There is probably no figure in American history that is as revered or misunderstood as Abraham Lincoln. Over 14,000 books have been written about him, all trying to get at who he was, the man behind the myth.
I’m currently reading two of those books. The first is Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin, a book that is already considered a Lincoln classic despite being out only a few years. Perhaps the reason that it has attained such a high status among Lincolnians is the fact that Mrs. Goodwin takes an unorthodox approach to studying the man. As the title suggests, she looks at not only Lincoln but also at his “team of rivals”, the men who ran against him in the 1860 presidential election and ultimately made up his cabinet. These men originally were antagonistic towards him, but as they began to know him they soon realized his strengths as a leader. William Henry Seward, Lincoln’s biggest rival in the election, became his closest friend as he served in the cabinet as Secretary of State.
The other book, which I haven’t begun yet, is A. Lincoln by Ronald C. White Jr. This biography was released in January, and has already received high praise from historians and the media. It is a more traditional look at Lincoln, but has the advantage of coming after the massive amount of work that has preceded it. Mr. White looks at Lincoln’s entire life, but especially focuses on his morality as well as his writing and speaking skills.
I don’t particularly wish to discuss the books, though, as much as I want to discuss the man. I recently viewed a special on Lincoln entitled Looking For Lincoln. The host of the show, Henry Louis Gates Jr., essentially goes on a trip around the country to get at the “true” Lincoln, basically the man behind the myth. He talks with famous Lincoln historians as well as former presidents. He even attends a conference of the Sons of Confederacy, a radical group that labels Lincoln a “war criminal” and insists that he be tried posthumously at Nuremburg. Mr. Gates claims that he grew up with the idea of Lincoln as “The Great Emancipator”, an image that is presented in almost every elementary school classroom. Even within my own classroom education as a boy growing up in southern Illinois, Lincoln was described as almost a godlike man who freed the slaves and saved the Union. That was the beginning and end of the story.
But for historians in the 21st century, this is hardly a satisfactory explanation of the man. As Mr. Gates interviews historians in this particular show, he comes to the realization that Lincoln had his flaws too. It is clear, based on evidence we have today, that Lincoln was indeed a racist. He did not think that blacks should be granted equal status as whites, and while he abhorred and condemned slavery on numerous occasions, he could not fathom blacks and whites ever coexisting in America. He even suggested that, upon blacks being freed from slavery, that they should be shipped off to Liberia to populate their own country. This is a shock to people who idolize Lincoln, but it really shouldn’t be. Lincoln was a product of his circumstances. Living in 19th century rural America, it would have been highly unusual for him to see African Americans as equals. There were precious few white men who would have taken such a radical stand.
This certainly does not excuse him by any means. But to end the story there, with the claim that he was a racist, does Lincoln a great disservice. History shows us that he changed. Upon giving a speech at the White House a few months before his assassination, Lincoln pushes for equal voting rights as well as other rights for blacks. At this very speech, John Wilkes Booth is in the crowd and makes a vow then and there to kill the president. Lincoln ultimately gives his life for the African American.
So, here we are at the big question. Historians strive to create a complete view of any individual or topic that is studied, which includes flaws as well as strengths. For years, and even to this day, America’s strengths are praised in classrooms while our weaknesses and faults of the past are ignored. But now the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction. The weaknesses are brought to light, but at the expense of losing the strengths. If we are to create a fully 3 dimensional picture of a person, country, event, what have you, why is it necessary, upon creating the 3d portrait, to tear it down and smash it into the dust? If we use Lincoln as an example, we see that it was DESPITE his faults that he accomplished some great things. Does that not make the strengths stand out even more?
We should never judge the past based upon present day standards. To approach Lincoln or any historical issue with the moral/political/social contexts of the present day will only result in false conclusions and distorted information. There is a particular context to any subject that we must be mindful of, whether it’s race relations in the 19th century or politics in the 21st.