Lincoln: Hero or Hypocrite?

Published:May 27, 2009 by Brendan Wolfe


Against the advice of a handful of scholars, President Obama contributed a wreath this week to a memorial to Confederate dead. (He compromised by also sending a wreath to a memorial honoring black soldiers.) The scholars—including James W. Loewen, who has been mentioned on these pages here—attacked neo-Confederates. This prompted an equally furious counterattack on Abraham Lincoln.

A taste:

While we are stopping politically incorrect ceremonies, we should stop honoring Lincoln.

Lincoln is mistakenly credited with being a friend of black people. But Lincoln did not believe in racial equality. Many times in his political career, he makes his position on the matter of race and slavery quite clear.

The historian James McPherson also brought up Lincoln:

I don’t think it appropriate for a president to send a wreath honoring a group that tried to break up the United States—especially a president who sees himself in many ways as an heir to Abraham Lincoln.

So what does it mean to be an heir to Lincoln? What does it mean to say that Lincoln was racist? If you ask me, it doesn’t mean much. Such statements are generally wielded as weapons in whatever political battle is currently being waged. They say very little about history or about Lincoln.

That’s why I found Garry Wills’s article “Lincoln’s Black History” in the New York Review of Books to be so interesting. In reviewing a new collection of Lincoln’s writings on race and slavery (co-edited by Henry Louis Gates, who also wrote an introduction), Wills does justice to the complications of the man, his views, and how they were shaped by the circumstances in which he lived.

Lincoln’s thoughts on race would be shocking were anyone to hold them today, but they were far from unusual in his time. (Which is why David S. Reynolds makes such a point of highlighting John Brown‘s almost complete lack of racism. For his day, it was shocking!) In the end, though, Frederick Douglass gave Lincoln what Wills calls “grudging praise”:

Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.

Alas, such a nuanced statement hardly fits the agenda of today’s culture warriors. To them, Lincoln must be either a hero or a hypocrite. But what if he was both? What if he was neither?

IMAGE: “Lincoln’s Last Warning,” a cartoon from the October 11, 1862, issue of Harper’s Weekly