May 28, 2005

"What Lincoln Believed."

Michiku Kakutani writes about writing about Abraham Lincoln:
He has been feted as a noble visionary who liberated America's slaves and assailed as a die-hard racist and hypocrite. He has been hailed as the folksy embodiment of the Common Man, and both denounced and praised as a man of cold, calculating reason. He has been psychoanalyzed as a womanizer, a homosexual and a depressive. He has been accused of being passive and indecisive, canny and opportunistic, blasphemous and bigoted. In short, he has been deified, debunked, demonized and deconstructed: Honest Abe has become Abe of a Thousand Faces.
She's reviewing Michael Lind's new book, "What Lincoln Believed," which she calls "a not terribly original book" with "a rather glib and unsatisfying conclusion." Lind's Lincoln is a big racist:
Mr. Lind describes Lincoln as "a lifelong segregationist and opponent of black social equality," and a "white supremacist" with a "low opinion of black intellectual abilities."

Mr. Lind rejects the notion of Lincoln's capacity for growth promoted by other historians, who have argued that this quality enabled the 16th president to transcend the racist environment of his youth. Instead, he writes that Lincoln "seems to have gone to his grave without imagining any amendments to the Constitution beyond the abolition of slavery. The Fourteenth Amendment eradicated Black Laws by preventing the restriction of black migration by individual states. However, Lincoln apparently did not envision a constitutional amendment like the Fourteenth that would create national citizenship."

If Lincoln had lived, Mr. Lind goes on, "slavery would have been abolished in every state, but the states would have retained their discretion to deny citizenship to blacks. Lincoln was willing to let the states deny the suffrage to black citizens; at most, he would 'suggest' that black citizens be subject to literacy tests and property qualifications."...

As Mr. Lind tells it, Lincoln drew a sharp distinction between abstract natural rights and practical civil rights: the first, Lincoln believed, were possessed by all human beings, while the second, in Mr. Lind's words, "were and should be limited to whites only."

"While Lincoln, like most of his white contemporaries, believed that blacks were inferior to whites," Mr. Lind writes, "he passionately rejected the idea that whites had the right to rule blacks - either as slaves or as the subjects of white colonial empires. Lincoln wanted a white-only American republic...."

The "glib and unsatisfying conclusion" is that, despite all this racism, Lincoln believed in democracy and -- in Lind's words -- "was sincere and consistent in hoping that Latin Americans, Africans and Asians, as well as Europeans, would one day live under republican governments of their own."

6 comments:

lindsey said...

Hmmm... I recently read in Assassination Vacation (I'm not done yet) that before shooting Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth went to see him give a speech, and left fuming because he thought that Lincoln intended to give black Americans citizenship and voting rights.

Ann Althouse said...

I'm listening to the audiobook of "Assassination Vacation" these days.

Ron said...

Ann: Just from the aliteration in the title, shouldn't the audiobook of "Assassination Vacation" have a Go-Go's soundtrack?

"A week without you
Thought I'd forget
Two weeks without you and I
Still haven't gotten over you yet

CHORUS
Vacation
All I ever wanted
Vacation
Had to get away
Vacation
Meant to be spent alone"

In the School Book Depository...on the sixth floor.

PatCA said...

I'm reading some papers on LIncoln and his press problem, foreign and domestic, and he was far more reviled than Bush and I can't help but think that hysteria led to his assassination.

He did what he did. He kept the union together and signed the emancipation proclamatiobn. His 'identity' is by now so contested and so burdened by modernist notions of race and gender that we will never "know" him truly.

But he did what he did. He was a great.

mcg said...

Damn those 19th century types for being so, um, 19th century!

mcg said...

I'm sure one of these days my ilk will be condemned for being "typical late 20th century" or perhaps "turn-of-the-millenium types". Thank goodness I will not be notable enough to be singled out. :)