Mangling Abe

As usual I am slow to get around to all the weekend’s reading, but I note that Harold Holzer, in a Washington Post article on Newt’s idea of Lincoln-Douglas style debates, couldn’t resist this sideswipe of Lincoln:

“I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races,” he declared in Charleston, Ill., to robust cheers, “nor ever have been in favor of making voters of the negroes, or jurors, or qualifying them to hold office, or having them to marry with white people.” It was not the future emancipator’s finest hour.

Writing at NoLeftTurns, Ken Thomas (hat tip, by the way) rightly says that  “this is mediocre historian shallowness.”

I got to hear Harry Jaffa years ago comment on this same passage, reminding us that the silences of political leaders are often as important as what they say, and, noting Lincoln’s unfinished sequence of verb tenses (“I am not, not have ever been. . .”), that Lincoln did not say what he would be in the future.  In A New Birth of Freedom Jaffa offers the deeper background to correct Holzer’s ubiquitous but childish perspective:

Throughout the slavery controversy, Lincoln is careful to avoid contesting the question of the equality or inequality of the races “in the gifts of nature.”  Given the overwhelming prejudices of white America, North as well as South, it would have been senseless for him to do otherwise.  He is at great pains, however, to argue that this question is irrelevant to the question of the justice or injustice of slavery.  To have contended for anything more than freedom would only have endangered whatever prospects for freedom there might have been.  Yet careful analysis of Lincoln’s many references to the intelligence or abilities of Negroes shows amazingly little actual concession to the prejudices of his contemporaries, even while seeming not to contradict them. . .

Lincoln’s characteristic expression was, “Certainly the negro is not our equal in color—perhaps not in many other respects.”  The only inequality that was “certain,” according to Lincoln, was color.  Only the prejudices of his audiences would find such a judgment of Negro inferiority in such an assertion.  Yet Lincoln would continue, in a phrase that, with minor variations, he repeated endlessly: “still, in the right to put into his mouth the bread that his own hands have earned, he is the equal of every other man, white or black.”  The contrast between the ambiguity of what Lincoln says about Negro inequality and the unambigiuousness of what he says about Negro equality is striking.

Obviously it is not striking enough to slow learners like Holzer.  A more mature consideration of the nature and sources of Lincoln’s prudence shows that it is people like Holzer who should be said not to be having their finest hour.


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