The movie “Lincoln” has revived discussions about the issue of slavery in America and whether or not old Abe deserves to be remembered as the “Great Emancipator” or even more to the point as “Honest Abe.” One of the controversies the movie rekindled is whether or not Lincoln deserves the deification he has received in most history books—particularly public school textbooks. Historians know that Lincoln’s motives were more nuanced and perhaps less noble than the typical history book would lead one to believe. But of course, this is a statement that could be made about any American president.
I can still remember a discussion about Abraham Lincoln that took place in a college class way back in the 1970s. Our professor was determined that we would learn to approach history from an intellectual perspective. He wanted us to be able to argue history on the basis of facts and critical, objective thinking about the facts rather than from an emotional perspective. Consequently, no matter what the issue being discussed in class might be, if you took side A the professor would take side B. If you took side B, he would take side A. Further, he could argue either side of practically any issue with equal force and persuasiveness.
One day the issue being discussed was the Emancipation Proclamation. The professor had parsed the Emancipation Proclamation and explained in detail what it really meant and what Lincoln’s intentions were in drafting it. Having studied the document and the circumstances surrounding its development myself, I thought the professor’s presentation was both accurate and benign. But one of the students in our class—a black man in his early 20s—became incensed when the professor suggested that we look at Lincoln more carefully before elevating him to “Mount Olympus.” Before the discussion was over, this young black student stomped out of class and never returned. I still remember what the professor said after the angry student left: “You will never be a historian of any worth until you can put emotional presuppositions aside and objectively go where the facts lead you.”
The Lincoln movie revived a personal quandary that has puzzled me for as long as I have been able to read history: Why do black Americans worship Abraham Lincoln? Ask almost any person—black or white—this question and their likely response will be “Because he freed the slaves.” This response, of course, just shows that most Americans understand neither the purpose nor the substance of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the document most Americans believe freed the slaves near the end of the War Between the States. Even liberal historians—though they are loathe to admit it—know that Lincoln’s goal during the “Civil War” was to preserve the Union, not to free the slaves. For Lincoln slavery was, in the final analysis, an issue he could seize upon to aid his cause of preserving the Union. And when Lincoln published the Emancipation Proclamation, he was sorely in need of a rallying issue.
The reason I have never understood the worshipful attitude toward Abraham Lincoln by black Americans goes well beyond a detailed study of the Emancipation Proclamation and the circumstances surrounding it. My question grows out of the words of Lincoln himself, words that in many cases would not endear a black person to our 16th president. I recount some of those words in this column. For a more extensive treatment of this question, refer to the book Lincoln Unmasked by Thomas DiLorenzo.
Here is what Lincoln said during one of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates: “I am not, nor have ever 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 forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.” Lincoln, of course, was wrong about this assertion of racial inequality as black Americans have proven over and over. In fact, if a presidential candidate were to utter these same words today he would immediately be labeled a racist unworthy of our nation’s highest office, and rightly so.
Because the Emancipation Proclamation is often cited as the reason so many black Americans adore Abraham Lincoln, I have always found the following quote from our 16th president interesting: “I view the matter (the Emancipation Proclamation) as a practical war measure, to be decided upon according to the advantages or disadvantages it may offer to the suppression of the rebellion.” In other words, the overriding purpose of the Emancipation Proclamation was to advance the cause of the Union not to free the slaves. Another practical goal of the Emancipation Proclamation was to keep France from entering the Civil War on the side of the South. About this goal Lincoln said: “I will also concede that emancipation would help us in Europe, and convince them that we are incited by something more than ambition.”
The Emancipation Proclamation was a controversial document despised by pro and anti-slavery factions alike. Perhaps the most damning comment about it was one made by Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward, who thought the proclamation hypocritical: “We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free.” Seward’s comment was accurate. What he was referring to was the fact that Lincoln’s proclamation declared the slaves residing in the 11 southern states—states over which Lincoln had no control—to be free while doing nothing to free the slaves in the border states the North did control.
As a rule Americans are very poor historians. We do not study our own history and the little we are taught in the public schools is watered down to the level of academic mush, distorted for political purposes, and used to indoctrinate rather than educate. This brings to mind what my history professor said that eventful day in class I described earlier: “You will never be a historian of any worth until you can put emotional presuppositions aside and objectively go where the facts lead you.”