In discussing the true legacy of Abraham Lincoln, I believe that there should be no debate – as a cultural symbol in the American consciousness, he stands for the struggle against slavery and emancipation of African Americans. On the other hand, if one is to dig further through tons of historical data different pictures about his life and works can be found. Nonetheless, in studying his life and personality, it is crucial to understand him primarily as a politician and if that is the main label that is given to a person then it is, perhaps, not the most appropriate approach to form a picture about his true persona from what he said or did.
A useful contrast can be made here between Lincoln, a politician, and Frederick Douglass, an activist. The huge difference between an activist and a politician is that an activist is there to try to change people’s attitude towards an idea or phenomenon and not to expect a tangible change in the world to come quickly. The best activists should always be aware of that, lest they become truly disappointed with what they achieve. On the other hand, a politician is not there to attempt to change the world to fit his or her own ideas and conceptions, rather the aim of a good politician should be to make a small amendment where it will really matter. Therefore, in the long run, the aims of both a politician and an activist can be the same but the methods through which they get there differ immensely. In that light, I would argue, with enough confidence from viewing today’s cultural attitude towards both of them that Lincoln and Frederick Douglass were really two sides of the same coin.
First off, there is no dispute over whether Lincoln truly fought against slavery because he is known for statements such as, “If slavery is not wrong, then nothing is”. In addition, far from only giving lip service to the cause he also invested much of his political power to do away with slavery in America once and for all by issuing the famous Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 through which he officially granted freedom to all the black enslaved populations of the United States. In one letter he eloquently expressed the incompatibility of slavery with the principles of the American Constitution, “As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.” These and many other facts clearly suggest that it was his main aim to abolish the shameful institution of slavery.
The shadow has been cast at his name recently by those scholars who provide evidence for his racist worldview. Unfortunately, from that perspective the evidence is overwhelming. Lincoln is known for his use of words such as “nigger” in his everyday speech. Nonetheless, the mere fact that he used that word does not automatically entail that he was a racist since it is known that that and similar words did not have the same negative connotation in the 19th century as they have now. It is claimed that the word was used in neutral contexts as well. However, what cannot be defended is his political idea of deporting the black people back to Africa on the grounds of the belief that they are not able to live alongside white people in the United States. Here is a sentence from a letter where he openly stated this idea of his: “My first impulse would be to free all the slaves and send them to Liberia,—to their own native land. But a moment’s reflection would convince me that whatever of high hope (as I think there is) there may be in this, in the long run, its sudden execution is impossible.”
Two main points can be made in the defense of Lincoln. Firstly, one should not be too quick to judge him as a racist before taking into account the cultural context in which he was brought up and in which he spent his life. The first half of the nineteenth century was certainly an era very different from ours. The difference is the most obvious in the domain of scientific knowledge, one must not forget that Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was not published until 1859, and before that it was very difficult to explain the huge differences in the physiognomy of the races. It was an established opinion during that time that the same differences as those obvious from the outside run deep in the domain of psyche as well. Given that fact, more credit should be given to Lincoln and those around him for at least recognizing that slavery is immoral.
Secondly, it is easy to see how all of his racist claims could have been launched as a part of his political strategy for fear of not sounding too radical. Lincoln knew that hoping that Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and others would be able to bring slavery to an end through their speeches would be truly romantic. There is no doubt that such movements when they gain in popularity can cause revolutions to happen; however, much of history has taught us that it is very rarely that revolutions bring about any positive change. Instead, as a wise politician he was able to balance his statements in such a way to gain enough popularity for them but at the same time to be able to really change something. For instance, we might consider his statement in a letter to a personal friend in which he states his personal feelings about slavery but also the reasons for tolerating it, ”I confess I hate to see the poor creatures hunted down, and caught, and carried back to their stripes, and unrewarded toils; but I bite my lip and keep quiet”. His awareness of the political situation at the moment forced him to remain quiet. Taking into account that his moderate political moves ended up leading America in the Civil War, it is easy to conclude how sensitive topic slavery was in America at that time. Nonetheless, only through such carefully planned political actions, was there a possibility of doing away with the institution of slavery in America.
All that said, it seems that Foner’s method of studying Lincoln, which he laid out in the book Fiery Trial, Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, is the appropriate one since he views Lincoln’s political moves and speeches in the context of 19th century America. He lists all his wrongdoings, or at least what would be judged as wrongdoings from today’s perspective, such as involvement in a trial which was to deport an escaped black family back to their owners, the belief that black people should be sent back to Africa, etc. All this is done in order to present an objective picture of Lincoln’s personality but at the same time, the author manages to provide the readers with enough contextual information to be able to judge those acts from a perspective so that in the end the heroic image of Abraham Lincoln is preserved.
In conclusion, this book is a great source for studying Lincoln precisely because of its objectivity when dealing with facts and taking into account the conditions within which they were found so that a reasonable judgment about this great historical figure can be made. It really is crucial to have as correct information about the nation’s leaders as possible but it should not be our aim to focus on the negative aspects of their lives only to show how our perception of them was idealized, rather one should be aware that they were fallible human beings but, nonetheless, honor the greatness of their deeds. After all, if there had not been for Lincoln, who knows whether the problem of slavery in America would be solved.
Douglass, F. O. R. N. A. I. G. (2013). By introduction and notes Robert G. OMeally Frederick Douglass – Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (Barnes & Noble Classics). Barnes & Noble.
Foner, E. (2011). The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. W. W. Norton.