Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Things we'd rather not know about Lincoln

My sister asked me in an email earlier this week if I had read about the Lincoln letters that were recently made available online. I took a look and noted that there were some letters which the University of Rochester was sharing with the public on the web. Some of the letters had originally been in the possession of Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward, a New York resident who came within a hair of being assassinated on the same day as Lincoln, the next two presidents, Johnson and Grant, and also Lincoln’s cabinet. They are not newly discovered, just new on the web.

The information that seems to have excited the most attention among the press, though, is correspondence showing Lincoln’s interest in a plan to compensate slaveholders for loss of their slaves. I presume that those who write about this believe people would read it and say to themselves, “Oh, my God. Why would Lincoln suggest something like that?” The truth is, this is not even remotely new, or, for that matter, news. In fact, compensated emancipation had not only been discussed in America long before Lincoln was around, but was in his time already the basis of successful emancipation plans in other countries, including in nearby South America.

Many people are still shocked to learn that Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, held views that most of us today (I hope) would consider really racist, if not outright crazy. Don’t be alarmed. Although some of what you read may be surprising, Lincoln was, in my humble opinion, the great man we were told he was in grade school, but he was a man of his time, and that meant he was a white supremacist. It was the rare anti-slavery man who thought of blacks, free or not, as equals, particularly when it came to legal rights, and he was no different. In his own day, Lincoln would never have been elected postmaster (the first office he held) had he expressed beliefs more in line with those that we would require any politician to have now.

The written record shows Lincoln’s commentary on slavery was extremely limited until he was in his mid-forties, although I note that he was long in favor of emancipation in the nation’s capital (while at the same time decrying abolitionists). Although he was probably always anti-slavery (no proof I know that he ever not), and certainly was by the time he became a public servant, the record shows him that he was all too subject to the racism of the time.

Lincoln’s 1958 debates with longtime Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas are still read and compared favorably to the silly debates we conduct these days in presidential campaigns where the candidates merely try to recite talking points, sling out memorized one liners and pray they avoid major goofs.

Listen to Lincoln (who lost the ’58 Senate election to Douglas but beat him in the presidential election of 1860) during the first of the debates:

“I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which, in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality; and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a difference, I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position. I have never said anything to the contrary”.

To be fair to Lincoln, and many writers who mention these positions are not, he immediately after said that they were entitled to all the rights stated in the Declaration of Independence - life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. By this he meant (and said) blacks had the right to benefit from their own labor. That is, not be slaves. Of course, the problem was, to Lincoln, and just about everyone else, that did not translate into many legal rights.

Although Lincoln lived in the North, where slavery itself was illegal, the law there severely impinged upon the rights of free blacks. Thus, Lincoln was not wrong about the state of the law when he complained that Douglas’ assertion that he was for “perfect social and political equality with the negro” was “but a specious and fantastic arrangement of words, by which a man can prove a horse chestnut to be a chestnut horse”. I’ve always liked that horse chestnut/chestnut horse witticism, but was reluctant to use it knowing the point Lincoln was making.

Lincoln made his point crystal clear in the fourth debate, that he was not “in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people”. Frankly, to suggest anything different would have been likely to incite a riot, even in the “free” North. In fact, only New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts and Maine permitted blacks to vote at all and those states held but a tiny percentage of Northern blacks. Blacks actually could not be jurors anywhere in the States, until 1860, and then just in Massachusetts. A federal law guaranteeing them the right to do so had to wait until 1875.

As for interracial marriage, prohibitions against it in the states was forbidden by our Supreme Court only in 1970. That’s not a typo. NINETEEN seventy, not eighteen seventy.

The idea of intermarriage so upset people that Lincoln had to fight off "Judge" Douglas' assertions that he was in favor of it. Again, in the fourth debate Lincoln said:

"I do not understand that because I do not want a negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. My understanding is that I can just let her alone:

I am now in my fiftieth year, and I certainly never have had a black woman for either a slave or a wife. So it seem to me quite possible for us to get along without making either slaves or wives of negros."

One could find a great deal of hypocrisy in Lincoln’s words as he rested his anti-slavery argument on words in the Declaration of Independence, which included “all men are created equal”. Clearly, he did not believe that included equal rights. In fact, over and over again Lincoln referred to blacks and other non-whites as inferior to his own racial group.

Much of the conflict concerning slavery prior to the Civil War did not concern slavery in the states, which Lincoln insisted he would not touch, but in the territories which were not yet states. It is well known that Lincoln labored hard to keep slavery out of the territories, but it is less well known that he said he wished to preserve all of the territories for white men.

Indeed, not unlike KKK members in the near future, Lincoln eventually foresaw a pure white America. Blacks should be free, but in another country. In fact, they should be relocated to South America or Africa. Lincoln even made this argument to a group of blacks during his presidency. Congress itself had appropriated quite a bit of money to resettle slaves when they finally freed them in the capital while the war still raged. The plan went nowhere, but that was the sentiment at the time.

Despite his personal dislike of slavery and his belief that the forefather’s had put it in a course of ultimate extinction, Lincoln certainly did not push very hard to end it where it existed, at least until the very end of his life with the fate of the union settled. The people of the South, from which he received no electoral votes, were certain that he meant to do just that upon his inauguration, even although he had said everything he could think of to convince them otherwise, while maintaining his anti-slavery principles.

Slaves, were, he repeated over and over, private property, and the constitution protected the right to own and keep them. Not only that, he promised the South any kind of legislation they wanted for the return of runaways. He went as far as saying that freeing the slaves might be the end of “liberty” in America. Don’t think I’m cherry picking words. No one was clearer or more emphatic about what he thought than Lincoln.

Again, although personally finding slavery an abomination, he repeatedly stated that he held abolitionists in the lowest regard. In his eulogy to his idol, Henry Clay, the future Great Emancipator lambasted those abolitionists he believed would “shiver into fragments the Union of these States; tear to tatters its now venerated constitution, and even burn the last copy of the Bible, rather than slavery should continue a single hour”. He was probably right in some cases, even though many abolitionists who wanted “immediate” emancipation, meant “immediately begun” but at a gradual pace. Still, it is not surprising that William Lloyd Garrison, the most famous of abolitionists, held forth that Lincoln was not a true anti-slavery proponent.

Garrison was right, unless you count Lincoln's abstract preferences. Like Gandhi decades later attempted to motivate England to leave India on its own, Lincoln wanted the South to recognize their error and free the slaves. He not only repeatedly promised the South that he had no intention of ending slavery before the war, he continued to say so during the war, even going so far as having published a famous reply to the pre-eminent newspaper editor of the time, indicating that if it meant keeping the Union together, he would not free a single slave.

It looked at one point like that could happen (even though slavery had ended throughout the rest of the Americas already, from the remainders of the British Empire to the former Spanish and Portuguese colonies, and most likely would have eventually ended here at some time). In fact, the original 13th amendment that was passed just before Lincoln took office was actually ratified by two states, Maryland and Ohio, before it died out. In effect, it would have made it law that the constitution could NEVER be amended so as to forbid slavery where it existed.

He meant what he said too. When General Fremont and General Hunter separately issued orders emancipating slaves within their military district, Lincoln overruled them (ironically, by the end of the war, even the South was offering freedom to slaves who would fight the North). He believed felt that it was such a serious (and unconstitutional) action, it could only come from him,and that it had to be justified as a military necessity. Yet, he hesitated until the North scored enough victories such that it would not be sneered at as a desperate move. When he did make the Emancipation Proclamation, it was ridiculed by anti-slavery men for not freeing any slaves, as it pertained only to those slaves still within rebel control. Areas in the South which were under Union control were specifically excepted from Lincoln’s proclamation as far South as Louisiana. This limited move was as far as Lincoln believed he could lawfully take it.

OK, enough. Readers of this blog are familiar with the Jefferson bashing that goes on here from time to time. My thoughts about Lincoln are quite different and it pains me a little to read these words from him. But the racist views held by him were widely held to be true by whites at the time even in the North. For the same reason, I do not blame Jefferson and other forefathers for their racism, but do hold them accountable for their slave holding, for which they did know better (and said so). Lincoln’s dilemma was that he was a Union and Constitution man first, and an anti-slavery man only second. Although I (and many others) may, in the comfort of hindsight, wish the reverse had been true, none of us would have accomplished what he did – the saving of the Union and, to some extent through him, freedom of the slaves. His political wisdom and vision were unique. A harsher view could be fairly taken of his racism, but I leave that to others.

Lincoln, as far as history lets us see, was likely the perfect man to save the Union. I just do not cover that well represented position here either, as most Lincoln books and websiteswould cover it. He is almost always ranked as one of the two greatest president with Washington. Of course, if you don’t believe the Union should have been saved, and I think there is fair argument to be made on the question of the right of secession (that’s for another day), then he might be said to be the worst of presidents. As some would hold, this makes him a barbaric tyrant.

Eventually, when push came to shove, he actively pressed for the passage of the thirteenth amendment that was passed, which is why he gets some credit. He lived just long enough to see it pass through Congress. It was 8 months or so later when it was finally ratified and he was long dead. However, it must be remembered that, although he signed the proposed amendment (there was no reason to do so, but he apparently wanted to show his support and lend his authority) and worked for its passage, Congress, not he, was its progenitor.

I have imagined what Lincoln would say now, if we could somehow address us, humbly asking us to forgive his 19th century racial sentiments and defending his foresight in trying to save the Union first, and thereby preserving the possibility of future liberty for everyone, just as he argued the forefathers intended. I think he would have liked the opportunity to do that. Alas, he cannot. So, we should let Lincoln be Lincoln, marking his blemishes alongside his successes and glories.

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .