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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