Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Lincoln — the Myth and the Man

Chris Wehner had an intriguing post in his "Blog 4 History: American & Civil War History" blog recently — "Lincoln a Racist? What, You're Kidding Me!!"

In it, he quotes an article by Henry Louis Gates Jr., an author and professor of African-American studies at Harvard — "Was Lincoln a Racist?"

This is a subject on which I touched last month, when I posted an article following Barack Obama's inauguration as president.

In my post, which I gave the heading "The Great Emancipator," I pointed out that Lincoln did not enter the presidency with the objective of ending slavery. In his inaugural address, Lincoln clearly stated that his goal was to keep the nation together and that there was no reason for the people of the South to be apprehensive about his presidency.

He cited his own speeches prior to his election as proof of his intentions.

In his article, Gates recalled reading a "troubling" essay by W.E.B. Du Bois that had been published in 1922. "Du Bois wrote that Lincoln was one huge jumble of contradictions: 'he was big enough to be inconsistent — cruel, merciful; peace-loving, a fighter; despising Negroes and letting them fight and vote; protecting slavery and freeing slaves. He was a man — a big, inconsistent, brave man.' "

Du Bois, wrote Gates, supported his point by quoting from a speech Lincoln gave two years before being elected president:
"I will say, then, that 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 — that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this, that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I, as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race."

Thus, Lincoln has become the source of great conflict for many black Americans. Gates writes about accepting two years ago an assignment to co-produce, write and host a PBS program on Lincoln that would coincide with the 200th anniversary of his birth this week.

That program, "Looking for Lincoln," is airing on the Dallas PBS channel tonight from 8-10 p.m. It may be airing at a different time and on a different date in your city and state.

I think Gates had at least an idea of what he would find.

"Lincoln's myth is so capacious that each generation of Americans since his death in 1865 has been able to find its own image reflected in his mirror," Gates wrote.

"Lincoln is America's man for all seasons, and our man for all reasons. In fact, over and over again through the past century and a half, we Americans have reinvented Abraham Lincoln in order to reinvent ourselves. The most recent example, of course, is captured in the journey of our 44th president, Barack Obama, who launched his presidential campaign in Lincoln's hometown, Springfield, Ill., cited Lincoln's oratory repeatedly throughout his campaign, retraced his train route to Washington from Philadelphia and even used Lincoln's Bible for his swearing-in ceremony."

That is as honest an appraisal of Lincoln as you will find — and it seems particularly poignant coming, as it does, from a black man.

Many Americans — black and white — have seen in Lincoln what they wanted to see, but perhaps it is most pronounced in the black community.

"Lincoln continues to occupy a place of almost holy reverence" among blacks, Gates wrote, "the patron saint of race relations."

But Gates observes that "until very late in his presidency, Lincoln was deeply conflicted about whether to liberate the slaves, how to liberate the slaves and what to do with them once they had been liberated."

So it should not come as a surprise to anyone that the search for the "real" Lincoln continues, nearly 145 years after his death.

Lincoln was a man. He was a good man, perhaps, more generous than most. He certainly was more eloquent than many. But he wasn't blessed with gifts of prescience or insight that are unavailable to other mortal men.

Lincoln lived in the 19th century. And, no matter what 21st century people think of slavery, it was not seen as a moral issue but as an economic issue in the 19th century.

Whatever his views were on any issue, though, Lincoln did keep an open mind. And, as Gates points out, his attitudes and beliefs about blacks changed in part after meeting Frederick Douglass at the White House. "He was the first black person Lincoln treated as an intellectual equal," Gates observes, "and he grew to admire him and value his opinion."

Lincoln's life was emblematic of the nation he led. America remains, as it was in the 19th century, a work in progress. It is a better place because Lincoln was its president. But neither the man nor the country have achieved perfection, regardless of the mythical reverence with which some insist upon regarding both.

As Gates observes, Lincoln's "journey was certainly not complete on the day that he died," and America's journey is not complete today.

It is fitting that the nation should honor Lincoln tomorrow on the 200th anniversary of his birth. But the most fitting tribute that can be paid to our 16th president is to continue the quest for improvement.

1 comment:

otin said...

I am not a big civil war buff, but I read an article one time that said Lincolns motivation for abolishing slavery was to cripple the southern economy, by basically taking away their work force. Whether or not this is true, it seemed logical to me.