When I used to go into the homes of African-Americans as a newspaper reporter there were two constants: I was there because something bad had happened and the images of three famous Americans would be on the living room walls. They were John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln.
I was reminded of this as I read several pieces in the run-up to the inauguration of the first African-American president that flogged Lincoln for his unequalitarian views throughout much of his political career.
The problem with cherry picking what this great man said and wrote about blacks before becoming president is that it obscures a much larger point: Lincoln's capacity for changing his mind was extraordinary and given the choice between keeping the Union together or freeing the slaves, he did not hesitate to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.* * * * *Lincoln's metamorphosis from a frontiersman who always opposed slavery but like most white Americans felt that blacks were unequal into the Great Emancipator was, the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass noted (see sidebar below), as complex as the man himself.
He met very few blacks during his youth, liked black-faced minstrel shows, told "darkie" jokes, used the word "nigger," including several references in his early political speeches, and counted Douglass as his only black friend.
Lincoln ascended to national prominence in large part because of the seven debates that this former Whig and newly minted Republican had with Senator Steven Douglas, the Illinois Democrat.
The primary theme of the debates was slavery, especially the lightning-rod issue of its expansion into the territories as the U.S. grew. Douglas was the sponsor of the Kansas-Nebraska Act that repealed the Missouri Compromise's ban on slavery in those territories and replaced it with the doctrine of popular sovereignty, meaning that people in a territory could decide for themselves whether to allow slavery.
While not suggesting that blacks were equal to whites, Lincoln argued that popular sovereignty would nationalize and perpetuate slavery and spoke out strongly against the Supreme Court's infamous Dred Scott decision in 1857, which found that slaves like Scott (image, left) could not sue for their freedom in federal court because slaves, as well as all people of African ancestry, were not U.S. citizens.
Douglas countered that Lincoln was an abolitionist, citing as proof Lincoln's "House Divided" speech earlier in 1858 when he accepted the Republican nomination.
Lincoln denied that he was for abolition, although he certainly was, but as the debates went on he softened his language to an extent, explaining:
"I am not, nor have I ever been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races . . . I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied everything. I do not understand that because I do not want a negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. My understanding is that I can just let her alone."
While Lincoln would go on to lose to Douglas, the "House Divided" speech created a lasting image of the danger of disunion because of the inherent conflict between slave and free states and rallied Republicans in the North.
Lincoln acknowledged in the run-up to the 1860 presidential election that while he backed emancipation, he -- like Thomas Jefferson before him -- had no idea how that would happen, and admitted that colonization of slaves in Panama and African countries, which he had once avidly supported, was impractical. (It also was profoundly racist in that the result would have been an all-white America, although it is unlikely that Lincoln would have viewed it in those terms.)
Once elected, Lincoln declared in his first inaugural address that he had no legal authority to interfere with slavery and in fact the Constitution prevented him from doing so. Even after the Southern states seceded in 1861, Lincoln maintained that the federal government did not possess the constitutional power to end slavery in states where it already existed. In a familiar refrain from the last eight years, Lincoln declared that only he had war powers. He made it clear that the North was fighting the Civil War to preserve the Union and prohibited his generals from freeing slaves even if captured.
But over the summer of 1862 an early draft of the Emancipation Proclamation was being circulated to Lincoln's Cabinet and in August of that year he made clear his own shift in thinking in a letter responding to an editorial in Republican Party founder Horace Greeley's New York Tribune in which the goal of preserving the Union remained paramount:
"I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be 'the Union as it was.' If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not have the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. . . . 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."
On January 1, 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. It declared that all slaves would be permanently freed in all areas of the Confederacy that had not already returned to federal control by that time, although that did not include border states.
Lincoln's efforts to promote black suffrage were less decisive. Early in his brief second term, he gave a speech supporting a form of limited suffrage to what he described as more "intelligent" blacks and those who had served in the Union Army and performed other special services to the nation.
Would Lincoln have moved more aggressively had he not been assassinated?
Some historians, with historian Lerone Bennett taking the lead in Forced Into Glory, argue that Lincoln's views on blacks and slavery have been whitewashed.
But Bennett, who is African-American, is best at cherrypicking -- including the gem that Lincoln's hand shook when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, an indication that he really didn't want to do so. Where Bennett fails is being able to see Lincoln's life as a metamorphosis, let alone appreciate that once he changed his mind he typically did so rapidly and decisively.
Had Lincoln lived, he probably would have worked hard for black suffrage. As it is, blacks were given the right to vote with ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, although many Southern states countered with draconian voter qualification laws that effectively denied them the vote for another 80 years, while blacks have only begun to be able to break through housing, employment and other barriers in recent years.
All that so noted and as forward thinking as he became, Abraham Lincoln would have been shocked at the election of an African-American, and while Barack Obama has said that the 16th president is one of his heroes, Lincoln may have had difficulty returning the compliment.