One more time for Mr. Lincoln and history
Mr. Parker didn’t get the point of my column about Memorial Day and Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address two weeks ago, so I’ll repeat the point here in fewer words: If you want to know the truth, you often must probe well below the surface veneer of popular history.
I have no ax to grind on Abraham Lincoln, and with half of my roots planted firmly in the South and the other half in the North, I’m not inclined to argue the Civil War all over again. Nevertheless, I often try to prompt readers to think outside the box, and the deification of Lincoln is such a fine example of mangled history that I will use him again to illustrate.
We who lived through it will never forget Martin Luther King’s thrilling “I have a dream!” speech on Aug. 28, 1963, delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., before a crowd of a quarter million agitating for civil rights reform.
The venue was appropriate since black Americans celebrate Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation as if this benevolent president rushed to rescue slaves. If they took the time to look more closely they would find the truth is complex and has many layers of mud on its shoes.
Lincoln supported the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court and the courts of every Northern state, requiring citizens and the federal government to return runaway slaves (property) to their owners with stiff fines and sentences for anyone concealing runaways or otherwise failing to comply with the law.
Lincoln defended slaveowner rights to own their “property,” saying, “... when they remind us of their constitutional rights, I acknowledge them, not grudgingly but fully and fairly, and I would give them any legislation for the reclaiming of their fugitives.”
As territories fought their way to become new states, they also became battlegrounds between pro-slavery and abolitionist factions. Lincoln said this in Peoria, Ill., on Oct. 16, 1854: “Whether slavery shall go into Nebraska, or other new territories, is not a matter of exclusive concern to the people who may go there. The whole nation is interested that the best use shall be made of these territories. We want them for the homes of free white people. This they cannot be, to any considerable extent, if slavery shall be planted with them. Slave states are the places for poor white people to move from ... New free states are the places for poor [white] people to go and better their condition.”
In 1860, Lincoln had been elected president. In his inaugural speech he said, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”
As the Civil War erupted in 1861, Lincoln tried to hold the Union together without doing anything at all with the slavery issue for one simple reason; abolition was quite unpopular and for Lincoln it would be political suicide.
Even though slavery was minimal in Northern states, the thought of abolition of slavery and living together with blacks as equals was as repugnant to Lincoln as to most whites, and their poor treatment of free blacks reflected that disdain.
Lincoln said, “Free them, and make them politically and socially our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this ... We cannot, then, make them equals.” That didn’t make Lincoln evil so much as a product of his times.
Even before conceiving his emancipation ideas, Lincoln pondered how the country would adjust to the “race problem” of free blacks and whites, and he became committed to the notion of “colonization,” meaning move all former slaves out of the U.S. “Send them to Liberia, to their own native land,” he said.
Before slavery ended, Lincoln met with free black leaders in the White House, urging them to organize a colonization movement back to Africa. Before then, in his Cooper Union speech on Feb. 27, 1860, he spoke in favor of peaceful “deportation” of blacks and that “their places be ... filled up by free white laborers.”
Intending to send every black person in the U.S. to Africa, Haiti or Central America, he reiterated his desire to Congress on Dec. 1, 1862, in a message including: “I cannot make it better known than it already is, that I strongly favor colonization.”
Congress ended slavery in the District of Columbia in 1862, providing $600,000 as a first payment of expenses to send freed slaves back to Africa. President Lincoln appointed James Mitchell, a pro-colonization enthusiast, to oversee the project and urged his cabinet members to help. The plan failed but Lincoln remained committed to colonization to solve the “race problem.”
William Lloyd Garrison, pre-eminent abolitionist, despised Lincoln for his colonization policies and remarked that Lincoln “... had not a drop of antislavery blood in his veins.”
As the Civil War raged, Lincoln conceived an executive order for emancipation of slaves as a military strategy to weaken the enemy, not as a measure of moral principle.
In July 1862 he informed his cabinet of the emancipation proclamation idea, saying he would hold the proclamation until a strong Union battle victory provided the right time to make the announcement most effective. He pressured his generals accordingly.
In an Aug. 22, 1862, letter to Horace Greeley, Lincoln wrote, “If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that ...“
Greeley didn’t know it but Lincoln had already drafted the Emancipation Proclamation at the time of his letter.
Lincoln’s frustrating wait ended on Sept. 17, 1862, when Union forces repelled Confederate invaders at the Battle of Antietam in Maryland, aka Battle of Sharpsburg. Five days later Lincoln assembled his cabinet to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. It was to become effective on Jan. 1, 1863, but would be rescinded if before that date the Southern states would discontinue their fight to secede.
The fight continued and the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect. Lincoln wrote to Major General John McClernand, “After the commencement of hostilities I struggled nearly a year and a half to get along without touching the ‘institution’ [of slavery]; and when finally I conditionally determined to touch it, I gave a hundred days fair notice of my purpose, to all the States and people, within which time they could have turned it wholly aside, by simply again becoming good citizens of the United States. They chose to disregard it, and I made the peremptory proclamation on what appeared to me to be a military necessity. And being made, it must stand.”
Lincoln’s Emancipation was not only conditional, it didn’t apply to the slaves in Union slave states of Maryland, Delaware, Missouri and Kentucky or to any other slaves in Northern states. It also did not apply in Tennessee and the New Orleans area where Union forces were already in control.
William H. Seward, Secretary of State, observed, “We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free.”
The Proclamation had no immediate effect, but over time it did allow nearly 200,000 freed black slaves to enlist in the Union Army, and raised expectations of freedom among slaves as word spread.
Lincoln did eventually champion the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution prohibiting slavery in the U.S., and he deserves credit for that, though he waited until public opinion had shifted sufficiently to squeeze the bill through Congress.
In all, Lincoln gets far too much credit for ending slavery. The courageous people deserving that credit were the abolitionist activists, swimming upstream against popular opinion of a white population with an aversion to the idea of living together with free blacks as equals.
Far too many American blacks adore Lincoln without knowing the real history. One who does know is Ebony magazine’s former editor, Lerone Bennett, Jr. He said, “On at least fourteen occasions between 1854 and 1860, Lincoln said unambiguously that he believed the Negro race was inferior to the White race.”
It may not be pretty, but at least it is real, and that is the way history should be consumed and remembered.
[Terry Garlock of Peachtree City occasionally contributes a column to The Citizen.]