Getting Lincoln Right

Posted: May 16, 2001 12:00 AM
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.