A sympathetic defense of Abraham Lincoln

LERONE Bennett Jr.'s interesting and provocative article, "A closer look at Honest Abe," which ran in Perspective last Sunday, offered a jaundiced view of Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation.

Bennett asserted that "Lincoln did not emancipate the slaves, greatly or otherwise." This is a strange contention. Certainly, the proclamation might not have freed any slaves on Jan. 1, 1863, the day it was issued. Certainly, it is no secret that the proclamation was limited and did not go far enough for many abolitionists and congressional leaders. And certainly, this document is misunderstood today. However, as Lincoln scholar Mark Neely Jr. has pointed out, Abraham Lincoln and his Secretary of State William Seward maintained that the Emancipation Proclamation freed at least 200,000 slaves by February 1865.


But beyond that, while this document lacked the inspired words and memorable phrases of some of his other writings, it was the most revolutionary measure to come from a U.S. president up to that time. Lincoln biographer Stephen Oates has noted that it brought to bear unprecedented use of military power against a state institution and produced profound and fundamental changes neither side had expected when the conflict began.

In the popular mind, the document was dramatized as the opening of a new phase of the war. Emotionally, the conflict took on a new meaning as emancipation because the policy of the administration. As of Jan. 1, 1863, the war was fought to preserve the Union and to end slavery.


This Proclamation -- called the "crowning act" of Lincoln's administration by his secretary, John Hay -- provided a significant impetus to the movement which was destined to sweep away the institution of slavery as it existed.

As policy moved from the doctrine of contraband, to the Confiscation Acts, to the preliminary Proclamation to the definitive Proclamation, to the use of black troops, to state laws to stop slavery, the process kept moving until the ultimate step was achieved -- the ratification of the 13th Amendment on Dec. 18, 1865, which abolished slavery in the United States. This was a cumulative process in which the Emancipation Proclamation played a key role. While Lincoln did not live to see the 13th Amendment become the law of the land, his efforts on its behalf were instrumental in bringing it to fruition. He saw this amendment as "a king's cure for all the evils," because, as he said, "It winds the whole thing up."

Bennett also inveighed against Lincoln because the Proclamation exempted certain areas of the Confederacy under control of the Union military forces at the time it was issued. However, as the president told Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase: "The original proclamation has no constitutional or legal justification, except as a military measure. The exemptions were made because the military necessity did not apply to the exempted localities."

Yet again, Mr. Bennett chastises Lincoln because he "had never shown any undue sympathy for Blacks." Although Lincoln did say when he debated Stephen Douglas at Charleston on Sept. 18, 1858, that he was "in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race," time and again, he made it clear that he was morally opposed to slavery and spoke out on behalf of blacks.

In 1854, he told a Peoria audience: "What I do say is that no man is good enough to govern another man, without that other's consent. I say this is the leading principle -- the sheet anchor of American republicanism. ... Slavery is founded in the selfishness of man's nature -- opposition to it, is in his love of justice."

On Aug. 4, 1855, he wrote to his good friend, Joshua Speed: "I am not a Know-Nothing. How could I be? How can anyone who abhors the oppression of Negroes be in favor of degrading classes of white people. ... As a nation we began by declaring that 'all men are created equal.' We now practically read it 'all men are created equal, except Negroes.' When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read 'all men are created equal except Negroes, foreigners and Catholics.'"

In the Ottawa debate with Douglas on Aug. 21, 1858, he insisted: "There is no reason ... why the Negro is not entitled to all natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence. ... I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man."

On the same platform he exclaimed: "In the right to eat the bread, without leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, [the Negro] is my equal and the equal of every living man."


It should also be noted that Frederick Douglass, the former slave who pulled himself up by his bootstraps, respected Lincoln's memory. Lincoln had called him a friend, welcomed him to the White House and solicited his advice on public policy. Douglass wrote in 1866: "He was the first white man I talked with in the United States freely, who in no single instance reminded me of the difference in color, and I thought that all the more remarkable because he came from a State where there were black laws."

It is clear that Lincoln's racism did not lead to bigotry. While he was undeniably a product of his times and shared many of the common ethnic assumptions of his era, in truth, Lincoln was far more generous and enlightened in his racial views than most people of his day.

In discussing the "Lincoln Legacy," historian John Hope Franklin disagreed with those faulting the "Sage of Springfield." He wrote:

"In seizing on statements and even policies pursued by Lincoln at a given time in history, neither Malcolm X nor [Julius] Lester nor Bennett recognized the flexibility of Lincoln and his capacity for growth. Beginning with his simple revulsion to slavery when he saw it in New Orleans in 1831, he gradually embraced the numerous factors that were the components of freedom and equality. Among these were the divestiture of all the attributes and trappings of slavery, the respect and dignity due a citizen of equal standing before the law, economic opportunity, political and social equality, and enjoyment of the franchise. By 1865, Lincoln had come to regard all these as important for the freedmen if they were to live among other free men. The failure to recognize the attributes of flexibility and the capacity for growth in Lincoln and, instead, to treat him as a static, stunted figure is to misuse the legacy that he has left for all of us."

Those who would judge Abraham Lincoln by applying the standards of today to his period and time are guilty of the sin of contemporaneity -- the belief that the only thing that matters are the values and ideas of today. Using a 21st century moral yardstick to judge our 16th president is both unsound and unfair.

Martin D. Tullai teaches at St. Paul's School.