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Tear down the Lincoln Memorial?

By D.G. Martin
Jun 16, 2009

CHAPEL HILL — After reading an important and provocative new book about Abraham Lincoln's ideas about the proper role of freed blacks in post-slavery times, I wondered if somebody will propose that we tear down the Lincoln Memorial.

In ""What Shall We Do with the Negro?' Lincoln, White Racism, and Civil War America," Wake Forest history professor Paul Escott discusses the wide variety of opinions in Civil War times about what to do with blacks after the war ended. Most of those opinions reflected the widely shared view among whites that blacks were inferior and that social and political equality was impossible. Such opinions would, by today's standards, be judged outright racist.

Abraham Lincoln was personally anti-slavery all his life. Politically, he was solidly against the extension of slavery. But, as president, he was no champion of political and social equality for blacks.

Lincoln's overriding Civil War objective was the preservation of the union, not the abolition of slavery. "My paramount object in this struggle," he wrote in August 1862, "is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that."

According to Escott, Lincoln never significantly altered the racial views he outlined in a 1858 debate with Stephan Douglas: "I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races,  there is a physical difference between the white and black races which will ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together, there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I, as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race."

But Lincoln preferred a plan that would separate blacks by sending them to colonies in other parts of the world.

In July 1862, he tried to sell his colonization plan to a group of free blacks on the basis of a need to separate: "Why ... should the people of your race be colonized, and where? You and we are different races. We have between us a broader difference than exists between almost any other two races. Whether it is right or wrong I need not discuss, but this physical difference is a great disadvantage to us both . If this be admitted, it affords a reason at least why we should be separated. It is better for both, therefore, to be separated."

For his times, Lincoln was progressive on racial matters, far ahead of most Americans. But most people in the country, both North and South, were unwilling to consider the possibility of bringing blacks into the mainstream of white American life.

"Racism's power," writes Escott, "was glaringly evident in the predominant desire of most Northerners to have nothing to do with African Americans."

For instance, in 1865, after the war ended, three Northern states and one new territory rejected proposals to allow black Americans to vote.

The Civil War-era racism of the North and the Great Emancipator do not excuse our region's racist past. But dealing with the racial problems of today, we might do better to see Lincoln not as a mythical figure, but as he was, imperfect and human, struggling to make the best of a country in which racism was everywhere wrapped around the high ideals of its founders.

Dixie Education