|"President Lincoln and Family," an engraving by A.B Walter in 1865|
and published by John Dainty, Philadelphia;
from my family's private collection of vintage Americana
On this day in 1809, in a tiny Kentucky village, the 16th president of the United States was born.
For all of his modest beginnings, however, Abraham Lincoln would become one of the most pivotal figures in American history. And after his assassination in 1865, his life would develop a legendary status of almost mythical proportions. At least among Northerners and minorities, anyway.
For many white Southerners, Lincoln was and has remained a man of tyranny at worst, or duplicity at best.
It has been said that a war's victors get to write its history, and that has indeed been true of America's brutal Civil War. Although Southern whites have long protested the saintly virtue and stoic resolve that has been inscribed into Lincoln's epitaph, such protestations have been met with derision by a country eager for heroes and anxious to move on from those awful, bloody war years.
It's not that racism didn't - and doesn't - exist in America's North, or that all Southerners were - or are - racists. The factors that contributed to our Civil War, and its legacy, are far more complex than racism. There were - and are - raw economic factors, and Constitutional questions, and plain old desperate politicking. Warring amongst ourselves for four years proved to be the most bitter scourge we've inflicted upon our country to date, and every year, it seems, Lincoln's birthday, or some commemoration of his presidency, increasingly rubs salt into those wounds.
You see, the Lincoln that was wasn't the Lincoln many Americans want him to be.
Ever since I moved to Texas as a teenager, I've heard that the Civil War wasn't about slavery. It was about states' rights. Federal officials from the president on down had no right to dictate to states the manner in which they should modernize their economy, which in the South, according to conservative Southerners, was a topic that included slavery only in the context of a labor force.
When I was in college, I heard that the Civil War wasn't about states rights, but about economic prosperity. The South, thanks to cheap labor from slaves, had become mired in an agrarian economy, while the North was rapidly expanding, thanks to the Industrial Revolution. The bit about slavery was, more or less, the straw that broke the camel's back.
Yet when I was a small boy, growing up in rural New York State, in a region near Syracuse that was, during the Civil War, a hotbed of Abolitionist fervor, Abraham Lincoln was practically deity. He won freedom for the slaves because he valued their humanity. And throughout almost all of my life, I've held to that notion, even if states rights and economics were valid components of the Civil War. More than anything, I'd been taught that Lincoln was the great emancipator, and I assumed people who claimed otherwise were simply poor losers, or blatant racists. I never idolized Lincoln, or worshiped his legacy, but since most of the grumblings against him were coming from Southerners who seemed preoccupied by the Civil War, it was easy for me to assume that Lincoln provided them a better scapegoat than their venerated general, Robert E. Lee.
Perhaps, however, it's inevitable that tides turn, even in political history. Because recently, it seems that more and more questions are being raised publicly about how we should view Lincoln and his role in civil rights. In 2009, which was the 200th anniversary of his birth, several controversial books about the president were published, and one of them seemed to sum up what many of them were saying. It was entitled Big Enough to Be Inconsistent: Abraham Lincoln Confronts Slavery and Race, by George M. Fredrickson, and it dared to revive a debate between historians about the level of Lincoln's own personal racism.
Wait, you say - somebody's saying Lincoln was a racist?
Well, actually, it's simple deduction, based on Lincoln's own speeches and writings. When he was running for the United States Senate in 1858, he mentioned more than once that he did not believe blacks and whites should be socially or politically equal. He once scoffed at the notion of "negro equality," claiming that only fools believed such a thing. Even after delivering his Emancipation Proclamation, he was trying to negotiate with some Central American countries to deport America's blacks. In fact, if he wasn't assassinated so soon after the end of the Civil War in 1865, who knows if Lincoln would have succeeded in his clandestine deportation efforts? Like John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated before he had the chance to irreparably damage his own reputation, Lincoln died at a sort of zenith of his presidency, before his true beliefs about blacks could have been codified into whatever post-slavery laws he might have pursued during Reconstruction.
To be sure, Lincoln opposed the institution of slavery, but not because it involved the commoditization of human beings. Lincoln opposed slavery because it provided the South an unfair economic advantage in the eyes of Northern industrialists, who had to hire their employees. Lincoln also desired to preserve the Union, believing that both the North and the South created a far more formidable nation together than they could as separate entities. But in terms of black people having the same intrinsic rights, qualities, and humanity that whites have? No, Lincoln's writings and speeches prove that he did not believe that at all.
So where does this leave us today, as we've come to equate emancipation with civil rights? The same civil rights that Lincoln, were he alive today, would likely want to deny non-whites?
Some people give Lincoln the benefit of the doubt, rationalizing something about him "being a product of his day," where, for example, it was practically inconceivable even in the North for a black person to marry a white person. Lincoln's viewpoint, supposedly, contrasts with the progress we've made as a society, where today, racists may frown on interracial marriage, but that doesn't keep it from successfully happening.
Is that enough? Is taking what's left - Lincoln's practical opposition to slavery on economic grounds - a sufficient redemption of his legacy? Or might it simply help to explain why many Southerners seem to still be fighting the Civil War, with their continuous refusal - that is often mocked - to embrace the leader who proved militarily superior? Remember, since them ol' Yankees were the ones who wrote the war's "official" history, it was in their best interests to let their hero's faults slide into the dustbin of inconvenient memories.
For better or worse, a politician like Lincoln likely wouldn't have survived very long in today's world anyway. Not with our sound-bite news organizations, insatiable social media, and on-demand information technology. When people now ask where all of our great leaders are, perhaps it's more accurate to wonder how great our past leaders would have been had they been forced to endure the same deep scrutiny our leaders today endure. Then again, perhaps Lincoln really was a visionary for his day, and the progress he made towards equality - even though he didn't believe in it personally - was as good as could have been made in 1860's American society. If he were alive today, Lincoln might have navigated our current political waters with the same duplicity many other modern politicians do. He said what he said back then to win elections. That's all politicians do today.
What we can learn from all of this is that national leaders can't necessarily be extracted from the day and age in which they lived, and examined by a different era's standards. This is particularly true in a democratic republic, where a society, as they say, elects the leadership it deserves. It's one of the reasons why I bristle when right-wingers try to romanticize America's past, and put our Founding Fathers on pedestals. It's easier to fashion our own nostalgia than it is to wrestle with facts for which we may have to dig. Or facts which cause us to relinquish long-held beliefs and assumptions.
We're learning that Lincoln wasn't the saint many of us were taught he was, and that he might have even been more of the villain many Southerners have been grousing for generations that he was. Is that enough to revoke his tenure as one of America's greatest statesmen?
Probably not. Despite his disappointing shortcomings, he was still a pivotal president, upon whom hinged the direction of a country that hadn't even reached it's centennial when he was assassinated. He was a racist, but he sought the survival of the union of a country that has come to identify his faults for what they are. That counts as progress, doesn't it?
Our modern leaders can only hope to approximate such an imperfect legacy.