Redeeming the Great Empancipator
by allen c. guelzo
harvard university press, 208 pages, $22.95
In recent decades, Abraham Lincoln’s reputation has not fared particularly well in the black community. Ebony magazine editor Lerone Bennett, Jr., famously argued that Lincoln was a proslavery white supremacist, while Julius Lester wrote that African Americans “have no reason to feel grateful to Abraham Lincoln. Rather, they should be angry at him.” Even Barack Obama has offered tempered criticisms of Lincoln’s racial policies. As a U.S. senator in 2005, Obama published an essay in Time praising Lincoln as “our nation’s greatest President” who “kept his moral compass pointed firm and true” during the throes of civil war. But at the same time, Obama wrote, “I cannot swallow whole the view of Lincoln as the Great Emancipator.” As a black man who had fought for civil rights in Chicago in the late twentieth century, Obama was “fully aware” of Lincoln’s “limited views on race.” From this perspective, the Emancipation Proclamation was, disappointingly, “more a military document than a clarion call for justice.”
These modern views would be startling to most African Americans who lived through the Civil War. In 1860, slaves throughout the South joyously welcomed news of Lincoln’s election to the presidency. In Louisiana, for example, one slave recalled that his fellow slaves were much excited “over the possible election of Abraham Lincoln as President” because they believed “he was against slavery and would use every means in his power to crush it.” In 1863, blacks in both North and South greeted the signing of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation with celebration. And in the wake of Lincoln’s death, many black Americans felt as though they had lost a personal friend—if not the savior of their race. “We had learned to love Mr. Lincoln as we have never loved man before,” declared one black minister in Troy, New York, in April 1865. “We idolized his very name. We looked up to him as our savior, our deliverer.”
How has the black community come so far from these earlier views? In this tightly argued and insightful book, historian Allen C. Guelzo draws on many years of researching and writing about Lincoln to explain the historical circumstances that informed Lincoln’s actions in matters of race. In the process, Guelzo ably demonstrates why some of the harshest criticisms of Lincoln are misguided.
Abraham Lincoln always hated slavery. He clung tenaciously to the belief that the phrase “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence applied to “all people of all colors everywhere.” Slavery robbed individuals of their lives, their liberty, and their ability to pursue happiness. Guelzo astutely points out that “for Lincoln [this] was a political and economic problem before it was a racial one.” In other words, we cannot expect to find in Lincoln a racial egalitarian, because Lincoln was motivated to protect the natural rights of all Americans, not necessarily to extend mere political rights to disenfranchised groups. We therefore look to “the wrong man” if we expect to find “racial empathy” in Lincoln.
There was some hope for racial equality in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. If the “whole human race are one family,” argued one New York editor, then “we will have no permanent settlement of the negro question till our haughtier white blood, looking the negro in the face, shall forget that he is black, and remember only that he is a citizen.” Unfortunately, such hopes would prove short lived. A combination of factors—including the scientific racism of the nineteenth century, the politics of Reconstruction, and a federal judiciary that did not see its role as protecting freedpeople’s rights—led to enduring suspicions between whites and blacks. By the mid-twentieth century, these complex historical phenomena would be reduced to angry, caustic, sarcastic outbursts, with Lincoln sometimes the target, as in Julius Lester’s claim that “it is not only misleading, but a lie, to depict Lincoln as the Great Emancipator.” There is a sad irony in these developments. As Guelzo has argued elsewhere, “blacks have never been closer to the goal of economic and civil integration into the American mainstream, [and yet] the levels of resentment, despair, and alienation over America’s racial future have never been higher.”
Ultimately, to understand Lincoln’s place in American race relations today we must realize that we live in a “world come of age.” As Guelzo argues, we have come to have “an entire cultural hermeneutic of suspicion” and cynicism. “We live in a ‘world come of age,’ a world in which any and all questions of significance are answered without resorting to authority, and in which our lives are perfectly manageable on a day-to-day basis without reference to the leading strings of ethics, religion, law, or history.” In this world, men with heroic reputations—men like Lincoln, or George Washington—“seem as bizarre as the heroic statuary of Lenin and Saddam Hussein.”
In this world come of age, we no longer believe men like Lincoln really accomplished great things. We believe that the slaves freed themselves, not that a benevolent, paternalistic white man could have saved them. Thus, Obama “cannot swallow whole” the idea of Lincoln as the Great Emancipator, and he is disappointed that Lincoln acted out of military necessity rather than the higher motivation of justice. “But it bears remembering that presidents are not elected to do justice,” writes Guelzo, “but to execute laws, and that any presidential proclamation which went unclothed in the constitutional armor of ‘military necessity,’ . . . was begging to be destroyed in a federal court system whose head was, at the moment, the same chief justice who had authored Dred Scott v. Sanford.” Lincoln’s prudent approach to slavery during the Civil War helped make emancipation possible—and it ought to be understood within its historical context.
This short book is teeming with insights. In bringing his readers to think deeply about the intellectual, political, religious, and constitutional contexts within which Lincoln acted, Guelzo makes a valuable contribution to our understandings of Lincoln, the Civil War, and race relations in America.
Jonathan W. White is associate professor of American Studies at Christopher Newport University. Visit his website at www.jonathanwhite.org.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?