Campus & Community

A nuanced view of ‘great emancipator’

5 min read

Series of talks reveals a complex, ambivalent Abraham Lincoln

Was Abraham Lincoln, who drafted the Emancipation Proclamation, a racial egalitarian – or a bigot?

That’s a question American historians are still struggling with, 141 years after an assassin’s bullet ended the life of the 16th president.

To George M. Fredrickson ’56, Ph.D. ’64, the foremost American scholar on the history of race, Lincoln was neither – and both. He was “big enough to be inconsistent,” the working title of a book Fredrickson is writing for Harvard University Press.

The third and final Du Bois lecture on Lincoln and race by George M. Fredrickson, ‘Becoming an Emancipator: The War Years,’ is at 4 p.m. today (Nov. 16) in the Thompson Room, Barker Center, 12 Quincy St.

Fredrickson, the Edgar E. Robinson Professor of U.S. History Emeritus at Stanford University, was at Harvard this week to deliver three lectures on the puzzle of Lincoln and race, sponsored by the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research.

In his first lecture, on Nov. 14, “A Clash of Images,” Fredrickson sketched a brief history of the shape-shifting views of Lincoln and race held through the years by American historians, commentators, and ordinary citizens.

The second lecture (Nov. 15) tracked Lincoln’s political path through the Illinois of the 1850s. The future president grew up in “the most negrophobic” of the newer states, said Fredrickson, a place where slavery and blacks were hated equally.

In his third Du Bois Lecture today (Nov. 16), Fredrickson examines a Lincoln whose views on race evolved and matured in the moral cauldron of the Civil War.

“Every field of history has its heroes,” and Fredrickson is one on the issue of race, said Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Victor S. Thomas Professor of History and chair of African and African American Studies. Introducing him at the first lecture, she said, “I can’t even think of a class that I don’t assign one of your books.”

It was 30 years ago that Fredrickson first addressed the conundrum of Lincoln and race, in an essay whose title suggested Lincoln’s racial ambivalence toward black Americans: “A Man, but not a Brother.”

His renewed pursuit of the question, he said, will outline a “more complex” picture of Lincoln and race, drawn from Lincoln’s own words, and from diaries and memoirs of his contemporaries

“Every generation invents a new Lincoln,” said Fredrickson – a fact that makes the historiography of Lincoln’s views on race a tangled tale.

After the war, came decades of praise for Lincoln as the “Father Abraham” who led blacks out of slavery. Booker T. Washington, in 1891, called Lincoln “the great man, that first American.”

But just a few years later, writer Thomas Dixon in his 1905 novel “The Clansman” portrayed Lincoln as a model white supremacist, a Southern gentleman who opposed black suffrage and favored colonizing ex-slaves.

By 1922, a few cracks appeared in the way black Americans viewed Lincoln as well. In that year, W.E.B. Du Bois expressed what Fredrickson called “mixed and unsettled feelings” in an essay about Lincoln and race, though he also praised Lincoln as “big enough to be inconsistent.”

From the 1930s to the 1950s, Fredrickson said, American historians did not excoriate Lincoln for his racial views, but simply recorded episodes of seeming bigotry in a matter-of-fact way.

By the 1960s, there was a “dramatic turn” in views of Lincoln, said Fredrickson. On the one hand, Martin Luther King Jr. saw him as an icon for the emerging civil rights struggle. On the other hand, Malcolm X – a believer then only in black saviors – told black Americans to take down their pictures of Lincoln.

Among historians at the same time, there was open dissent regarding Lincoln’s true views on race. Some dredged up the Kentucky-born president’s sometimes – to modern ears – insulting remarks about the black race, and his advocacy of sending ex-slaves off to colonies in Africa or the Caribbean. They saw Lincoln as too cautious and conservative, a reluctant emancipator.

By the late 1970s and early 1980s, views of Lincoln among historians had swung back to being more sympathetic, with a flawed Lincoln being given credit for good intentions, said Fredrickson.

But a spate of recent books have appeared, reviving a kind of historians’ civil war over Lincoln’s racial views.

Among historians arrayed on the favorable side is Richard Striner. His 2006 book, “Father Abraham: Lincoln’s Relentless Struggle to End Slavery,” attempts to demolish the periodically popular views of Lincoln as a racist and as a reluctant emancipator.

Striner reminds the reader of an 1864 public letter, in which Lincoln wrote: “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.”

On the other hand, historian Lerone Bennett Jr. excoriates the 16th president for his views on race, with an anger visible in the title of his controversial 2000 book, “Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream.” Lincoln’s views of colonization, Bennett argues, supported a form of “ethnic cleansing.”

In the same camp, Michael Lind’s 2005 book, “What Lincoln Believed,” draws a picture of the great emancipator as a lifelong segregationist who had a low opinion of the intellectual capacities of black Americans. Lind sees Lincoln as an advocate of democratic republicanism, said Fredrickson, “though a white version of it.”

In this fray of Lincoln historiography, Fredrickson hopes his new book will offer a more nuanced look at Lincoln’s views on race, and on the racial environment the president grew up in and evolved beyond.

Between the two warring views of Lincoln – savior of race or racial bigot – there is, said Fredrickson, “a third possibility”: that Lincoln’s attitude changed significantly during the war years, when he came to see “blacks as potentially equal citizens.”

Still, Lincoln had a “very mixed record” on the issue of race, said Fredrickson.

Undeniably, the 16th president had a lifelong hatred of slavery as an institution. But in the end, Fredrickson said, “this did not make him a racial egalitarian.”