Will the Real Abe Lincoln Please Stand Up? In the previous issue, Jonda C. McNair challenged Russell Freedman's assessment of AbrahamLincoln both in "An Interview with Russell Freedman" (November/December 2002 Horn Book) and in Freedman's Newbery-winning Lincoln: A Photobiography. (See "Letters to the Editor," March/April 2003 Horn Book or go to www.hbook.com/letters%5fmar03.shtml to read the letter online.) Here is Freedman's response:
Jonda McNair suggests that writing history is an exercise in selectivity. I agree. Deciding what to include and what to leave out requires difficult and complex choices that are not always transparent to the reader. However, the racist Lincoln described in McNair's letter is not the man I was writing about. As Lincoln himself said in a debate with Stephen A. Douglas, it is possible to demonstrate just about anything through a "fantastic arrangement of words, by which a man can prove a horse chestnut to be a chestnut horse."
Scholars and popular historians, mindful of the maxim that each generation should reassess the heroes of the past, have piled up a vast literature about Lincoln's life and thought--an outpouring of books, articles, and monographs that continues to yield enough fresh insights and interpretations to sustain a lively dialogue. Because history is not an exact science, it is fair to say that each new work offers a different picture of Lincoln, and that myth, preconceptions, and the mysteries of personality are obstacles in any attempt to understand him in the context of his time.
McNair asks: "Why should time change the scale of values?" Most historians writing today agree that cultures transform themselves, that values, standards, and beliefs do indeed change. Otherwise, there would be no history. That is why I took care to discuss Lincoln in proper context, to describe him, as much as possible, as he was when he lived, rather than attempting to judge him by the standards and perspectives of today. While sitting in judgment of the past, it is important to remember that one measure of a life's worth is the degree to which a person transcends the circumstances of the age into which she or he was born.
A generation ago, University of Illinois professor Robert W. Johannsen questioned whether all the scholarship produced over the years had managed to uncover the "real" Lincoln ("In Search of the RealLincoln, or Lincoln at the Crossroads," Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, v. 61, 1968). His doubts are supported today by the conflicting and contradictory assessments presented by any review of the literature.
Civil War historians from Allan Nevins to James M. McPherson and biographers such as Carl Sandburg, Benjamin P. Thomas, and Stephen B. Oates, for example, tend to support the tradition of Lincoln as the Great Emancipator. They emphasize Lincoln's evolving commitment to emancipation and to the civil rights of the freedmen. McPherson, in his epic history Battle Cry of Freedom (1980), develops the idea of the "Second American Revolution," arguing that the war effected a revolutionary change in southern society and placed the enhanced authority of the national government behind fundamental civil rights.
This is not to say that Lincoln put emancipation ahead of saving the Union. Clearly he did not. According to his oft-expressed personal testimony, he hated slavery from the depths of his being, but as president during the Civil War, he had a high official duty to the Union. His predicament, Hannah Arendt suggested, was like Machiavelli's when he declared, "I love my country more than my own soul."
Black scholars including Benjamin Quarles and John Hope Franklin, while admitting that Lincoln had once been ambivalent about Negro social and political rights, nevertheless admire the man and write sympathetically about his anguish as a wartime president. They point out that Lincoln had always hated slavery, that his views of blacks changed dramatically during the Civil War, and that his Emancipation Proclamation was, as Quarles wrote, "one of the most far-reaching pronouncements ever issued in the United States" (Lincoln and the Negro, 1962).
To Franklin, Lincoln is a flawed hero: "The fight for union that became also a fight for freedom never became a fight for equality or for the creation of one racial world" ("The Two Worlds of Race," in Race and History: Selected Essays, 1938-1988, 1989). A younger black historian, Armstead L. Robinson, argued that Lincoln practiced "an ideology of racial gradualism....[that] slow[ed] the pace of progress toward universal citizenship virtually to nil" (The Historian's Lincoln, Gabor S. Boritt and Norman O. Forness, eds., 1988).
Perhaps the most impassioned debunking of the Great Emancipator myth came from black historian Lerone Bennett Jr., in his popular 1968 Ebony article, "Was Abe Lincoln a White Supremacist?" Bennett describes Lincoln as "the very essence of the white supremacist with good intentions" who told offensive jokes, supported the oppressive Illinois "black laws," and never abandoned his belief that American blacks should be colonized outside the country.
Throughout the continuing debate, however, scholars have examined Lincoln's shortcomings and faults without reducing him to a racist caricature devoid of complexity or stripping him of his essential idealism and humanity. Among the qualities that attracted me to Lincoln as a biographical subject was his capacity for growth and change, a personal trait that I admired and wanted to emphasize in my book.
When Lincoln was first elected to the Illinois House of Representatives in 1834, slavery in the Southern states was a thoroughly entrenched institution, protected by the U.S. Constitution and by a web of national and local laws. The North, where slavery was outlawed, was a white-supremacist society. Most Northern states had enacted severely restrictive black laws, which I describe in my biography. Abolitionists were a small and embattled minority, viewed by a majority of Northern whites as dangerous fanatics. Lincoln knew that to be branded an abolitionist in his home state would be political suicide. But he did take a principled stand on slavery, the most inflammatory issue of his generation. In 1837 the Illinois legislature adopted resolutions condemning abolitionists as a menace to the Union and affirming the Constitutional right of Southerners to own slaves. Given the racist attitudes and anti-abolitionist sentiments that prevailed in Illinois, most state politicians endorsed the pro-slavery resolutions. In the House, the vote was seventy-seven in favor of the resolutions and six opposed. Lincoln was among those who voted no--the first time he publicly recorded his stance on slavery. Even so, he recognized that public opinion was almost universally against political rights for blacks, and as a political realist he was cautious in what he said about slavery, abolitionists, and the position of free blacks in American society. As I state in my biography, "he did not become an antislavery crusader."
During his debates with Douglas, Lincoln made certain statements that have been cited as evidence that he championed segregation and opposed civil and political rights for blacks. Douglas kept baiting Lincoln, pushing the issue of white supremacy, warning the white crowds that Lincoln was a "Black Republican" who wanted to liberate the slaves so they could stampede into Illinois to vote, take away jobs, and marry with whites. Was Lincoln in favor of Negro equality? Douglas continually demanded. Did Lincoln advocate a mixing of the races? Pressed by Douglas, Lincoln did say, for example, "I am not nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the black and white races.... There is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality." Lincoln made those remarks only after Douglas had persistently accused him of favoring Negro equality and intermarriage in white-supremacist Illinois. But what was most significant in these exchanges, I believe, was Lincoln's dogged insistence that slavery was "an unqualified evil" that must be put on the "course of ultimate extinction" and that "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"--radical remarks in the Illinois of 1858.
My account makes it clear that Lincoln did not enter the Civil War with the intention of freeing the slaves. "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union," he declared in 1862, "and is not either to save or to destroy slavery." He believed that he lacked the constitutional authority to interfere with slavery in any state--a view he would later change. Also, he feared that sudden emancipation would shatter the Northern consensus in favor of war to preserve the nation and might lead to a racial war between Southern whites and Negroes. Opposition to Civil War conscription had already ignited violent anti-black riots in several Northern cities. Once the rebellion had been crushed, slavery would be confined to the Southern states, where, Lincoln hoped and believed, it would eventually die out.
My biography, like many others, recounts Lincoln's gradual conversion to the cause of emancipation as his beliefs and attitudes changed. By the summer of 1862, he was telling his Cabinet that emancipation was a "military necessity," essential to the preservation of the Union. He came to regard "this mighty scourge of war" as a terrible retribution, a punishment for allowing human bondage to flourish on the nation's soil. In his second Inaugural Address Lincoln called slavery a hateful and evil practice, a sin in the sight of God. And in 1864 he urged Congress to pass a constitutional amendment that would outlaw slavery everywhere in America, not just in the rebel South.
Lincoln did favor colonization at first, as I suggest in my book. Because of pervasive racism in both North and South, he believed that white Americans were too prejudiced to let Negroes live among them as equals. Assuming that four million free African Americans would not be allowed to find a place in American society, he proposed several schemes to colonize free blacks in Central America. Some historians have suggested that these schemes were proposed in part, at least, to calm whites' racial fears. In any event, the plans were denounced by most American blacks and were finally abandoned by Lincoln, who came to realize that the white and black races in America would have to learn to live with one another. At no time did he suggest forced deportation. His colonization schemes were intended to be entirely voluntary. After he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, he never again urged colonization in public, and there is no credible evidence that he continued to support the idea in private.
Jonda McNair points out that William Lloyd Garrison, the Massachusetts abolitionist leader, and John Brown, the fiery abolitionist martyr, were "men of their times who challenged the social order status quo, no matter what the costs." Lincoln, by contrast, was a pragmatist, a practical politician who practiced the art of the possible and developed the skills that enabled him to rise to a position of national power. Garrison and Brown advanced the cause of abolition. But Lincoln earned the power to effect meaningful change. He used that power. What he did about slavery was the most important measure of his presidency and our national history.
Garrison, who began by damning Lincoln but ended by praising him, asked, at the annual meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society three weeks after the assassination: "What was it that endeared Lincoln to mankind so universally?... It was not simply that he was an honest and amiable man; it was the consciousness that he incarnated in his position, and in his heart, the great cause of universal freedom."
Among black leaders of the time, none were more critical of Lincoln than the abolitionist orator and writer Frederick Douglass. In 1862, infuriated by one of Lincoln's early colonization schemes, Douglass blasted "all his inconsistencies, his pride of race and blood, his contempt for Negroes and his canting hypocrisy." But eventually Douglass changed his mind. The two men met several times, and while Douglass was understandably impatient with Lincoln's cautious leadership, he came to respect the president and like him personally. "In all my interviews with Mr. Lincoln," he said, "I was impressed with his entire freedom from popular prejudice against the colored race. He was the first great man that I talked with in the United States freely, who in no single instance reminded me of the difference between himself and myself, of the difference of color, and I thought that all the more remarkable because he came from a state where there were black laws."
Whatever his faults and failures, Lincoln has become an enduring symbol of the values of freedom and democratic government. I happened to be in Beijing in June 1989, when pro-democracy students were occupying Tiananmen Square and tens of thousands of demonstrators from all walks of life were surging down Changan Avenue, the broad Avenue of Eternal Peace that leads to the square. I'll never forget watching as a gigantic banner, held aloft by perhaps two dozen marchers, came advancing down the avenue. A huge face had been painted on that banner, and when I first saw it, I thought I was dreaming. It was the face of AbrahamLincoln. Beneath his beard, in Chinese characters, were the words: "Government of the people, by the people, and for the people."
As Jonda McNair rightly suggests, deciding what to include and what to leave out is a grave responsibility when any author attempts to re-create the historical record. Telling the story of AbrahamLincoln honestly for young readers, in the light of today's values and understanding, continues to be a challenge for anyone who cherishes children; anyone who wants to encourage their natural idealism and shield them from cynicism and yet still give them forthright history.
Freedman, Russell, “Will the Real Abe Lincoln Please Stand Up?”, Horn Book Magazine, May/June 2003, Vol. 79, Issue 3 pages 307-313.