Review: Lincoln on Race and Slavery
A review of Lincoln on Race and Slavery, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Princeton University Press, 2009).
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is a writer, economist, filmmaker, and Harvard professor who has come under fire recent years for some of his more controversial opinions. In 2010, he wrote an op-ed for the New York Times called “Ending the Slavery Blame-Game,” which pointed out African involvement in the Atlantic Slave Trade. Being a person of color himself, Gates’ opinions drew a lot of criticism, but the points he makes are fascinating. He pointed out that the system could not have existed without “complex business partnerships” between Africans and Europeans. He also remarked that advocates of reparations, rather than look at truth or facts, believe in a “romanticized version that our ancestors were all kidnapped unawares by evil white men, like Kunta Kinte was in ‘Roots.’” Sadly, comments like these have endangered the jobs of Southern professors.
In 2015, Gates received more negative press in response to his genealogy show Finding Your Roots on PBS, after he hosted Ben Affleck. Apparently, Gates discovered some ancestors of Affleck’s that owned slaves, and Affleck requested the information to remain confidential. The whole situation came to light after emails between Gates and Sony were leaked by hackers.
Despite these controversies, Gates is still considered one of the premier scholars on the African American experience, and his writings on race and economics are widely read in college classes. His work, Lincoln on Race and Slavery, is not a book on Lincoln, rather a collection of Lincoln’s speeches and writings, with extensive notes, commentary, and a sixty-eight page introduction by Gates.
The introduction by Gates is worth the price of the book alone, simply for his unique perspective on Lincoln. At first, Gates comes across as critical of Lincoln - the colonization plans, the extensive use of the “N” word, and Lincoln’s often conflicting statements about white and black equality - but ultimately winds up defending Lincoln in a very interesting piece that almost comes across as Gates arguing with himself.
This book would prove to be useful for anyone looking to track Lincoln’s thought process throughout his career. Most importantly, it shows how Lincoln was able to effectively make the War Between the States “about” slavery and race. By the end, however, it became clear this book serves to perpetuate the Lincoln myth.
An example might be how Gates depicts the use and assessment of black troops in the war. Gates noted an Abbeville Institute associate and stated that: “The pioneering research of Earl James reveals that some slaves bore arms, and some free Negroes in the South actually enlisted and fought in the Confederate Army, as Frederick Douglass as early as 1861 warned Lincoln they would do, in an attempt to persuade Lincoln to authorize the use of black men as soldiers.” But Gates himself did not present one piece of research or commentary on such Southern blacks.
On the other hand, black Union soldiers were discussed at length and frequently referred to as Lincoln’s “warriors.” Gates clearly shows that Lincoln needed black soldiers to help his war effort and showed that even after the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln still would not regard blacks as completely equal:
“Despite his declarations of support for the colored troops, it must be noted, Lincoln nevertheless refused to intervene to ensure their equal pay with white troops, an issue that nearly caused a mutiny of all the black troops; indeed, several were executed for opposing unequal pay. Only after an eighteen-month campaign by the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment and its supporters in Massachusetts did the government relent.”
Gates also correctly asserts that Lincoln pushed for colonization right up until his death, and describes how Lincoln always carried with a little black notebook around with him that contained newspaper clippings on colonization. This shows that Abraham Lincoln might have considered the various arguments regarding colonization, but probably never considered the issue a moral one.
In fact, Lincoln was constantly working to manipulate perceptions about slavery. Frederick Douglass, who Gates uses as an example, even pointed out that Lincoln blamed black people for the war and then tried to remove them through colonization. Douglass also referred to Lincoln emphatically as a white man’s president and felt that blacks were Lincoln’s “step-children” at best. Gates himself stated that Lincoln “held out hope that the blacks would realize, sooner or later, that colonization was in their own best long term interest.”
How should we remember Lincoln’s flirtation with the idea of colonization? Gates argues that even if Lincoln worked up to his death for colonization, it “would not sully his reputation in any meaningful way,” especially “if we judge him by nineteenth-century standards, and when we recall how very far Lincoln had come in his thinking about race and the abolition of slavery…” So according to Gates, Lincoln deserves no criticism for his colonization scheme because his ideas about race evolved over time.
Lincoln was also selective of the black people he deemed worthy of equality. Gates compares Lincoln’s ideas to W.E.B. DuBois’ “Talented Tenth,” and stated that Lincoln “abstracted from the large mass of black people, slave and free, a much smaller subgroup, an elite within a nation-within-a-nation, one comprising two distinct parts: those who had demonstrated their capacity to be valiant in war - those who were physically superior, we might say - and those, like Frederick Douglass, who were intellectually superior. These were the natural aristocrats of the race, that signal core group upon whom Lincoln eventually became willing to confer the perquisites of American citizenship.” In other words, Lincoln preferred blacks that he deemed intelligent or capable in battle, and did not necessarily want equality for the rest.
Page after page, Gates seemingly works to break down the Lincoln myth, but then completely reverses and forms his essay almost into an apologia: “We can do Lincoln no greater service than to walk that path with him, and we can do him no greater disservice than to whitewash it, seeking to give ourselves an odd form of comfort by pretending that he was even one whit less complicated than he actually was.” Wow, so we might be able to understand Lincoln better by looking at him objectively? Thanks Henry Louis Gates, we had no idea.
This is exactly how the gatekeepers work. They typically will acknowledge that Lincoln was a tyrant or dictator, but then use sophistry to explain away or justify his actions.
Gates goes on to commit his own disservice by whitewashing Lincoln and argues that: “I believe the most radical thing that Abraham Lincoln did...was his invocation of [The Declaration of Independence’s] opening line unequivocally on behalf of African Americans in a public debate well before the Civil War, and his insistence upon the inclusion of blacks in that definition consistently through his presidency.”
These ideas are downright misleading. Lincoln was not the first politician to question the moral dilemma of slavery and equality, as many Southerners also objected to the implications of slavery early on. George Washington, for example, wrote a letter to Robert Morris in 1786 that expressed a desire for a plan to abolish slavery. Later the same year, Washington wrote to John F. Mercer of Maryland and stated “I never mean, unless some particular circumstance should compel me to it, to possess another slave by purchase; it being among my first wishes to see some plan adopted by which slavery in this country may be abolished by law.”
Another lesser known Southerner, Richard Mentor Johnson of Kentucky, openly kept a slave as his common law wife during the Jacksonian era. Johnson was a senator and the ninth Vice President of the United States, and clearly had a different view on equality from Lincoln, who stated in 1857 that “there is a natural disgust in the minds of nearly all white people, to the idea of an indiscriminate amalgamation of the white and black races.” There was also a strong anti-slavery movement in the South that was headed by people like Sarah and Angelina Grimke, who recognized the equality of the black race and fought to change things.
Ultimately, Lincoln on Race and Slavery does not present many new ideas on Lincoln. It’s also not a complete work on Lincoln and race, in my opinion, because it does not take an opportunity to research how Lincoln viewed another race - the Native Americans. Many people often overlook that Lincoln fought small wars against the Dakota and the Sioux in 1862 that led to many natives being forced into internment camps, while some were executed.
As far as Lincoln on the issue of slavery, this book will provide ammunition for those looking to deconstruct the man. In recent years, not even Lincoln monuments have been safe from vandals. Many Americans are waking up from the dream that is American exceptionalism and the Lincoln myth. Maybe sharing and discussing works like this can help this movement reach its apogee.
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Michael Martin is a teacher and historian residing in Charleston, South Carolina. He is the author of Southern Grit: Sensing the Siege of Petersburg and his work has been published on The Abbeville Institute, The Imaginative Conservative, and Dixie Heritage. His goal is to shatter the paradigm of centralization and show the world what the Southern Tradition has to offer.