Abraham Lincoln: Racist or Hero?

When I was growing up, I knew four things about Abraham Lincoln:

1) He was born in a log cabin.
2) He freed the slaves.
3) He got assassinated.
4) He's on the penny.

No matter how much you fell asleep in history classes, you probably know those exact same things. Indeed, Abraham Lincoln, as much as he was hated in his own day and age, is one of our most heroically mythologized presidents. My eight year-old son can even tell me about Lincoln!

Like my son, I remember being taught in school all about Lincoln.
Indeed, the story of Lincoln the emancipator, the prophet of American equality has, over time, sunk deeply into the American conscience. My teachers taught that if not for Abraham Lincoln, I’d still be a slave.

And then I went to college and met people who said Lincoln was nothing more than a white supremacist who freed the slaves because it was the only way to crush the South and win the Civil War. If it hadn't been politically expedient for him to do so, he wouldn't have done it. According to this point of view, Lincoln didn’t care anything about black people. He saw them in the same light as the most racist slave-owning Southerner.

So which is it?
Was Lincoln an emancipating saint or a white supremacist? Should I be grateful for him or toss darts at his head?

Well, a program airing on PBS tonight, called, “Looking for Lincoln” delves deeply into this complex discussion. Put together by Harvard professor, Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr, and featuring commentary from Lincoln scholars like Doris Kearns Goodwin and David Blight, the show, which airs at 9 pm no matter where you are, tackles the question unflinchingly.

Here's Dr. Gates talking about the program on the Today Show this morning:

You can also watch the whole thing on the PBS site. I watched the whole thing today and thought it was great. I suppose I liked it because until we start to really tell the truth about this country and our history, no matter how multi-faceted and complicated it may be, how do we ever truly make progress?


Anonymous said…
Does it have to be one or the other? He said clearly that he would do whatver it took to reunite the states. If he could do it without freeing any slaves, he would. If he could do it by freeing all slaves he would. In fact, there was a branch of the Repulican party (called "Radical Repblicans" who felt he wasn't anti-slavery enough, and ran against him). Be that as it may, his leadership did manage to lead to the ending of slavery. So. bad and good, I'd say.
Anonymous said…
For many years of my life, I turned my back on Lincoln because of his inconsistencies. As I watch my own inconsistent life unfold, I see that I am as inconsistent if not more.

I'm glad he gets an even shake in the documentary. I guess we all need that.
Mes Deux Cents said…

I'm sitting here now watching a Frontline episode on Barack Obama and waiting to watch Dr. Gates' program which comes on next. I heard him earlier in the day on NPR discussing it.

Anyway I'll stop by in the morning and comment on the show.
the last noel said…
He was probably a racist, as most men were in that time. He was probably a sexist, homophobe, anti-jew, anti-Catholic. And people wish they want to return to "the way it used to be"?
Anonymous said…
That just goes to show you that glossing over the high facts will not cut it. Frankly, I am disappointed in Abraham Lincoln. The things that have been mentioned about him are quite disturbing to be honest, just when you get your hopes up about someone something comes along and ruins it all. Who would have thought him to tell racist jokes and actually consider sending African-Americans to Liberia. But anyway, all humans have a darkside, right.
I wish I could see this special. I will see if I can download it from iTunes.

I read that he was a little of both, a racist and a hero.
Anonymous said…
I was just talking to my husband about this. Growing up, I learned the exact same things about Lincoln but I think I also had a "suspicion" about most white political leaders of that time. I never did fully look at him as someone I should be grateful to. When I went to college and majored in History and African-American studies I was able to delve further into the politics of that time and the real motivation behind Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation. I told my husband the other day that I don't hold Lincoln to the same regard as I hope Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, JFK, Medgar Evers and many other civil rights leaders/fighters. I just don't. IMO, if Lincoln could have saved the Union and won the war without freeing the slaves, he would have done that.
Mes Deux Cents said…

I watched the program last night. It was interesting but as a devout cynic I can't really say that I'm surprised to learn of Lincoln's Bigotry and racism.

I've never viewed Lincoln as emancipator, mainly because I knew that The Emancipation Proclamation didn't actually end slavery, just slavery in the south.

So to hear the details of his reasoning was interesting but didn't really change my perception of him.

Actually the most shocking thing about the film was the Black family celebrating their ancestor who apparently saved his slave master during the Civil War. And this was taking place at a convention for Confederate sympathizers, wow. That was the thing that blew me away.
Dirty Red said…
I have never considered Lincoln our greatest President. I don't consider any of the ex-presidents "great". Every one of them only did what they did, if they done anything because of Political reasons. I think all the Presidents looked at Black People as being inferior. Why do you think it took damn near 200 years to elect a non-white one?

And one more thing about Lincoln...
Yeah he signed the paper that abolished slavery....
But when he signed it, Black Americans could not write, we could not own land, we could not read, we could not do anything except work for the White man.

In my opinion it is the equilivate of telling my 8 year old nephew, 'Ok Boy. You are a man now. So you need to get on up out of my house and fend for yourself. Go find you a job, a house and take care of yourself.'

But this is only my opinion.
Thanks for the heads up. I have to say I'm getting really sick of hearing PBO wax philosophically about Lincoln & Reagan.
Kanani said…
I tend to judge him based on the times and commonly held assumptions he was operating in at the time.
Unknown said…
Thanks Liz,
outstanding. You and I both know having been born and bred in Illinois that all of this was NEVER taught or spoken of.

While, given the nature of the times, I am not surprised by this
enlightenment. To be quite frank, I dont think my life of honesty and growth began until I read Dr. Henry Louis Gates anthology and Charles Johnson's "Middle Passage".

I still hope we get there...this is all part of the journey I suppose...

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