Learning from Lincoln

Sean Wilentz is a historian of the leftist persuasion and also a principled opponent of the New York Times’s 1619 Project errors, distortions, and lies (my word, not his), now adopted as the orthodoxy of the Democratic Party. The problem is “A matter of facts,” he wrote in The Atlantic. He also signed off on the letter prominent historians sent to the Times challenging the project as ideological rather than historical.

Coincidentally with my own comments this week on Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, Professor Wilentz takes up Lincoln’s case in his New York Review of Books review “Lincoln’s rowdy America” in NYRB’s April 29 issue. Wilentz review David Reynolds’s new book, Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times.

Reynolds is a literary and cultural historian who won Phi Beta Kappa’s Christian Gauss Award with Beneath the American Renaissance. He is virtually omniscient with respect to nineteenth-century American popular culture. I find his approach eye-opening if limited and reductive. One can’t help but learn from him, especially with the benefit of a good teacher (not to say Reynolds himself isn’t a good teacher). I think Wilentz is the man in the case of Reynolds’s new Lincoln book.

Professor Wilentz’s review of Reynolds’s Lincoln book is accessible with NYRB registration. Wilentz should be supplemented by Harry Jaffa’s reading of Lincoln in Crisis of the House Divided and everything after, yet Wilentz’s review is well worth taking in. Indeed, I hope you will read it all.

Here I want to excerpt Wilentz’s comments on Lincoln that intersect with Frederick Douglass (everything below is Wilentz speaking, emphasis added):

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On the left, meanwhile, the radical abolitionist critique of Lincoln as either a phony—“the slave-hound of Illinois,” Wendell Phillips called him—or a laggard has lived on in depictions of Lincoln as a reluctant emancipator who cared everything for the Union and little about ending slavery until the flight of escaped slaves to Union lines forced his hand. In a major speech in 1876, Frederick Douglass, who had earlier both criticized and praised Lincoln, observed that this view was myopic and unfair. Lincoln, he explained, was a statesman, bound to consult his country’s sentiments. Thus his actions on slavery, far from tardy or indifferent, were “radical, zealous, determined.”

Of more recent vintage is a condemnation of Lincoln as an incorrigible racist who actually supported or at least tolerated the enslavement of Blacks. During his lifetime, legions of racists, North and South, constantly assailed him in the vilest terms as a traitor to the white race, the devilish Abraham Africanus I, a Negro in disguise (although “Negro” wasn’t the word they used), and an advocate of miscegenation (a word coined specifically to smear Lincoln). Some Black critics, meanwhile, notably Douglass when he wasn’t praising him, cursed Lincoln as indifferent to Black suffering.

One is hard put, though, to find anyone singling out Lincoln as a racist fiend either before his murder or for decades thereafter. Then, in 1964, just as the civil rights movement’s leaders claimed they were fulfilling his legacy, Malcolm X said, “I think Lincoln did more to deceive Negroes and to make the race problem in this country worse than any man in history.” In 1968 Lerone Bennett Jr., an editor at Ebony magazine, indicted Lincoln as a resolute white supremacist, a claim he enlarged upon three decades later in a book entitled Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream.

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Reynolds also convincingly roots Lincoln’s alternative antislavery politics in his certitude that the abolitionists’ high-minded strategy of moral suasion would stir up trouble but never break the slaveholders’ power, and in his reverence for what he perceived as an essentially egalitarian Constitution that, despite its concessions to slavery and contrary to radical abolitionists’ renunciations, contained great antislavery potential. The antislavery constitutionalism that Lincoln embraced and helped develop would become the cornerstone for the politics of the Republican Party and in time would ignite southern secession. Before then the argument had evolved to win over a wide range of antislavery agitators with its insistence, Reynolds writes, “that antislavery principles were actually embedded within the Constitution”—a Constitution that, if interpreted correctly, as the abolitionist Douglass at length came to conclude, was “a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT.”

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Lincoln’s support for colonization sprang neither from a horror of Blacks as a vicious, degraded race, a view he repudiated, nor from a fear that, once freed, ex-slaves would attempt to annihilate their former masters. He did express concern that white hatred of Blacks would persist in as yet unimagined forms, with voluntary colonization serving as a kind of subsidized escape hatch. Several leading Black abolitionists shared a similar racial pessimism of their own that mounted in the fearsome 1850s, and they too endorsed voluntary colonization, as did radical white abolitionists like Douglass’s associate James Redpath. Above all, perhaps, Lincoln’s support for colonization, like his support early in the war for partially compensating owners for freeing their slaves—actually carried out in the District of Columbia—was inseparable from his ever-evolving political calculations to ease the way for ending slavery, especially in the border states. In any event, after he issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, announcing freedom with no mention of colonization, Lincoln never brought up the idea in public again and basically left it behind.

Abe helps show that the supposedly urgent issue of Lincoln’s racism is more worked up than it is urgent, if indeed it is really an issue at all. Lincoln was not as radical on racial equality as some white antislavery advocates, Reynolds reminds us—few if any serious historians over the last sixty years have harbored any delusion otherwise—but neither was he one of those antislavery racists whom Frederick Douglass described as “opposing slavery but hating its victims,” or one of those Republicans who, as a New York Times editorial in 1858 claimed about the party, “aimed at the good of the white men of the country, and had nothing to do with negroes.” Rather, Lincoln believed to his core that Blacks were entitled to enjoy equally the natural rights elaborated in the Declaration of Independence—above all, he stated repeatedly, the right to the fruits of their labor. In that sense, he was a thoroughgoing and unflinching racial egalitarian, far in advance of most white Americans.

The basic decency embedded in that egalitarianism helps explain Lincoln’s oft-noted easy relations with Black people, from his numerous Black neighbors at home in Springfield to abolitionist celebrities like Douglass and Sojourner Truth. It helps explain his habit, one that Reynolds notices, of quietly holding out in his speeches the possibility that one day, perhaps, white prejudice—which he regarded as irrational—might disappear. It helps explain why, as president, he praised Black freedom fighters with their “clenched teeth, and steady eye, and well-poised bayonet” while he assailed the “malignant heart, and deceitful speech” of white racists who opposed the Emancipation Proclamation and Black military enlistment. It helps explain why, during the last years of his life, he glimpsed an expanded equality as no president before him and only a decided minority of other white Americans had.

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The Emancipation Proclamation instantly transformed the Civil War into a social revolution and turned the Union military into an army and navy of liberation. By also opening up enlistment to Black soldiers and sailors, some 180,000 of whom would fight in the Union cause, the proclamation altered the social and political stakes for the nation after as well as during the war. While Lincoln consulted with Douglass and other Black leaders, in part to hasten the flight of the enslaved to Union lines, he realized that the military sacrifices being made by Blacks would be ample reason to afford them some form of political equality as well as freedom. Finally, two days after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, he became the first American president to endorse publicly the opening of suffrage to Black men, possibly by national decree. It would have been unthinkable at the outbreak of war. Evidently the revolution had only begun.

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Reynolds is tempted, as the upheaval mounts, to liken Lincoln to John Brown, whose failed raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859 had led to his glorification in certain prominent quarters. The linking is not completely surprising, as Reynolds’s biography of Brown borders at times on adulation born of Brown’s uncompromising antiracism, which set him apart even from other radical abolitionist whites. But the Lincoln–Brown connection has been getting attention from other scholars as well. Events redeemed Brown, so the argument goes, insofar as overthrowing slavery required, as he had forecast, an apocalyptic purging of the sin of human bondage. It entailed, as Brown thought it would, whites working alongside Black leaders and attacking slaveholders with the help of armed Black recruits, including tens of thousands who had only recently freed themselves by escaping their enslavers.

Even the Union’s military operations resembled Brown’s, including an effort—which, according to Douglass, Lincoln described to him as “somewhat after the original plan of John Brown”—to arouse more slaves to strike out for their freedom. Having set out to eliminate slavery peacefully, Lincoln wound up prosecuting a ruthless, so-called hard war. In the end it was Brown’s strategy, not Lincoln’s, that destroyed slavery.

Reynolds plays around with this imaginary history and wishful vindication of Brown at Lincoln’s expense, but he wisely backs off. The Union Army and Navy, with Blacks recruited through the Emancipation Proclamation, wreaking merciless havoc in the South wasn’t at all Brown’s misbegotten plan or larger strategy. His raid, Reynolds writes, “was a vigilante effort, motivated by the higher law”—led, he might have added, by a self-appointed, God-struck avenger who hated the Constitution and took up arms against the federal government—“that deepened the national divide.” Lincoln, on the contrary, “directed a Constitution-backed war that never lost sight of restoring the entire nation and putting it on a just basis.” He honestly hoped that his legitimate, democratic election as president would help initiate slavery’s eventual but sure extinction, yet the slaveholders would not stand for it.

Lincoln’s strategy was to build a political party with a broad coalition, bring the issue of halting slavery’s expansion before what he called the “great tribunal, the American people,” and win that contest in 1860, after which he held fast to principle against violent insurrectionists who would break up the Union rather than accept the election’s result. That strategy led directly to the Civil War. It evolved, as all wartime strategies do, after it became clear that crushing the rebellion required Lincoln’s proclaiming slavery’s immediate and not gradual demise, and even then on the strength of a Union military victory. The unforeseen result of slavery’s immediate abolition, he observed in his second inaugural address, was “fundamental and astounding,” and it accompanied a broadening of his own views on racial equality. Yet as David Reynolds’s brilliant cultural history reminds us, destroying slavery and saving American democracy had grown from Lincoln’s strategy, not John Brown’s.

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