Lincoln with Fangs
February 8, 2001
Abraham Lincoln, who was born 192
years ago this month, remains the most venerated of Americans. His signal
achievement is believed to be the Emancipation Proclamation, which, in
the middle of the Civil War, marked the beginning of the end of slavery in
Most people dont realize that
Lincoln didnt want to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. He was
forced to do it. His own preference was for gradual emancipation,
accompanied by the government-subsidized migration of free blacks
outside the United States.
Lincoln had a dual goal: to prevent the
political separation of North and South, while promoting the racial
separation of white and black. He saw America as a haven for people of
European origin. He thought slavery was wrong, but he opposed giving free
blacks equality in the white mans land: he wanted to find a
separate haven for them.
If you think I overstate the case, I
urge you to read Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincolns White
Dream, by Lerone Bennett Jr. (Johnson Publishing, 1999).
Its a bitter, scorching, 652-page assault on Lincolns
undeserved reputation as a friend and benefactor of the black man.
Bennett, a black who grew up in segregated Mississippi, follows
Lincolns career in close detail, showing the gross contrast
between his splendid rhetoric of equality and his consistent
practical record of opposing the betterment of blacks. Lincoln supported
Illinoiss harsh Jim Crow laws, opposed civil rights for blacks,
advocated the colonization of blacks abroad, fought and frustrated
abolitionists, endorsed the Fugitive Slave Act, pandered to voters
anti-black prejudices, privately ridiculed blacks, freely used racial
epithets, delayed taking steps against slavery, put consideration for
slaveowners ahead of justice for slaves, and actually tried, at crucial
points, to save slavery.
All these things are incontrovertible
facts, amply documented. If you have any respect for Lincoln,
Bennetts book is mighty unpleasant reading. What really infuriates
Bennett, though, is Lincolns hypocrisy. When forced at last by
Republican radicals and wartime necessity to issue the Emancipation
Proclamation, he consciously assumed the pose of the Great Emancipator,
the humanitarian liberator, the benefactor of the downtrodden. In doing
this, he upstaged the principled abolitionists who had consistently fought
and sacrificed and taken risks for the cause he himself embraced so
tardily and unwillingly. Lincoln himself, as Bennett sees it, was the
originator of the Lincoln Myth.
Bennetts fury is entirely
understandable and largely justified. But it leads him to excess. The tone
of his book is relentlessly shrill; he repeats himself far too often (the
book would have been better, and perhaps even more powerful, at half its
length); and he rarely gives Lincoln credit for anything. In the end
Bennetts Lincoln seems as two-dimensional as the mythic Lincoln.
Bennett is at his best when he simply
sticks to the facts, which tell their own story without the aid of diatribe.
He shrewdly analyzes the way Lincoln operated as a politician, cunning and
calculating while seeming guileless and principled, preserving slavery
while professing to oppose it. He gives the epithet Honest
Abe the ironic resonance of honest Iago.
A more rounded and nuanced portrait
of Lincoln may be found in Richard Currents 1958 book The
Lincoln Nobody Knows, which also looks closely, though without
Bennetts rancor, at Lincoln the political operator. But Bennett
performs the service of debunking the fraudulent icon of the Great
Emancipator, the champion of liberty and healer of race relations, showing
it to be nearly the opposite of the truth.
Still and it feels odd to have
to say it Lincoln wasnt all bad. The beautiful and pathetic
traits that make him adored are as real as his faults, and even after
reading Bennetts book twice I find much to love in him. Oddly
enough, Bennett approves of some of Lincolns worst deeds, such as
his ruthless wartime measures and his violations of the Constitution and
civil liberties. In fact he is annoyed by some of Lincolns acts of
mercy, especially to white Southerners. He stops accusing Lincoln of being
inhumane just long enough to accuse him of being too humane.
But these are minor reservations. The
dust jacket calls Forced into Glory a book that will
change the way you look at yourself, Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War, race,
and American history. Yes, it will.
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