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"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Friday, January 22, 2010

All About Abe

We've had the Harper's Ferry sesquicentennial. That means we're rapidly heading for the Civil War and Emancipation Proclamation sesquicentennial celebrations in which Abraham Lincoln will probably be inflated to heavenly proportions and blazoned across the national consciousness by media, academics, and even the business world, like some float in the Macy's Day Parade.

Of course the so-called "John Brown community" is hardly a monolith when it comes to Abe. After all, John Brown has admirers from the right and the left: the former tend to see Brown and Lincoln as de facto allies in history; the latter tend to see the latter as the antithesis of the former. I have shared in this blog (Dec. 23, 2005) my own thoughts on Abe Lincoln, so the reader may wish to revisit that entry (or not). I only mention this because a thoughtful visitor to my blog submitted an apologetic (defense of) comment about the 16th Prez in response to that 2005 entry. Since he was kind enough to put forth such a good effort, I have published it below, followed by my response. Hopefully it will encourage further research and discussion during the upcoming remembrances of the Civil War. Was Abe Lincoln really the "Great Emancipator"? Well, we know that he issued the Emancipation Proclamation and promoted the 13th Amendment. We know that compared to the myriad hateful, vicious white racists of his era, Abe was not a bad guy. But comparing him to the worst element in the nation (which was also the majority) is not the best measure. The question remains whether Lincoln lead, followed, or possibly was even pushed by political forces toward taking an increasingly stronger anti-slavery stance. Certainly we do not embrace the naive notion that the Abe Lincoln of 1865 was the Abe Lincoln of 1860, let alone 1850. But even the Lincoln of 1865 was a complexity, a political jig-saw puzzle whose real sentiments about black liberation will never be fully known. Certainly we remain incredulous toward the conventional school book notion that Abe was a vanguard defender of black freedom.

In an 1865 speech, Frederick Douglass called Lincoln "Emphatically the Black Man's president." Douglass also has written, "In all my interviews with Mr. Lincoln, I was impressed with his entire freedom from popular prejudice against the colored race."

Lincoln's claim to being the Great Emancipator lies not just with his Emancipation Proclamation, but also with the 13th Amendment, which he insisted on & sheparded through Congress. Those who feel Lincoln was insincere about freedom and equality would do well to read LaWanda Cox's Lincoln and Black Freedom: A Study in Presidential Leadership, Richard Striner's Father Abraham: Lincoln's Relentless Struggle To End Slavery, and Harry Jaffa's Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, as well as Allen Guelzo's Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America; and James Oakes's "The Radical and the Republican." Lincoln felt that politics was the art of the possible. His political artistry included an acute knowledge of public opinion(and prejudices), a finely-honed sense of timing, and political discretion. Lincoln never retreated from emancipation once it was decided upon, just as he never affirmed black inferiority to be inherent. During his debates with Stephen Douglas he never said that he would never(in future) support equality. He didn't put stock in physical differences. In a well-known private memoranda he mused how anyone could be enslaved if the criterion was to have darker skin, or lesser intellect, because everyone was lighter or darker, or of varing degrees of smartness. In Chicago, in July 1858, he implored people to "discard" all their "quibbling" about supposed inferiority, and unite around the equality of the Declaration of Independence. However, a race-baiting Stephen Douglas forced him to subsequently in those debates down-play the full implications of his anti-slavery position. Again, he was a politician seeking an anti-slavery (extension) victory in a racist state[Illinois]. But, during his presidency he approved of bills abolishing segregation on horse-drawn streetcars in D.C., for equal pay for black troops, for black witnesses in federal courts, for equal penalties for the same crimes, for the Freedmen's Bureau. He supported education for the freedmen. He had African-Americans picnic on the White House lawn, bowed publicly to a black gentleman in Richmond, welcomed(for the first time) an ambassador from Haiti, and met African-American leaders in the White House for discussions. Any colonization (Lincoln recognized the intransigence of white prejudice "even when freed") was to be voluntary, and was later dropped, whites and blacks having to "live out of the old relation and into the new." Sojourner Truth said that she had never been treated with more "kindness and cordiality" by anyone. Lincoln called for the vote for educated blacks and soldiers[a first step]. John Wilkes Booth was in the audience, and told a companion that that meant "N-- citizenship" and vowed it would be Lincoln's last speech. He was assassinated 3 days later. Lincoln was a friend of freedom and equality, but he worked as a politician.
Best, Jeff


Dear Jeff,

Thanks for writing so extensively in defense of your man Abe. I do not have time to track down the 1865 statement, but we can probably attribute that to the year and sentiments at that time. Certainly Douglass would want to support him; but the fact that Douglass specifically called Abe the white man's president in an 1870 speech, which he published in his final autobiography, displays a more objective, long-term assessment of the president--over against John Brown. Check out Forced into Glory by Lerone Bennett. Even if Bennett is too harsh (and I'm not sure he is), you have to balance Lincoln worshipers like Guelzo against him. I have no doubt that Lincoln was a "friend of freedom," but the point remains that it is possible to befriend black freedom from the vantage point of a whites-first position OR from the standpoint of a radical egalitarian and abolitionist. It is clear that Abe never was the latter and all the twists and turns of his apologists cannot get one of his long legs into the pants of a Garrison, let alone a Brown. I sympathize of course. The poor fellow took a bullet because he was mistaken by radical racists as being a "N---r lover"; but then again, secession began because the south attributed similar ideas to the North based upon John Brown. So Booth's murderous perceptions of Abe are not a valid barometer as black folks go. I cannot remember the source quoted at a scholarly conference this fall, but it was shown that Lincoln discussed the possibility of compromise with confederate reps in 1864. I'm sure it was reliable scholarly work. I think the point is that Lincoln's devotion to black freedom was not a political a priori; he would have compromised it if it helped end the war. And I wonder if Abe would have implored people in southern Illinois to stop quibbling about black inferiority? While I respect your efforts to show that Abe did have good intentions, I believe it is just too difficult to really know where he stood; his complexity is a sign of his entangled devotions. The idea that he only "worked as a politician" like some secret agent of pro-black politics just doesn't fly except with Lincoln's apologists, who realize nowadays that this is the only thesis that stands between the real man and history. To the contrary, ABE WAS a politician and it is for this reason extremely difficult--perhaps impossible--to prove Abe was a true hero of black liberation. Abe carefully navigated the waters of white society's opinions and he was able to make the war for the union into a war against slavery. You may say this was his long-term, secret goal; others will say that he "grew" in consciousness. But it is just as easy to say that he was pushed in that direction by the currents of history. Abe was a moderate, whites-first politician who disliked abolitionists but had real humanitarian sympathies for blacks, even though he would have preferred if they left the country. The real friends of black freedom were the so-called Black Republicans who enjoyed an all-too-brief control of the nation. These politicians knew that it was not enough to free blacks; black liberation required the crushing of white supremacist leadership in the South and they were intent on doing it. Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address definitely shows that he was not going to hold Confederates, let alone white supremacists, fully accountable. His message, "With malice toward none, with charity for all" was a not so subtle declaration that white people's interests were first and foremost. Read what Douglass said in his 1870 speech. That's the man Lincoln really was.

image source: from the cover of Punch [United Kingdom], Aug. 23, 1862


jeff javid said...

Dear Prof. DeCaro,
Thanks for your response.
Frederick Douglass's assessment of Lincoln in his 1876 speech in D.C. at the dedication of the Freedmen's Monument is an acknowledgement that as a "statesman" Lincoln was "bound" to consult foremost the majority opinions of his countrymen, however retrograde. Without such, Douglass felt, the Union cause would be lost. In the "true abolition sense" he had seemed "cold" "tardy" "indifferent", but when viewed in context of his duties, he was "swift" "zealous" "radical." So, in that sense, Lincoln was the "White Man's President."
But, he was also that "Black Man's President" that Douglass had ("emphatically") earlier called him, for Douglass knew full well the revolutionary gains that had been made. His assessment of Lincoln's "entire freedom from popular prejudice" can be found in his 1881 "Life and Times of Frederick Douglass"
Douglass's observations on Lincoln, and his praise of the 2nd Inaugural Address, are not limited to any immediate post-assassination climate.
Lincoln felt to retract the Emancipation Proclamation would rightly "damn" him in eternity. He insisted that an abolition amendment be included in the 1864 Republican platform. And all his presidential powers were used to get it through Congress.
It is precisely because Lincoln was a politician that one finds seeming inconsistencies (yes, he wouldn't repeat in southern Illinois what he told a Chicago audience in its entirety. It is difficult therefore to have certitude about any historical figure's motives. One can look at the various sources that comprise the historical record, and form their judgments. I no more feel an apologist for Lincoln than I'm sure you do for John Brown. We are all just workers in the historical vineyard.
Best, Jeff

Louis A. DeCaro, Jr. . . said...

Jeff, you are truly a scholar and a gentleman. I believe that there is a place for apologetics in the work of biography, particularly if we feel that our subject is worthy of it and has not been properly handled. I think sometimes professional historians tend to believe their own hype regarding "objectivity" and might feel constrained to deny that they are operating in defense or in loyalty to a subject. While I am bound by the integrity of our discipline not to misrepresent Brown out of loyalty when the evidence does not bear it out, I would not deny that at times I feel constrained to function in an apologetic manner; perhaps it is my theological training that conveyed to me a higher view of playing the role of the apologist. It may not be the case with Lincoln, who is almost universally admired (except by Confederate sympathizers, Libertarians, and black nationalists), but Brown has been so dragged through the mud that I would say that part of my work in the vineyard (as you so nicely put it) is at times defending his life and legacy from the spoilers who so easily dismiss and diminish him upon so little real evidence.
As to the Prez, let's agree to disagree in a salutary manner. I certainly respect your erudition. But I must give our friend, Frederick Douglass the last word from the same 1876 speech:

"It must be admitted, truth compels me to admit, even here in the presence of the monument we have erected to his memory, Abraham Lincoln was not, in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model. In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man. He was preeminently the white man's President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men. . . ." (Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, pp. 492-93)