Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Was Lincoln Racist? Problems in Revisionist History

As is often the case, great men rarely live up to their legends. History has a fascinating way of molding yesterday's heroes and villains to suit the needs of the hour. The transformation of a controversial and complex individual into a symbol of hope and prosperity tends to be strongly amplified in the wake of an assassination, and is especially increased in national leaders who are victorious in war. If you're wondering who I'm writing about, here's another hint: he had a penchant for top hats (and, according to the world's ultimate online source for trivia, made Thanksgiving a national holiday).

The mystery surrounding the "real" Abraham Lincoln is one that seems to have really taken off over the past decade or so. Revisionist histories are nothing new, and when applied to a titanic figure like a canonized head of state, social reformer, or war, are almost always controversial. Since 2000 at least four books suggesting we take another look at Lincoln have popped up: Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln's White Dream, Lincoln Unmasked: What You're Not Supposed to Know About Dishonest Abe, Lincoln Reconsidered: Essays on the Civil War Era (orig. 1961), and The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War.

The crimes leveled against Lincoln are many (his was essentially a dictator, he was a war criminal, he stole the election, etc.) However, the most interesting claims (to me) are those regarding Lincoln's views on race. This is leveled most forcefully in Lerone Bennett's Forced into Glory, a weighty tome (652 pages long) with a single goal: to recast Lincoln as a racist of the first degree and expose his hidden bias, so cunningly whitewashed over by a century and a half of hagiographies. Not only was the Civil War fought over reasons far from slavery (common knowledge to any historian), but but Lincoln enjoyed racist jokes, ethnic slurs, blackface shows, that he thought black people to be infeorior to white people, didn't really oppose slavery (or at least not to the extent that he was thought to), and even had a plan to ship all the slaves overseas, ridding America of Negros once and for all.

Heavy words; the historical gauntlet is thrown. So, was Lincoln a racist?

I should begin by saying that I haven't carefully read any of these books and am in no way a Lincoln scholar - I simply have no basis to make any claim one way or the other on these books and their claims.

That said, I do know something about the writing of history and about the 19th Century and can probably make some sense of this without reading hundreds of pages (and therefore postponing this post by a number of months).

1) Revisionist history tends to overstate its case. I've read good and bad revisionist histories and the difference is usually this: bad histories usually tend to say "look at all this new evidence! Clearly my novel evidence is right and you can ignore all that other crap" while good histories tend to either weigh the two in tadem and provide a "nuanced", rather than completely new view or contextualize the evidence as to explain all evidence in a different light.

A good example of the latter is I.F. Stone's The Trial of Socrates, whose main theme is that Socrates was anti-democratic and, in the wake of a series despotic uprisings (netiher of which he spoke out against and involved his students), was executed. That history uses past information and recontextualizes it. It is not dismissive of the facts, but of the interpretation.

2) Historial Morality Must Be Taken In Context. almost everyone in the mid 1850s (and much, much later) was a racist by today's standards. One great example of this is Darwin, longtime advocate of abolition didn't think too highly of black people. Was he racist? By the standards of the day, he was progressive (compare him to Louis Agassiz, the Swiss-American naturalist, who was, even for his time, pretty damn racist, who considered black people a distinct species and thought that black people shouldn't be anywhere near white people, including himself). One must understand the politics and morality of the 1850s to really comment on whether or not Lincoln's notion that black people were inferior to white people makes any sense.

3) Rhetoric, Rhetoric, Rhetoric. What was Lincoln again? Oh yeah... a politician... and what do they do? They tell people what they want to hear. They're political in their speech. If Lincoln thought that blacks and whites were of equal intelligence he certainly couldn't say it (that notion, unlike abolition, was far outside the mainstream). Then again, if he secretly hated black people but thought they had to be free, he certainly couldn't say that either, given his platform of abolition.

So what are we to believe? If we're to talk about Lincoln, it's important to understand him in his proper context and not to gloss over any of his failings, personal or political, and mistake the polished marble memorial as a sound substitute for the real man, warts and all. That said, for forging our own society, we've certainly come a long way from Lincoln, whatever his views, and it might not make any sense to get hung up on whether he really thought white people were smarter than black people or whether he told racist jokes (and who didn't?) or whatnot. History bends great men to meet the needs of the hour, and hour is no different. Lincoln, the idea, not the man, is what America country looks to for guidance, wrongly or rightly. And maybe that's not such a bad thing after all.

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