Lincoln: Hero or Hypocrite? (Cont’d)

Published:May 28, 2009 by Brendan Wolfe

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In a post yesterday, I referenced Garry Wills’s recent article on Lincoln’s racism. Most of the article is concerned with describing and contextualizing (as opposed to justifying and excusing) that racism, but near the end, Wills asks an important question:

What is the final judgment to be on the great emancipator?

That’s the sort of question that answers itself: Lincoln is now and forever the great emancipator. But he became that, Wills points out (in summarizing Henry Louis Gates) by advancing, in his Second Inaugural Address, what was actually an historical error. Lincoln claimed that when Thomas Jefferson wrote that “all men are created equal,” his words were meant to include African Americans as well.

In fact, it is central to American self-identity—now—that “all men” actually means all people. But Jefferson’s “man,” Wills argues, was actually homo politicus,

the person capable of self-government, which in the eighteenth century excluded women, slaves, blacks and other “inferior races,” children, and the insane. Only homines politici have, in the words of the Declaration, “the right of the people to alter or to abolish it [the form of government] and to institute new government.”

“Men,” in other words, actually meant men. During the Lincoln–Douglas debates, Stephen A. Douglas made exactly this point:

When Thomas Jefferson wrote that document, he was the owner, and so continued until his death, of a large number of slaves. Did he intend to say in that Declaration that his negro slaves, which he held and treated as property, were created his equals by divine law, and that he was violating the law of God every day of his life by holding them as slaves? It must be borne in mind that when that Declaration was put forth, every one of the thirteen colonies were slaveholding colonies, and every man who signed that instrument represented a slaveholding constituency. Recollect, also, that no one of them emancipated his slaves, much less put them on an equality with himself, after he signed the Declaration. On the contrary, they all continued to hold their negroes as slaves during the Revolutionary War. Now, do you believe—are you willing to have it said—that every man who signed the Declaration of Independence declared the negro his equal, and then was hypocrite enough to continue to hold him as a slave in violation of what he believed to be the divine law?

“Yet thanks to Lincoln,” Wills writes, “most Americans now think Jefferson’s words did apply to blacks, and Gates claims that this interpretation was ‘the most radical thing that Abraham Lincoln did.'”

Bad history, says Wills, can sometimes make for good politics.

IMAGE: An 1862 political cartoon that suggested some of the political and social tensions involved in enlisting African Americans into the war effort