Becoming Abraham Lincoln, Part 1

Published 12:01 am Wednesday, October 18, 2017

In 1858, in a public debate while running for a US Senate seat in Illinois, Abraham Lincoln said, “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, …” or “of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people …”

In April 1861, in a public speech in Savannah, Ga., Alexander Stephens, the newly selected Vice President of the newly established Confederate States of America, said, “Our new government is founded upon…the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

The pairing of the Yankee President and the Rebel Vice President in all their racist glory is striking. But theirs was a different age. In our times racism is still common but its explicit expression is more rare; code terms are used instead. Antebellum America didn’t have this problem with racial hypocrisy. Prejudice was overwhelmingly and openly the norm, North as well as South. Abraham Lincoln was a man of this time and this place.

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Some are shocked, though, to learn of this aspect of “the Great Emancipator,” the man almost universally considered by scholars to be the greatest president of all time. But Lincoln’s flaws will surprise no one who has read a scholarly account written in the last sixty years. And the same scholars who have detailed those flaws in countless books are the ones who proclaim his greatness. How do we square this circle?

We have to understand that, though both the Confederate Stephens and the Unionist Lincoln shared the prevalent racism of their day, there was a vast difference between them. Stephens boasted about his Confederacy’s founding tenet that blacks were not only inferior, but were “natural” slaves. Here, Lincoln disagreed. Vehemently. Though he did not consider the black man to be his equal, he did consider him to be a man — “a man but not a brother,” as he put it. And therefore, as a man, like all men (and women), his enslavement was immorally unnatural. In 1858, Lincoln did not think blacks should have government-granted political rights, like voting, but he emphatically believed they had the God-given “natural right” to life, and therefore, the right to own one’s own body, and to own the product of one’s own labor. For him, slavery was an abomination. “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong,” he declared. It’s not special pleading to say that in an era when racism was the nearly unquestioned standard, Lincoln was less racist than most. And that would provide an opening to further change.

So by all means, we need to confront Lincoln’s racism. It bluntly demonstrates the depth and breadth of the elemental problem of race in our history and in our present, North as well as South. Lincoln stands as a prime example of what was wrong with America from its very founding. However, he rose above that inheritance, growing as a moral being even while holding the ego-inflating office of the Presidency. Though it would take time, he slowly came to see prejudice as a personal and societal failure rather than a success, a product of ignorance not of insight. For Lincoln, white supremacist slavery was not a destination, a problem solved, but rather a starting point, a problem to be solved.

We’ll examine this transformation in two weeks.
Jim Wiggins is a former Copiah-Lincoln Community College history instructor.