if he could accomplish it by freeing no slaves, or only some slaves, he would also do that. Indeed, his Emancipation Proclamation of January 1863 freed only the slaves in rebel states, and it was only later that slavery ended in the border states that had remained in the Union; the 40,000 slaves in Kentucky were only freed by the 13th amendment to the Constitution, in 1865.
Even at the end of Lincoln’s life, in a speech on Reconstruction three days before he was shot in April 1865, he was hesitant about how far voting rights should be extended to ex-slaves. Discussing the new state government planned for Louisiana, he noted that some were concerned “…that the elective franchise is not given to the colored man. I would myself prefer that it were now conferred on the very intelligent, and on those who serve our cause as soldiers….” Professor James N. Leiker, in his essay in the book under review, says of this that “Lincoln never favored radical tendencies to expand black suffrage without constitutional mandate.” Does that mean that if Lincoln had lived long enough to see the 15th Amendment, forbidding the denial of the right to vote on account of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” he would have supported the amendment and ensured its enforcement? We cannot be sure.
Allen Guelzo, professor at Gettysburg College, has unfortunately in his Foreword to the book somewhat muddied the waters. As Guelzo correctly notes, in many quarters today Lincoln is condemned as a racist. He goes on to say that “if the test of racism is racial hatred, Lincoln passes it with high marks and is not a racist. If the test is a belief in the racial inferiority of others, Lincoln passes the test personally….” This reviewer protests that it is highly inaccurate to say that Lincoln personally did not believe blacks innately inferior to whites. To the contrary, in one of his famous 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas, he said (at Charleston, Illinois) that “there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will for ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.” Did he change his views later? Perhaps, somewhat, as we shall see.
Guelzo goes on to quote Frederick Douglass’s 1876 speech in which he said that Lincoln had “shared the prejudices common to his countrymen toward the colored race.” Ah, says Guelzo, but one must also recall that Douglass said Lincoln “seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent.” The key word, says Guelzo, is seemed; “What Lincoln seemed to be, in contrast to what he was, was very much in the eye of the beholder….”
Indeed, Professor Guelzo, we must see Lincoln for what he was. We must see that in October 1854, when he was not a raw young lawyer but a seasoned, middle-aged former Congressman, Lincoln asked what could be done to get rid of slavery in America. His first impulse, he said, would be to free the slaves and send them to Liberia; but that was not feasible. Nor could they be freed, only to keep them as underlings. “What next? Free them, and make them politically and socially, our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not.”
Donn Piatt, who campaigned for Lincoln in 1860 and whom Lincoln briefly considered for a Cabinet seat–and whom Lincoln almost threw out of the Union army in 1863 for trying to recruit only slaves for new black regiments in Maryland–wrote in his Memories of the Men Who Saved the Union that Lincoln was the grandest figure in American history. Piatt added, however, that Lincoln had also been a man who, while disliking slavery, was descended from poor whites of a slave state and who inherited “the contempt, if not the hatred, held by that class for the negro.”
Leiker says in his essay that Lincoln’s was “a racism born of ignorance,” that in his boyhood and youth on what was then the northwestern frontier, he lived where there were few blacks. (That was true even later. Looking at the Illinois census, one finds that in 1850 only 0.6% of the state’s population was black–and in 1860, only 0.4%.) But prejudice against persons of another color may not depend on numbers. The reviewer recalls how surprised he was in 1960s Moscow to find how many Russians were strongly prejudiced against blacks, although almost the only blacks in the USSR were a few thousand students from Africa.
What is heartening is that, as Professor Michael Vorenberg stresses in his essay, Lincoln’s thinking about race did evolve, especially during the war. Before Lincoln entered the White House he had, Vorenberg says, probably been skeptical of African Americans’ desire for education, but later he could see, above all through his acquaintance with Frederick Douglass, “just how self-motivated African Americans could be in acquiring education.” He must also have seen, though Vorenberg does not mention this, that there were a number of successful African American businessmen in Washington, and a few blacks who became not just Union soldiers but officers.
The essay by Professor Philip Paludan focuses on Lincoln’s long support for “colonization”–the idea that the racial problem in America could be settled by moving American blacks back to Africa, and/or to Latin America. The idea of colonization was an old one. In Virginia, for example, as others including this reviewer have brought out elsewhere, there was considerable support in the early 1800s for ending slavery–if it could be coupled with colonization. The idea of colonization had been supported not only by Thomas Jefferson, as Professor Kevin Gutzman brings out in his essay, but by Presidents James Madison and James Monroe, among others.
As for Lincoln, he had backed colonization as early as 1852, in a eulogy of Henry Clay noting that Clay had been a strong supporter of the idea. “Every succeeding year,” said Lincoln, “Has added strength to the hope of its realization. May it indeed be realized!” Some thousands of African Americans moved to Liberia but, as the essays in this volume bring out, Lincoln as President realized that colonization of four million black Americans was impossible. Besides, the efforts of black Americans–some 200,000 of whom served in the Union army–began to make an impression on this President. Nevertheless, during the war he supported two colonization projects that proved unsuccessful, one aimed at the Chiriqui region of what was then Colombia’s Panama province (not, Dr. Paludan, “Chirique” or Nicaragua) and the other at the Ile de Vache in Haiti.
In 1872 Lincoln’s old partner and comrade, Ward Hill Lamon, published a biography of the President that was savagely attacked for bringing out some of Lincoln’s imperfections. Indeed, as Lamon said, the deification of the martyred President began soon after his death. Nor has it ended. Today, although one can find recent works clearly intended to belittle Lincoln, most new studies are laudatory although, as Professor Dirck says, “Lincoln’s modern admirers are generally not mindless hagiographers.” The volume he has edited in no way amounts to hagiography. It is a useful addition to Lincolniana. It does not resolve all the questions about Lincoln and race. No work could.