Monthly Archives: February 2015

Some Reflections on Abraham Lincoln, Slavery, and Race

We recently passed the 206th birthday of Abraham Lincoln. While Lincoln is generally a popular historical figure and usually makes at least the top five when it comes to ranking presidents, he remains controversial. One of the chief Lincoln-related areas of controversy is the 16th president’s views on slavery and racial equality. I should state my bias up front. I admire Lincoln. In my opinion, he was the best president ever, or, to put it another way, the least objectionable. The main reason for this is that he played a major role in the outlawing of slavery. That said, he was not an abolitionist or supporter of racial equality, and I do feel that racially egalitarian abolitionists like Wendell Phillips often get ignored in favor of Abraham Lincoln. This is despite the fact that they had much stronger civil rights records than Lincoln and that the pressure they put on him was part of the reason he ended up supporting immediate emancipation nationwide. So with all of that in mind, I thought I should give some advice both to the people who hate Lincoln and the people who revere him.
Advice For People Who Revere Lincoln:
1. Don’t Defend His pre-Civil War Stance of Allowing Slavery To Remain Legal In the South: Claiming that Lincoln’s policy of containment without immediate abolition was correct because it was constitutional is ethically untenable. So is doing what some folks at the Claremont Institute do and trashing abolitionists for being willing to subvert the Constitution to destroy slavery. By using this line of argument, people are putting a paper and ink document above the human rights of millions of people. This is extremely misplaced prioritizing and smacks of racism.
2. Don’t Say Everyone in the 19th Century was Racist: Lerone Bennett, Jr.’s anti-Lincoln book, Forced Into Glory, got a lot of stuff wrong, but the scholar’s response to this particular defense of Lincoln was right on the money. It is ridiculous to claim that all white people in the 1800s were racist. As has been demonstrated by Bennett and other scholars such as James McPherson, Herbert Aptheker, and Paul Goodman, a very small but vocal minority of whites in antebellum America not only pushed for immediate emancipation but also defended racial equality. Bennett correctly points out that the “everyone was racist” claim is a huge insult to white abolitionists and Radical Republicans who championed equality for African Americans.
3. Don’t Attack Secession Per Se: The reason the South had to be stopped from seceding was that it was seceding to protect slavery. Secession, in and of itself, really isn’t worth going to war over. Would it really be worth going to war over if Washington State decided to secede to free itself from the War on Drugs? Before the Civil War, some abolitionists wanted the North to secede in order to keep from having to prop up slavery. Clearly, there are noble reasons for favoring secession. In order to defend Lincoln’s decision to stop the South from seceding, it is important to emphasize the fact that preventing secession brought about the abolition of slavery, rather than maintaining that preventing secession is always worth fighting a war over. When one castigates the Confederacy for being built on “slavery, racism, and secession,” it’s very much like accusing someone of “arson, murder, and jaywalking” to borrow a phrase from TVTropes.
Advice For People Who Hate Lincoln:
1. Don’t try to claim the Civil War wasn’t about slavery: It is certainly true that Lincoln and most non-abolitionist whites in the North did not go to war to free the slaves. It is also incontrovertibly true that the main reason the South seceded was slavery. This is borne out by political debates leading up to secession, as well as speeches, letters, and manifestos written by Southern secessionists, and the Confederate Constitution. When someone downplays the role of slavery in the Civil War, they instantly lose a lot of credibility.
2. Don’t Hold Lincoln To a Unique Standard: A lot of Neo-Confederates criticize Lincoln for not being an abolitionist and not supporting racial equality. In essence, they criticize him for not holding modern views on slavery and race. This is a fair criticism, but these same Neo-Confederates have the unfortunate habit of admiring historical figures like George Washington, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, George Mason, John Calhoun, Andrew Jackson, Jefferson Davis, and Robert E. Lee. What do all of these figures have in common? They were all a lot more racist than Lincoln. Lincoln opposed racial equality and only became a supporter of the abolitionist cause shortly before his death, but he was adamant that black people had certain inalienable rights and that slavery was immoral because of the way that it abridged these rights. To blast Lincoln for his shortcomings in this area while admiring people who actually defended slavery and/or owned slaves makes it apparent that one’s issues with Lincoln have nothing to do with him not being as radical as William Lloyd Garrison.
3. Don’t Blast Lincoln For His Racism While Wearing Your Own On Your Sleeve: One of the more surreal things about, for instance, is the spectacle of a website that is hyper focused on every example of Lincoln’s racism while also running articles that criticize Brown v. Board of Education. If you are going to condone slavery, denigrate the abolitionist movement, or call for rolling back the gains of the Civil Rights Movement, you are going to look like a hypocritical slime ball with no self awareness when you call Lincoln a racist. In fact, you are going to give off the distinct impression that your real reason for disliking Lincoln is that he defeated a nation founded to protect slavery and helped outlaw it nationwide.


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Did Robert E. Lee Oppose Slavery? The Lie That Won’t Die

Due to the recent controversy over Confederate General Robert E. Lee sharing a holiday with Martin Luther King, Jr. in some jurisdictions, I thought that now would be a good time for this post. Despite being a white guy from Georgia, I have never at any point in my life retrospectively sided with the Confederacy. I learned in school that the South seceded to support slavery. Knowing that textbooks get stuff wrong sometimes–there have been some great books written about it–I did independent research to determine whether the South really did secede to support slavery. I looked at documents by secessionists themselves, and it turned out that, yes, they did. But for most of my childhood, I believed that the Robert E. Lee opposed slavery. This was stated in the same encyclopedias, textbooks, and documentaries that identified slavery as the cause of Southern secession. However, I found out in my late teens that this was not true either. Despite my hatred of the Confederacy, it took me a little while to digest this, because the myth of an antislavery Lee is so widely considered a historical truth. Claims that Lee opposed slavery tend to center on two “facts” that I am going to engage one at a time. The first “fact” is the following quote Lee wrote in an 1856 letter to his wife: “In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country.” This certainly looks like an antislavery quote taken out of context, but it is crucial to examine the context. What comes right after this quote? “It is useless,” Lee writes, “to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence. Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild & melting influence of Christianity, than the storms & tempests of fiery Controversy. This influence though slow, is sure. The doctrines & miracles of our Saviour have required nearly two thousand years, to Convert but a small part of the human race, & even among Christian nations, what gross errors still exist! While we see the Course of the final abolition of human Slavery is onward, & we give it the aid of our prayers & all justifiable means in our power, we must leave the progress as well as the result in his hands who sees the end; who Chooses to work by slow influences; & with whom two thousand years are but as a Single day. Although the Abolitionist must know this, & must See that he has neither the right or power of operating except by moral means & suasion, & if he means well to the slave, he must not Create angry feelings in the Master; that although he may not approve the mode which it pleases Providence to accomplish its purposes, the result will nevertheless be the same; that the reasons he gives for interference in what he has no Concern, holds good for every kind of interference with our neighbors when we disapprove their Conduct; Still I fear he will persevere in his evil Course. Is it not strange that the descendants of those pilgrim fathers who Crossed the Atlantic to preserve their own freedom of opinion, have always proved themselves intolerant of the Spiritual liberty of others?” (The full letter can be found here: In other words, he sees slavery as a necessary evil ordained by God that benefits black people while harming white people the most, thinks that humans shouldn’t do anything to speed up the process of ending it, and disdains abolitionists for interfering with the “spiritual liberty” of slave masters. As the Atlantic magazine sums it up, “slavery sucks, sure, but it’s God’s will. It’s good for you, too. You’re welcome.” The thrust of this letter sets Lee apart not only from abolitionists but also from more moderate Americans like Abraham Lincoln who wanted to ban slavery in new states.

The second “fact” that must be examined is that Lee freed the slaves he inherited from his father in law. Background is essential here. Lee was the son in law of George Custis, a debt ridden landowner whose step grandfather had been George “Fugitive Slave Act of 1793” Washington. When Custis died, he stipulated in his will that all of his slaves must be freed within five years. Lee proceeded to force the slaves to work for the next five years, then freed them because it would have been illegal not to. He wished for an overseer, “who while he will be considerate & kind to the Negroes, will be firm & make them do their duty.” According to Lee’s own account, when some of these slaves rebelled, he resorted to, “capturing them, tying them and lodging them in jail. They resisted until overpowered.” There were allegations that he had runaway slaves whipped. While we will probably never know for sure whether this is true, his initial private response to his son when the rumor was printed in the New York Tribune makes one hesitant to write the rumor off as false. “The N. Y. Tribune has attacked me for my treatment of your grandfather’s slaves,” Lee griped, “but I shall not reply. He has left me an unpleasant legacy.” Lee’s comment is not a smoking gun, but it hardly sounds like a denial. Lee, in essence, looks a lot like conservative Christians who talk about how much they love gay people while steadfastly opposing just about any advances in gay rights.

I should close by pointing out the fact that if we wish to have a holiday for a nineteenth century white Southerner, there are some to choose from whose views on slavery and race were light years ahead Lee’s. There are Sarah and Angelina Grimke, the women from a South Carolina planter family who rebelled against their upbringing and became abolitionists. There is John G. Fee, the Kentucky abolitionist who founded Berea College as an attempt to break down racial barriers. And from Virginia, there is Moncure Conway, the theologically liberal minister who, like the Grimke sisters and Fee, promoted abolitionism and equality for African Americans. It is not primarily the fault of Northerners that these figures are not very well known. The biggest reason for their marginalization is that for all too long, all too many white Southerners have passed them over in favor of honoring proslavery figures like Lee.


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