Abraham Lincoln has been called the greatest American president. He would have been 200 years old today. A lot has been written about Lincoln and his relevance in America’s racial history vis a vis slavery. The underlying them in many of these articles, is that Lincoln is still revered as a great leader, but that he was still coming to terms with racism and the plight of the black people. Did he sign the Emancipation Proclamation for moral reasons? or for economic and political ones? And why is it relevant today, to redefine him?
Last night PBS ran a documentary on Looking for Lincoln. I haven’t watched it, but here’s a link with reviews and interviews; and a quiz on Lincoln myths.
I have compiled below clippings from different articles that ran today on Abraham Lincoln.In a great essay titled “Was Lincoln a Racist“, Henry Louis Gates Jr., writes about the complexities of who Lincoln was; basically a man of his times, who over his presidency learned about black people.
On Dubois and Lincoln he says,
W.E.B. Du Bois had published in The Crisis magazine in May 1922. Du Bois wrote that Lincoln was one huge jumble of contradictions: “he was big enough to be inconsistent—cruel, merciful; peace-loving, a fighter; despising Negroes and letting them fight and vote; protecting slavery and freeing slaves. He was a man—a big, inconsistent, brave man.”
So many hurt and angry readers flooded Du Bois’ mailbox that he wrote a second essay in the next issue of the magazine, in which he defended his position this way: “I love him not because he was perfect but because he was not and yet triumphed. ….”
In a discussion with readers on Washington Post, Dr. Gates addresses among other things the importance of treating national heroes as human. And was Lincoln a recovering racist?
If a man used the N word, liked blackface minstrel shows, loved telling darky jokes, referred to at least one black man as “boy,” and called Sojourner Truth “auntie,” how would you describe him? If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. However, this was the early Lincoln, He changed under the pressures of the presidency and he grew in terms of race relations, eventually beginning to embrace the idea that some — only 200,000 out of 2.2 million — black men should be allowed to vote, in the final speech that he delivered, 3 days before he was assassinated. In fact it was this very speech, overheard by John Wilkes Booth, which led to Booth’s decision to assassinate him. But Lincoln was a “recovering racist,” making his commitment to abolish slavery and his enormous affection for and loyalty to his “black warriors,” as he called them, even more impressive.
Two factors, according to Gates changed Lincoln’s attitude towards race. First, was that he needed black soldiers to win the Civil War. Second was his interaction with Fredrick Douglass, who Lincoln regarded as an intellectual equal.
President Obama has many times referenced Lincoln. Gates says:
Lincoln and Obama share a desire to transcend partisan politics. They both also share a genius for what I call improvisatory pragmatism.
Finally, Dr. Gates says ” I believe that learning how human our heroes actually were is the beginning of wisdom.”
MPR’s Bob Collins makes the local Lincoln connection: the Mankato hangings of 1862 “the largest mass execution in the history of the United States took place under orders of Abraham Lincoln.”
The Salon’s Michael Lind attempts to figure out how Lincoln would vote today. He finds that Lincoln, a Republican in his time, would likely vote on the left.
What about immigration? While Lincoln did not question the white-only immigration policy of his time, he did reject the anti-Catholic, anti-European nativism of many of his fellow Whigs: “I am not a Know-Nothing,” he wrote his former law partner Joshua Speed in 1855. “As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.'” Someone with Lincoln’s basic values might be concerned that ill-devised immigration policies could reduce wages for some citizens; that, after all, was one of the arguments of the Lincoln Republicans against the expansion of slavery. But Lincoln’s dismissal of prejudice against Irish and German Catholics naturally leads to dismissal of all arguments about immigration based in bigotry.
On the economy (read protectionist);
That was the only way, Lincoln knew, to repair the rifts that had torn this country apart. It was the only way to begin the healing that our nation so desperately needed. For what Lincoln never forgot, not even in the midst of civil war, was that despite all that divided us — north and south, black and white — we were, at heart, one nation and one people, sharing a bond as Americans that could not break.