Thursday, February 12, 2009

A Growing Appreciation for Lincoln

It's no secret that I have an intense sense of pride as an American and as an African-American in Barack Obama's ascendancy to the office of President. But one of the things that startled me was the way he spoke of Abraham Lincoln.

I would imagine most people think that American blacks would have a profound sense of gratitude for the 16th President whose signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, freed slaves south of the Mason-Dixon line. However, most of what I read growing up, and even as an adult, left me with a profound ambivalence regarding 'Honest Abe'.

Lincoln seemed to me, to be ambivalent regarding the plight of slaves and that has always left me a little cold. Also the idea that Lincoln, while apparently against slavery, did not consider black people equal to whites, has always troubled me.

"I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in anyway 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."

Those words, spoken during the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, have been a stumbling block in the estimation of African-American historians and contemporaries of Lincoln. Historian Lerone Bennett, Jr, says in his book, "Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln's White Dream", regarding Lincoln's legacy as The Great Emancipator, 'No other American story is so enduring. No other American story is so comforting. No other American story is so false.' Frederick Douglass viewed Lincoln early on as a 'genuine representative of American prejudice.' and also referred to him as 'preeminently the white man's President'.

Barack Obama's admiration for Lincoln caused me to reexamine my early estimates of him. But it wasn't the first time, that my analysis of the one called 'the greatest of all American presidents' was challenged.

I was in a seminar with Ronald White, author of a book called "Lincoln's Greatest Speech", a study of Lincoln's second inaugural address. While I chafed at White's assertion, at one point that there was a type of 'moral ambiguity' regarding slavery (looking back, I'm almost certain he didn't mean it the way I took it - but I challenged him on it anyway), I was at first struck by the beauty of the speech. Reading it more often, I was overwhelmed by its moral authority. It is not just a political speech, this is a man who has delved deep to place in context the suffering of his nation and his own suffering as well. It is profoundly public and personal.

I remember the first time I saw that speech inscribed on the wall of his memorial and again, it took on fresh meaning.

Lincoln stripped away the pretext of the Civil War. It was not about 'economics' as some revisionists have tried to assert: "One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it."

At the same time, he saw deeper spiritual significance and paradox in the War's execution: "Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.""

No wonder, when afterwards in the White House, when Lincoln asked Frederick Douglass what he thought of his speech, Douglass replied, "It was a sacred effort."

I looked at the Gettysburg Address and in its sensitive brevity. I saw someone whose heart was unalterably moved by what his country was experiencing, " a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

We refer to politicians, as 'tone deaf' when they are unmindful of the mood and suffering of their constituencies. I don't get the impression that Lincoln was 'tone deaf'.

Lincoln's attitude towards blacks changed when he allowed African-Americans to fight in the Union Army (at Frederick Douglass' constant public prodding). He saw their bravery and also saw that the tide began to turn as these soldiers put their lives on the line with their white fellow soldiers. Lincoln respected them and their patriotism.

And while I have not fully turned the corner in my evaluation of him, the thing that I admire about him most; the thing that his presidency has taught me to look for in any president, is the peculiar capacity to shape the office by being shaped by it. That has been seen in very few presidents. I believe it was the case with Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, I think it was true with Truman and Eisenhower, it was beginning to be seen in Kennedy and to some degree with Reagan. But that list is not very long and the country suffers enormously when it doesn't happen at all.

Lincoln's respect and gratitude for black Americans was so great that in his brief remarks in a window at the White House, after the Confederacy surrendered, he spoke of giving blacks the right to vote. In the crowd to whom he spoke, was a 27 year old actor named John Wilkes Boothe. Boothe determined tha it would be the last speech Lincoln ever made.

It was.


Jeremy Gregg said...

Perhap Lincoln was willing to give ground initially so that he could win it later? Perhaps he said those things in the debate because he realized that, if he came out fully in favor of his later views of blacks, that he would not be elected. In other words, he mirrored the way that God revealed himself to man: partially in the Old Testament as the God of vengeance and wrath, and then fully in the New Testament as the God of love and peace.

Had God first appeared to Israel in the form in Jesus rather than the God of Moses, they would not have accepted him. The world was not ready for the full revelation at that time. The Israelites needed the God of Moses.

Had Lincoln mentioned his interest in allowing blacks the right to vote during the Lincoln-Douglas debates, he would not have been elected. The world was not ready, but he knew that he could help prepare the way if he were elected President.

Just a thought, but one that might have some comfort in it.

Gerald Britt said...


The more I think of it, the more I see it as a disconnect between the 'myth' of Lincoln's image and the reality of his being a man of his culture and times.

Again, I am coming to appreciate his growth in office. Not just as a politician but as a human being in touch with other human beings.

The romantic version of Lincoln serves no one well. His authentic American story has lessons for us all.