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Was Abraham Lincoln a Racist?

FORCED INTO GLORY; Abraham Lincoln's White Dream By Lerone Bennett Jr.; Johnson Publishing: 652 pp., $35

April 09, 2000|ERIC FONER | Eric Foner is, most recently, the author of "The Story of American Freedom" (W.W. Norton). He is the DeWitt Clinton professor of history at Columbia University

Each generation, it is said, reinvents history in its own image. This is certainly true in the case of Abraham Lincoln. Portraits of Lincoln have gone through innumerable permutations, depending on the era in which historians were writing. Lincoln has been depicted as a statesman who merged politics and moral purpose by liberating 4 million slaves and as a political pragmatist who opposed the radicals within his party almost as much as secessionist Southerners. Most recently, in David Donald's masterful biography "Lincoln," he emerged as an indecisive leader with few firm convictions, a man constantly buffeted by events, rather reminiscent of Bill Clinton. Rarely, however, has a scholar launched the full-scale assault on Lincoln's reputation that Lerone Bennett offers in "Forced Into Glory."

Although not an academic historian--he has long worked as an editor at Ebony magazine--Bennett produced three pioneering and important works of African American history in the 1960s. "Before the Mayflower" surveyed the black experience in America from the first appearance of slaves in colonial Virginia, "Black Power USA" challenged prevailing interpretations of Reconstruction by stressing how blacks achieved significant political power after the Civil War and "Pioneers in Protest" offered portraits of key leaders in black history. Popular history at its best, these books brought the fruits of scholarly research to a broad audience at a time when the civil rights revolution had created tremendous interest in America's black past.

But it was his brief article, "Was Abe Lincoln a White Supremacist?" which appeared in Ebony in 1968, that put Bennett on the radar screen of academic history. Seeking to dismantle the "mythology of the Great Emancipator," Bennett argued that Lincoln "shared the racial prejudices of most of his white contemporaries." He resolutely opposed black suffrage and other expressions of racial equality and freed few if any slaves with his famous proclamation. Far from being a symbol of racial harmony or enlightened white leadership, Bennett concluded, Lincoln embodied the nation's "racist tradition."

Apart from Bennett's indignant tone, little in the Ebony piece was actually new. Millions of readers had already encountered Richard Hofstadter's brilliant portrait of Lincoln in "The American Political Tradition," which belittled the Emancipation Proclamation as lacking "moral grandeur" and pointedly juxtaposed Lincoln's 1858 speech in Chicago affirming the equality of man with his address the same year in pro-slavery Southern Illinois in which he insisted that he opposed "bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the black and white races." In the early 1960s, Malcolm X urged blacks to "take down the picture" of Lincoln--that is, to place their trust in their own efforts to secure racial justice rather than waiting for a new white emancipator. In 1968, however, with so many national icons tumbling from their pedestals and Black Power the new rallying cry of the black movement, Bennett's article struck a powerful chord. It also evoked a furious counterattack from Lincoln scholars intent on defending Lincoln's credentials as a racial egalitarian. Henceforth, no one writing about Lincoln could ignore the subject of his racial outlook.

Now, three decades later, Bennett has produced a full-scale elaboration of his argument that Lincoln was a racist and a supporter, not a foe, of slavery. In brief, Bennett's indictment runs as follows: As an Illinois legislator, congressman and political leader before the Civil War, Lincoln opposed the abolitionists, supported enforcement of the fugitive slave law, favored removing all blacks from the United States and explicitly endorsed the state's laws barring blacks from voting, serving on juries, holding office and intermarrying with whites. According to the reminiscences of his contemporaries, he enjoyed minstrel shows and used the word "nigger" in private conversation and sometimes in speeches.

As president, Bennett continues, Lincoln initially allowed the four slave states that remained within the Union during the Civil War--Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri--to dictate his policy toward slavery. Bennett says that Lincoln refused to free and arm the slaves because of his ingrained racism. Credit for emancipation should go not to Lincoln but to abolitionists such as Wendell Phillips and to Radical Republicans in Congress, who in 1862 pushed through the Second Confiscation Act, freeing slaves of owners who supported the Confederacy. The Emancipation Proclamation, Bennett insists, did not free a single slave because it applied only to areas outside Union control. In fact, Lincoln designed it to "save as much of slavery as he could." To the end of his life, in Bennett's view, Lincoln was a devoted proponent of white supremacy.

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