Abraham Lincoln is No Longer The Great Emancipator?

Some no longer view Abraham Lincoln as The Great Emancipator, because they’ve read some quotes, and learned some facts about the man that suggest the man he was a bit more equivocal about ending slavery than originally believed. Yet, anyone that has read a book on Lincoln, perused his letters, or listened to documentarians speak on him, know that ending slavery was one of the primary drivers of his life.

As a kid, Abraham Lincoln used to watch slaves parade past his backyard, and he wrote of the inhumanity he saw in their treatment.

“That sight was a continued torment to me; and I see something like it every time I touch the Ohio (River), or any other slave-border.”

The great Abraham Lincoln

The Great Abraham Lincoln

The fact that we now learn that Lincoln exhibited some restraint in his beliefs on slavery has many of us believing that he was not as adamant about ending slavery as we all believed.

“You know I dislike slavery. I confess I hate to see the poor creatures hunted down, and caught, and carried back to their stripes, and unrewarded toils; but I bite my lip and keep quiet.”{1}

“Why would he keep quiet?” we ask. “Why would he bite his lip? He was the President of the United States. He could’ve used his bully pulpit to bring about more immediate change, and if he felt more passionate about the topic he would’ve.” First of all, a review of the history of America in the 1860’s reveals that the states weren’t exactly a united front in this regard. Second, he viewed The Constitution, and its limits on his power, with more reverence than modern presidents do today, and he also, as described below, wanted to persuade the nation to his point of view. The best way to change minds on a substantial subject, so that the change survives in a manner an executive order might not, is to methodically persuade the public, so they call upon their state legislators, congressman, mayors, governors, et al. to change the way they vote. An executive order will work in the short term, but if the voters disagree, they can just vote in another president to nullify the prior executive order.    

There was also an event that occurred six weeks after Abraham Lincoln became as president. This event is historically called The Civil War in which half of the country disagreed with Abraham Lincoln’s personal opinions on slavery. Between his election and his first day in office those who presumably assumed Lincoln would abolish slavery left the Union. The reason that Lincoln used restraint, and bit his lip, and kept quiet is that he wanted to try to do whatever he could to preserve this Union that we call the United States today, and in doing so he believed slavery would eventually end.

Abraham Lincoln hated slavery. He claimed in an 1858 speech at Chicago to hate it “as much as any Abolitionist.”{2}

Yet Lincoln was no abolitionist. He wanted slavery to end, but that was never his first priority. Here’s how he explained his position in an 1864 letter to Albert G. Hodges, a Kentucky newspaper editor:

“I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I cannot remember when I did not so think, and feel. And yet I have never understood that the Presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act officially upon this judgment and feeling. It was in the oath I took that I would, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

Lincoln, in essence, was torn between ending the bondage of the institution of slavery and abiding by the Constitution, and saving the nation. With the latter, we repeat, eventually bringing about the end of the horrible institution. 

“Lincoln said during the Civil War that he had always seen slavery as unjust. He said he couldn’t remember when he didn’t think that way,” explains historian Eric Foner. “The problem arises with the next question: What do you do with slavery, given that it’s unjust? Lincoln took a very long time to try to figure out exactly what steps ought to be taken.”

In a letter to the editor of the New York Tribune, Abraham Lincoln responded to the editor’s charge that Lincoln’s administration lacked direction and resolve. 

“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,” wrote Lincoln. “If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle 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. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views. I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free.”

Prior to taking office, Lincoln switched from the political party called The Whigs to the Republican Party, and this move was based on the fact that that Whig party sought a softer stance on slavery so as to win elections in an otherwise volatile nation with volatile passions on both sides of the fence. Lincoln chose to align himself with those people in the Republican Party, who weren’t afraid to lose elections based on the fact that they had a volatile passion for ending slavery. Based on this fact, it should not enter the discussion that Lincoln did not lead the North’s fight in The Civil War against the South, and continue to fight against overwhelming forces, for the sole purpose of ending slavery.

We can continue to list Lincoln quotes, and we can find some that reveal his thoughts on the African-American. The latter do not paint him in a favorable light historically. We can argue over the merits and demerits of his character in this light, but what we cannot do is place ourselves in Lincoln’s time period, and in his time period some Southern states decided to secede from the Union after Lincoln’s election and the Civil War broke out six weeks after he assumed office. At the very least, we could say that the South’s actions, should suggest to all parties involved what Abraham Lincoln represented to those who elected him to office. 

Another complaint specifies that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation did not call for an immediate end to all slavery in the South, but only to those who had already escaped the South. Again, we must say he was focused on preserving the Union of the North and the South, and he didn’t want to further the anger the South felt in losing the Civil War by bringing an abrupt end to slavery, but he believed that the individualistic nature of the country would bring about the eventuality of freedom of all men. And again, The South saw this eventuality as well, or they wouldn’t have seceded in the first place. In other words, Lincoln saw it as his duty to preserve the nation first and foremost, and put his personal views on matters such as slavery on the back burner, until the former was achieved.

Another myth perpetuated against Republicans of the day in general, and Abraham Lincoln in particular, was that Republicans wanted slaves counted as 3/5ths a person in the Three Fifths Compromise. This charge is levied to counterpoint everything Republicans of the day did to free the slaves. The counterpoint suggests that if Republicans wanted to free the slaves, they wanted to do so in a manner that left African-American slaves as partial human beings forever more. First of all, Lincoln and the Republicans of the era, did not enact this compromise. This compromise was achieved during the 1787 Philadelphia convention, seventy-four years before Lincoln took office. Second, the compromise was reached with the long-term goal of lessening the power of the pro-slavery Democrats in the South in the House of Representatives and in the Electoral College. If the Northern Republicans lost this compromise, and the slaves were counted as full people, the Southern Democrats would’ve have had overwhelming representation in the House of Representatives and the Electoral College. Gouverner Morris also believed that counting slaves as full people might further encourage slave trade by the Southern states to increase their representation on Congress. Some could say that the Three Fifths Compromise was a cynical ploy by the Northern states to level the playing field of representation, but it could also be said that if they had not achieved victory in this cynical ploy, slavery would not have been ended as early as it did.

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass was an immediate abolitionist. To attribute a modern adage to Frederick Douglass’ motivations, he wanted slavery to end yesterday. As a result, Douglass despised President Abraham Lincoln in the beginning. As a former slave, Douglass considered Lincoln approach to ending slavery too methodical. He said slavery, “Was simply evil, an offense against God and all decency.” 

Frederick Douglass’ feelings about Abraham Lincoln did not waver in the beginning, as he declared Lincoln’s refusal to mount a full and furious campaign against human bondage was “nothing less than craven capitulation to the slave states for the sake of trying to hold them in the Union.” These early Douglass writings, and the many others linked to in the page below, likely propel the modern characterizations Lincoln’s actions as something less than a warrior in this fight, and many of Lincoln’s letters, interviews, and statements admittedly suggest that he was not the single-minded warrior Douglass was. Yet, that is only half of the story. 

The other half occurred 12 years after the assassination of Lincoln, at the unveiling of The Freedmen’s Monument in Washington, D. C. on April 14, 1876, Douglass gave a speech that writer Ronald E Franklin characterizes as, “celebrating Lincoln as the perfect, God-appointed man for a task that, had the abolition of slavery been his first priority, he could not have accomplished.”

“[Lincoln’s] great mission was to accomplish two things: first, to save his country from dismemberment and ruin; and, second, to free his country from the great crime of slavery. To do one or the other, or both, he must have the earnest sympathy and the powerful cooperation of his loyal fellow-countrymen. Without this primary and essential condition to success his efforts must have been vain and utterly fruitless. Had he put the abolition of slavery before the salvation of the Union, he would have inevitably driven from him a powerful class of the American people and rendered resistance to rebellion impossible.”

My more modern translation: If Lincoln wasn’t able to save the Union, slavery in the North and South of this land may have continued unimpeded. Lincoln had to do what he did to keep his approval ratings up, so that he had a mandate from the people to encourage lawmakers to follow suit. If he put the abolition of slavery before the salvation of the Union, his approval ratings would’ve allowed lawmakers to avoid Lincoln’s attempts to set the agenda for this country, and they would’ve felt free to continue to ignore abolitionists. 

Douglass continued: “Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined…

“Taking him for all in all, measuring the tremendous magnitude of the work before him, considering the necessary means to ends, and surveying the end from the beginning, infinite wisdom has seldom sent any man into the world better fitted for his mission than Abraham Lincoln.”

Writer Ronald E Franklin concludes a piece he wrote Why Frederick Douglas Despised, then Loved Abraham Lincoln writing:

“In the end, the impatient firebrand who would settle for nothing less than “abolition now!” realized that had Abraham Lincoln been the anti-slavery zealot activists wanted him to be, he would have failed in his mission. Frederick Douglass came to value the wisdom, skill, and necessary caution that allowed Abraham Lincoln to deftly navigate through extremely turbulent political waters to both save the Union and end slavery.

“Like Frederick Douglass, I believe no other man of that time, or perhaps of any time, could have done better.”

Imagine for a second if Lincoln ceded to Douglass’ request that he use a heavy hand in a manner that history now requires. Imagine, as I wrote, how many powerful people he would’ve lost. Slavery, we can only guess would’ve eventually imploded, but slaves and the African-American community in general, might have viewed Abraham Lincoln as their last, best hope. Violence and mayhem would’ve surely followed and perhaps a second Civil War pitting African-Americans, freemen and slaves, against The South. The incidents and conflict are unimaginable, and they were avoided by the strategies and persuasions put forth by Republicans, the Lincoln administration, and Abraham Lincoln. So quibble with the mindset and the attitudes of the era, but recognize in the end what these people accomplished.  

If you do extensive research on Lincoln, and his views on slavery, you will find some letters and statements made by Lincoln that suggest he wasn’t as hard-lined on slavery as others, and that he sought to save the Union above all else. You will find that Lincoln wanted to compensate slave owners for their loss of product (slaves), and you may find that Lincoln treated African-Americans as pawn pieces in legislation, commands to his generals, and in personal letters to friends, but you will also find an overarching theme that suggests that Lincoln thought that preservation of the Union meant that the abolition of slavery would eventually occur under the weight of the individualism banner of the Constitution, and the will of the people in the United States of the day.

You may also find writings that suggest that Lincoln believed white men to be superior to black men, and that he wasn’t an advocate for black voting rights, or blacks abilities to sit on juries, and that Lincoln believed that the freed black men should be forced out of America to colonize a different colony based on the fact that blacks and whites could not live in harmony in those post-Civil War United States. This has been listed by historians as controversial, based on a limited amount of personal writings in Lincoln’s second term as president. Regardless the finer points found in Lincoln’s positions, the theme remains that Lincoln did not think that a civil union could be maintained with the worm of slavery eating away at her core.

Abraham Lincoln was a politician, a president, and a man who dealt with some of the most combustible forces any president has. He had Constitutional limits on his power, and an overwhelming desire to save the union we now call The United States of America. As such, there were moments in his presidency when he had to capitulate to opponents and soften the blow of the The Civil victory over The South to welcome them back to the union without the harsh feelings that might have led to something like a Civil War II, or some other horrible inevitability. 

When we look at the actions of Lincoln, and the Republicans of the day, we do so from the vantage point of hindsight.  We know that the North won The Civil War, and we wonder why Lincoln didn’t pursue the spoils of victory more. We think that if Lincoln was the crusader against slavery that history tells us he was, he would’ve gone hard line with the South, but again Lincoln wanted to preserve the Union, and he believed that welcoming the South back into the Union was more conducive to maintaining the Union long-term than forcing them to immediately comply 100% to the North’s ways. We believe Lincoln should’ve backhanded the South at the conclusion of the Civil War for committing such a sin against humanity, but we do so without realizing the rage the South had at the conclusion of the Civil War. We don’t celebrate Lincoln’s restraint and patience in this regard, based on our own rage over the horrors that occurred in our beloved country. We live in an immediate satisfaction society that lists those who might slightly disagree with our current views on race and our current ways of dealing with matters as haters, but those of us who criticize the manner in which Lincoln achieved victory over the South, preserved the Union, and abolished the institution of slavery haven’t achieved 1/100th of what Lincoln did over the course of four years. It took a very steady hand, and a man who was willing to patiently accept the fact that he couldn’t exert his own opinion and will on a people immediately to accomplish what he did. As Ronald E Franklin writes of Lincoln, “No other man of that time, or perhaps of any time, could have done better.” If Lincoln was too firm, or too weak, in regards to his actions to save the union, follow the Constitution, and eventually end slavery, there would’ve been grave ramifications to his actions. To those who want more immediate statements from Lincoln about race, and a firmer hand in regards to the abhorrent institution that was slavery, the question that we should ask ourselves how many countries have they saved?

The Production of the Making of a Movie called Lincoln

The latest big budget movie involves big-name actors and directors.  For those that care about those people, there is a list below. {1} Some of you may care that the movie Lincoln is loosely based on Doris Kerns Goodwin’s book A Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Lincoln, but most of you probably don’t.  Most of you probably also don’t care that this story concerns the final four months of our sixteenth president’s life either, unless the telling of those months is directed by that guy, written by this guy, and acted out by another guy.

As if to prove the irrelevance of story in movies today, the LA Times spends the first two paragraphs of their review telling us that the production involved a “successful” director, a “celebrated” playwright, and a “brilliant” actor.  They also tell us that it is a “Towering Achievement,” {2} but that is required of any reviewer reviewing a Spielberg film.

The Times review then goes into the story a little, but they comingle that description with continued homages to the players involved, and how artfully they carry this production off.  They offer compliments to the cinematographer, the setting, the score, the production design, the costume designer, and everything they can think of but the story.  They marvel at the care taken to provide you, the viewer, with a “completely accurate portrayal of Lincoln’s office.”  They then conclude their review with a brief commentary by the writer regarding why he wrote the script for this piece, and how the writer believes his script should be applied in today’s Washington.

We all understand that movies are an expensive undertaking.  We understand that movie studios incur an enormous risk with every production they purchase, but we’ve all become so inundated with the ancillary information regarding movies that we’ve forgotten the elemental aspects of the story involved in these productions.  How many of us find it impossible to concentrate on animated productions, until we figure out exactly who is doing the voice-overs for the characters involved?  How many of us focus on the acting abilities of the actors involved in historical pieces to a point where we are no longer paying attention to the actual tale being told?  When the actor displays emotion, we marvel over his actor’s abilities to portray emotion when we probably should be considering the ramifications of the emotional display by Lincoln in that historical moment.

To those that don’t understand all the risks that were taken on the “tall order” before the director, the movie studio, and the members of the cast, there are Entertainment Tonight interviews, synopses in news and entertainment magazines, late-night talk show interviews, news features in prominent newspapers, blogs, expanded DVD commentaries, and entire DVDs devoted to the “making of” the movie…devoted to everything but the seemingly unnecessary portion of the story being told.

On the IMBD website, you can learn that the director only addressed the actors by their character names. {3} That’s a little quaint, and it’s done all the time now, but it also shows the dedication all of the players had to the production.   You can learn who was originally slated to play Lincoln (Liam Neeson), the box office receipts, and you can learn anything and everything to do with the production that is Lincoln…except the story.

“How was the movie?”

“Oh, Spielberg captured it in true Spielberg fashion, and that Daniel Day-Lewis is quite simply one of the best actors alive, and no one can capture the essence of a scene like the incomparable John Williams.”

“How was the movie, I said.  Do you feel like you learned a little more about Lincoln than you knew before you entered the theater?”

“Huh?  Oh, yeah.”

I understand that we appreciate the talents of various directors, stars, and cinematographers, and there are some that do their job better than others, and we’re attracted (monetarily) to those that have the ability to capture a mood, a story, and a period better than others.  I also appreciate the fact that movie studios invest such capital in these productions that it necessitates the fact that they have to recruit big names to attract viewers that might not otherwise attend yet another feature about the most talked about president in our history.  The idea that an excellent actor is a vehicle for bringing written material to life is not beyond me either, but we all focus so much on the ancillary details of movie making that the actual story has become a secondary and even a tertiary thought.

Why do major movie studios even involve story in their productions these days?  Isn’t the very idea of story a little antiquated?  Isn’t it a little risky for them to involve stories in big budget productions, because not everyone is going to be entertained by every story, and some may even be offended by some of them.  Stories, after all, were all that cavemen had, and it’s pretty much all Abraham Lincoln had, but we have big, huge production studios now.  We have computer generated graphics now, we can blow things up now, and we have special effects departments devoted almost exclusively to the short-attention span audiences that have trouble concentrating long enough to follow a story.  We should, of course, spend a lot of money on these productions, because people are enticed to view a movie when they know how much money was spent on it.  We would have to nab a top-tier director, because some people will see anything if it was directed by some guy.  We would also have to get all of today’s most beautiful actors, because people will pay a lot of money to watch them walking and talking on celluloid screens.  We would have to focus on providing viewers an excellent setting, compelling cinematography, and an incomparable soundtrack, but do we really have to tell stories anymore?  Why don’t we just start making all movies about making movies, and Hollywood, and celebrities, and the art of cinematography, and the tall order of making movies that are somehow controversial in some manner that offends all the right, uptight people.  It’s just too taxing to try and come up with original stories nowadays, and most people have moved beyond all that, and there are really only seven stories anyway, so if these major movie studios were really paying attention to us they would know that they could go ahead and slash their “original story” searching budgets and just tell us all the particulars about making movies.  That appears to be all we really want anyway.

{1} http://thelincolnmovie.com/