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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 America.

Most people don’t realize that Lincoln didn’t 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 man’s 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 Lincoln’s White Dream, by Lerone Bennett Jr. (Johnson Publishing, 1999). It’s a bitter, scorching, 652-page assault on Lincoln’s undeserved reputation as a friend and benefactor of the black man.

[Breaker quote: A black 
historian debunks the Great Emancipator.]Bennett, a black who grew up in segregated Mississippi, follows Lincoln’s 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 Illinois’s 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, Bennett’s book is mighty unpleasant reading. What really infuriates Bennett, though, is Lincoln’s 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.

Bennett’s 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 Bennett’s 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 Current’s 1958 book The Lincoln Nobody Knows, which also looks closely, though without Bennett’s 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 wasn’t all bad. The beautiful and pathetic traits that make him adored are as real as his faults, and even after reading Bennett’s book twice I find much to love in him. Oddly enough, Bennett approves of some of Lincoln’s 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 Lincoln’s 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.

Joseph Sobran

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Copyright © 2001 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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