Not everything is as it seems, as many of us have learned during our lives.
Here’s a famous quote by Abraham Lincoln:
“As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.”
Certainly a profound statement by a political leader who has been lionized over the last 144 years as the greatest president in American history and certainly, the beacon for establishing equal rights among the races.
But, is this all true, or simply an image? Was Lincoln that much ahead of his time? Did he really feel that blacks deserved parity with whites?
There is always more to the story, as we have learned about many idolized people of history. Many idols have been worshiped and adored only for us to learn later there was another side to him, or her. May we start with Bill Clinton? Rep. William Jefferson? Mayor Marion Barry? Men of the cloth, like Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart. Sports: O.J. They all have one thing in common: Another side people didn’t see because they were blinded by awe.
We all need to bear that in mind.
The human psyche has a need to admire, to seek leadership and to adore. Just as our new president is riding the wave of unprecedented popularity today, buoyed by a love affair with the sensation-seeking media, history has bestowed divine-like reverence upon Abraham Lincoln, with memorials, biographies, movies, plays, and worshiping services that invoke his name as synonymous with humanity itself. He is a Jesus-like figure, particularly to the blacks of America.
But wait. Are we seeing what we wish to see? Or what he really was?
Here’s one of his quotes from a debate with Stephen Douglas in 1858:
“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 black and white races—that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that 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.”
Was Lincoln — the great emancipator — a racist after all?
Try another quote, well into the first term of his presidency, — Spoken at the White House to a group of black community leaders, August 14th, 1862:
“Why should the people of your race be colonized, and where? Why should they leave this country? This is, perhaps, the first question for proper consideration. 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, as I think your race suffer very greatly, many of them by living among us, while ours suffer from your presence. In a word, we suffer on each side. If this be admitted, it affords a reason at least why we should be separated. It is better for both, therefore, to be separated.”
But what are we to make of the Emancipation Proclamation?
According to everything I’ve read from history, the proclamation was more a war tactic than it was an act of humanity. It required that any slaves that escaped to the north would no longer be considered as “fugitives,” but rather, refugees and eligible for employment in the Union military. As such, following that date, blacks streamed above the Mason-Dixon line.
Contrary to lore, the proclamation did not reflect Lincoln’s desired solution for the slavery problem. He continued to favor gradual emancipation, to be undertaken voluntarily by the states, with federal compensation to slaveholders. The Emancipation Proclamation was chiefly a declaration of policy, which, it was hoped, would serve as an opening wedge in depleting the South’s great manpower reserve in slaves and, equally important, would enhance the Union cause in the eyes of Europeans.
Should this diminish our admiration for Abraham Lincoln as one of the great presidents? Absolutely not. We must still realize he was a man of his time, not of his choice, when slavery and the concept of white supremacy was not considered ignorance in America, it was mainstream American thinking. Kids from all sides of the nation were born, bred and raised with that level of thinking, including Honest Abe himself. Thus, his actions which ultimately did free slaves and put the scourge society to rest for all time, turned out to be more inadvertent, it seems, than deliberate.
I’m sure many well-read people of all races know these things, including Barack Obama. Thus, I was pleased to see the new president use the Lincoln Bible during the swearing-in ceremony, as it acknowledged his respect and understanding of American history and put to rest all the unfounded fears that he would use a Koran, or some other document of questionable symbolism.
Finally, one more Lincoln quote: “Any people, anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better. This is a most valuable, a most sacred right, a right which we hope and believe is to liberate the world.”