Wednesday, November 16, 2005

On Lincoln

Without a doubt, Abraham Lincoln is my favorite President. I revere Lincoln because he was a moral man who loved freedom—he believed that if we allow the freedom of others to be denigrated we open the door to it happening to us:

“Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves, and, under a just God cannot long retain it.” –Abraham Lincoln

And yet, I occasionally come across someone who suggests that Lincoln was in reality a closet racist, and as supposed proof of that offers carefully cherry-picked quotes of his.

It’s true that Lincoln made some comments that he felt it was better that white men be in a position of supremacy:

“I as well as Judge Douglas am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position. I have never said anything to the contrary, but I hold that nonwithstanding all there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the declaration of Independence, -the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man.” –Abraham Lincoln, debating Judge Stephen A. Douglas in 1858.

You’ll note that he clearly articulates a belief that blacks are entitled to all the natural rights that previously had been reserved for the whites.

It has also been suggested that he was a segregationist, or that he wished to send the slaves back to Africa:

““I have said that the separation of the races is the only perfect preventative of amalgamation. I have no right to say all the members of the Republican party are in favor of this, nor to say that as a party they are in favor of it. There is nothing in their platform directly on the subject. But I can say a very large proportion of its members are for it, and that the chief plank in their platform — opposition to the spread of slavery — is most favorable to that separation.

Such separation, if ever effected at all, must be effected by colonization; and no political party, as such, is now doing anything directly for colonization. Party operations at present only favor or retard colonization incidentally. The enterprise is a difficult one, but ‘when there is a will there is a way;’ and what colonization needs most is a hearty will. Will springs from the two elements of moral sense and self-interest. Let us be brought to believe it is morally right, and, at the same time, favorable to, or, at least, not against, our interest, to transfer the African to his native clime, and we shall find a way to do it, however great the task may be. The children of Israel, to such numbers as to include four hundred thousand fighting men, went out of Egyptian bondage in a body.” –Abraham Lincoln, Speech on the Dred Scott decision, June 26th, 1857

A reading of the Dred Scott speech doesn’t truly tell one that sending the blacks to Africa was his preferred solution; he simply stated that it was the only ‘perfect’ way to prevent a mixing of the races, an issue that was of general concern to significant segments of the population. After all, Lincoln was a lawyer and a politician, and prone to arguing all manner of angles on an issue, for all manner of audiences.

It’s just as likely that the reasoning behind potentially sending the slaves back to Africa was that since they were stolen from there—ergo they should desire to go back there. It wasn’t an absurd notion, and Lincoln certainly can be forgiven for thinking that was what the slaves would have wanted; thus, it was ‘morally right…to transfer the African to his native clime’.

Sometimes, as proof of his alleged indifference to slavery, Lincoln’s statements that were given at a time when he was trying to lead the Union away from civil war are offered. It’s true that, early on, Lincoln hoped the issue could be settled by peaceful means and went to great pains to assure the south he wouldn’t tread on what they felt to be their “right”. Lincoln—and pretty much everyone else—could see a civil war coming, and desperately wanted to avoid it:

“Now I believe that if we could arrest the spread of slavery…it would be in the course of ultimate extinction. The crisis would be past…” -Abraham Lincoln, debating Judge Stephen A. Douglas in 1858.

Lincoln understood that the status quo could not be maintained:

“One section of our country believes slavery is right , and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong , and ought not to be extended…This, I think, cannot be perfectly cured; and it would be worse in both cases after the separation of the sections, than before. The foreign slave trade, now imperfectly suppressed, would be ultimately revived without restriction, in one section; while fugitive slaves, now only partially surrendered, would not be surrendered at all, by the other.” -Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address, March 4th, 1861.

As time went by, his stance hardened:

"If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forebear, I forebear because I do not believe it would save the Union.” –Abraham Lincoln,Letter to Horace Greely, August 22nd, 1862

His belief that slavery itself was a threat to union and a moral wrong was articulated on many different occasions, particularly the debates with Judge Douglas. For example, in a follow up to his ‘House Divided’ speech:

“I leave it to you to say whether in the history of our government this institution of slavery has not always failed to be a bond of union, and on the contrary has always been an apple of discord and an element of division in the house.” –Abraham Lincoln

A little more:

“When [Douglas] says he ‘cares not whether slavery is voted up or voted down’…he is, in my judgment, penetrating the human soul and eradicating the light of
reason and the love of liberty in this American people…” –Abraham incoln

Perhaps by today’s stringent standards it can be argued that Lincoln was racist, as were the great majority of people at that time. However, the cumulative evidence for Lincoln’s alleged Racism is actually quite thin—partial quotes taken out of context—when compared to the evidence that he was not. To even a casual student of history, malice toward blacks isn’t something one can easily ascribe to Lincoln. What can be safely said is that Lincoln believed that blacks were humans and endowed with the same right to freedom, at a time when that was not a very popular view:

“I cannot but hate slavery. I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself.” –Abraham Lincoln

Those are not the words of a man who was indifferent to the suffering of the slaves. While it may be true that even the best of abolitionists at the time of Lincoln were no racial egalitarians, it’s also true that racial attitudes have been evolutionary—you simply cannot apply today’s standards to historical figures.

For Lincoln, slavery was the gravest of threats to the future of America, and morally reprehensible. It is his staunch support for a moral stand in government, even in the face of unpopularity, his refusal to let representative democracy die, and his championing of basic human rights that still resounds today and should never be forgotten.


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