Lexington, Virginia • February 11, 2009
A PRAGMATIC AND HONEST ABE GOT THE JOB DONE
This year we begin the 200th commemoration of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, which occurs almost on the eve of the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Civil War. Lincoln has been controversial for more than 144 years. This will not change on the occasion of his birthday.
There have already been a few startling news reports about neo-Confederate opposition to celebrating Lincoln's birthday in Virginia. These detractors provide a necessary service: They work diligently to prevent the deification of Abraham Lincoln, and that is a good thing. No historical figure should be mythologized or deified, and that includes Robert E. Lee. The task of good history is to examine past leaders with a critical eye and acknowledge both their merits and flaws.
Abraham Lincoln was a successful president and a great leader worthy of national commemoration, but like all mortals, he was far from perfect. We commemorate his birthday because he accomplished two noteworthy goals: the preservation of the Union and emancipation of the slaves, or at least some of the slaves. These were no easy feats given the enormous opposition he faced.
On the eve of the Civil War, some 4 million slaves lived in the South, and were valued at $3.5 billion in 1860 dollars, or about $69 billion in 2009 currency. Where cash crops were most lucrative, enslaved people often represented about 70 percent of the population. Slaves were a vital part of the southern economy.
Lincoln understood the white South's enormous financial and philosophical investment in slavery. He had Southern roots and had never been an abolitionist, but he clearly recognized that slavery was wrong, and that he could not allow it to expand. Lincoln's contempt for slavery was neither radical nor unusual among political thinkers of the early republic. His opposition to the expansion of slavery did not necessarily mean that he favored racial equality. In an 1858 speech at Charleston, Ill., Lincoln argued:
"I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races; that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will for ever forbid the two races from living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race."
The context of these remarks is important. Lincoln was engaged in an intense senatorial campaign battle against Stephen Douglas who was the incumbent. Some historians dismiss Lincoln's statements as the stuff of a political campaign. To have said anything else, they argue, would have resulted in his defeat. Nonetheless, he lost the election. By dismissing these remarks as merely rhetoric, historians imply that Lincoln was disingenuous--a political chameleon. But instead of dismissing Lincoln's words we should accept them for what they are--his views at that particular time.
In 1922, the black historian and sociologist William Edward Burghardt DuBois reflected on Lincoln's 1858 speech and expressed his hatred for those words while praising Lincoln, the self-made man who would rise above his humble roots and thoughts to become a truly great man. DuBois wrote: "I revere [Lincoln] the more because up out of his contradictions and inconsistencies he fought his way to the pinnacles of earth. I care more for Lincoln's great toe than for the whole body of the perfect George Washington, of spotless ancestry, who never told a lie. "
Lincoln's words were unfortunate, but they should not condemn him. History has redeemed lesser men for greater sins. Whether Lincoln held white supremacist views is unimportant because his Emancipation Proclamation opened the possibility for black equality in the American experience. And, his critics would have us forget that the Confederate Constitution enshrined slavery as a permanent institution, aiming to create a nation where black skin and slavery would forever be synonymous.
Perhaps the most reliable critic of Abraham Lincoln's racial views is Frederick Douglass. Douglass had met with him on several occasions. He recalled his initial 1863 meeting with Lincoln and noted that Lincoln greeted him as "Mr. Douglass." During the course of that first conversation, Lincoln's secretary twice announced the arrival of the governor of Connecticut, to which the president responded: "Tell Gov. Buckingham to wait, for I want to have a long talk with my friend Frederick Douglass."
Speaking in 1874 at the Freedmen's Monument in Memory of Abraham Lincoln, Douglass acknowledged that preservation of the Union was more important to Lincoln than emancipation. He noted that Lincoln was president to white men, and "we are at best only his step-children; children by adoption, children by forces of circumstances and necessity." Douglass asserted that "though the Union [meant] more to him than our freedom or our future, under his wise and beneficent rule we saw ourselves lifted from the depths of slavery to the heights of liberty and manhood. "
Once freed from shackles of slavery, African-Americans could engage in the struggle to achieve life, liberty, and property, in spite of the constraints of inequality.
Lincoln's modern-day detractors may criticize his actions, but surely they agree that preservation of the Union and emancipation of slaves were great achievements. Lincoln did not live to preside over the opening years of Reconstruction, and we can only wonder if his noble words--"with malice toward none; with charity for all"--would have provided better guidance for the nation than his successor.
As with many great men, Lincoln seems to be a work in progress. As the nation celebrates his 200th birthday, Americans should read and reflect on his life and on his significant contributions. No, he was not a saint, but he was truly a great leader.
Theodore Carter DeLaney teaches American history at Washington and Lee University. His specialty is the American South. His current research focuses on public school desegregation in western Virginia. This piece appeared in the Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star on Feb. 8, 2009.