Last year Lerone Bennett, a distinguished African-American scholar from
the left side of the political spectrum, published an attack on Abraham
Lincoln, "Forced Into Glory." On the right, columnist Joe Sobran, who along
with Pat Buchanan regularly attacks Lincoln, gave a speech at Christendom
College that echoes many of the same charges. This antagonism against
Lincoln, from both the right and left, always carries the same criticisms:
Lincoln really wasn't opposed to slavery, Lincoln did not believe blacks
should vote or serve on juries, and he thought blacks should be colonized in
other countries. It worries me that they agree, albeit for different
reasons. I take umbrage when the president known as "The Great Emancipator"
is subjected to ad hominem attacks.
The 16th president concluded his second inaugural by saying: "With malice
toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives
us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind
up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and
for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just
and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."
President Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth less than two
months later. Unlike Booth, however, assassins of Lincoln's character miss
by a mile.
The charge that Lincoln opposed blacks having the right to vote, to serve
on juries, to hold public office or to marry outside their race was a charge
made against Lincoln both in his Senate and presidential campaigns. What
Lincoln famously said (and ignored by his critics) in refuting this charge
was, "there is no reason in the world why the Negro is not entitled to all
the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, the right
to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I hold that he is as much
entitled to these as the white man." While Lincoln said that the black man
may not be his equal in some respects, he believed that "in the right to eat
the bread, without leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he (the
black man) is my equal ... and the equal of every living man."
As a member of Congress in 1848, Lincoln intended, as his first piece of
legislation, an act to eliminate slavery in Washington, D.C. This act did
not garner enough support to pass, but when one looks to his prosecution of
the Civil War and his campaign for the 13th Amendment, as well as his
statements and actions during the war, one can see that Lincoln did advance
his beliefs regarding black civil rights over time. His 1864 re-election was
a referendum on the 13th Amendment, then pending in Congress, which would
free all slaves, outlaw slavery forever, and provide Congress with the power
to make and enforce civil rights laws.
Lincoln was a man of his time, but he was also a man who transcended his
time. As Frederick Douglass said of Lincoln, "Measuring by the sentiment of
his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was
swift, zealous, radical and determined."
Lincoln may not have been a pure "abolitionist," as critics indict, but
the abolitionists of Lincoln's day had no chance of electoral victory and
Lincoln knew that. Without electoral success, nothing would have ever been
done to advance the cause of full emancipation.
Lincoln worked toward the emancipation of slaves by constitutional means.
As John Stuart Mill wrote at the time: "Abolitionists, in America, mean
those who do not keep within the Constitution; the Republican party neither
aim nor profess to aim at this object. ... If they have not taken arms
against slavery, they have against its extension. And they know ... that
this amounts to the same thing. The day when slavery can no longer extend
itself, is the day of its doom. The slave owners know this, and it is the
cause of their fury."
Critics of Lincoln seem not to know what Southern secessionists knew:
Lincoln was opposed to slavery, calling it a "monstrous evil" - that's why
seven states seceded before he was even sworn into office. From that
secession, an illegal act, Lincoln knew he had but one course to take:
saving the Union. Lincoln knew that the cause of the Union, predicated on
our declaration of "equality," was the cause of freedom for all.
Lincoln was the first president of the United States to invite blacks to
the White House. So sincere were these meetings that Douglass wrote, "I was
impressed with his entire freedom from popular prejudice against the colored
race. He was the first great man that I talked with in the United States
freely, who in no single instance reminded me of the difference between
himself and myself."
In his most famous speech, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. said he
wanted a society where people were judged "not by the color of their skin
but by the content of their character." It was no accident that he gave that
speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial.