Becoming Abraham Lincoln, Part II

Published 12:33 am Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Abraham Lincoln, as we discussed two weeks ago, began his adult life as a racist, as did most in his time and place. But critically, his belief in the fundamental human dignity of all, regardless of race, would be his intellectual opening to overcome that blinkered upbringing.

Lincoln’s transformation was eloquently summed up by the eminent black scholar, W. E. B. Du Bois, who noted that he “was a poor white, poorly educated,….” But, Du Bois continued, “and I love him not because he was perfect but because he was not, and yet triumphed…. The world is full of folk whose taste was educated in the gutter. The world is full of people born hating and despising their fellows. To these I say: See this man. He was one of you, and yet he became Abraham Lincoln.”

Others, though, did not experience this “triumph.” Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens and his co-Confederates proclaimed the matched set of racism and racially-defined slavery to be their entire reason for being, an ideal to be maintained and exalted, fixed in amber like an heirloom to be passed down to future generations. In an independent Confederacy there was no possibility for an abolition of slavery, or for any semblance of racial equality. Ever. In Lincoln’s America, for all of its shortcomings, that possibility existed.

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And sure enough, as his views slowly evolved over the course of the war, Lincoln would maneuver the Union through a partial emancipation of slaves justified as a wartime measure, then to the wholesale enlistment of black men (including escaped slaves) into the Union military, and finally to the complete abolition of slavery. But 1865 brought more than this legal recognition of black’s humanity. Where Lincoln had previously seen “a man but not brother” in a black man’s face, he now was beginning to see a brother, an equal.

In April 1865, two days after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Lincoln gave a speech in which he declared his support of voting rights for black men who were educated, and for those who had “served our cause in the military.” That cause had become the abolition of slavery, but it had always been the salvation of the Union. Lincoln held that men who had not only fought for their own freedom but had fought for the constitutional union surely had earned political equality under that constitution — the very political equality he had opposed in 1858.

However, in the crowd that day was a man who, on hearing the remarks, said to a companion, “That means n####r citizenship. Now by God, I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he’ll ever make.” That man was John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated the President three days later. It was an act of white supremacist terrorism, one that was a natural progression from the defense of Stephens’ “great truth,” and a foreshadowing of the brutally violent opposition to black citizenship still to come during the Reconstruction Era.

Let’s acknowledge that Lincoln was still far short of racial sainthood on the day he died. But for all his flaws, he represented America’s capacity to admit its failings and its promise to try to do better. The follow through on that promise has sometimes been advanced forcefully; sometimes it has moved at a glacial creep. Still, morally and intellectually, Lincoln was a great man leading a great nation. By contrast, Alexander Stephens represented America’s flaws stubbornly chiseled into granite, a promise to try not to be better, a promise religiously kept. Morally and intellectually, Stephens’ “Lost Cause” was a still-born runt.

Those two visions of America vie for dominance even today. Now, as much as ever we should remember that Illinois candidate for Senate in 1858. He was one of us, and yet he became Abraham Lincoln.
Jim Wiggins is a retired Copiah-Lincoln Community College history instructor.