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William Hanchett
Lincoln and Democracy: He Kept the Faith
From Steinfeld's "Our Racist Presidents"

Legally and politically, the decision to emancipate the slaves of the rebel states was extremely complex and controversial, and Lincoln made it with thePostcard Lincoln & Slave caution and deliberation of a surgeon deciding upon major surgery. Indeed, he used the analogy himself in the Hodges letter: "often a limb must be amputated to save a life," be explained, "but a life is never wisely given to save a limb. I felt that measures [like emancipation], otherwise unconstitutional, might be-come lawful, by becoming indispensable to the preservation ... of the nation.... I was, in my best judgment, driven to the alternative of either surrendering the Union, and with it, the Constitution, or of laying strong hand upon the colored element." Lincoln's strong band, making its incision only when long bloody military stalemate bad caused the public to recognize that the United States was at a life or death crisis, saved his patient by infusing the national cause with new moral vigor and by strengthening it with nearly 200,000 black soldiers.

The Emancipation Proclamation did not change the fundamental objective of the war, though Lincoln had to defend himself against critics who claimed be had sold out to the abolitionists. He continued to fight, as be had from the very beginning, because he saw himself as the custodian of the experiment in popular government whose principles were announced in the Declaration of Independence. If the experiment failed, if the nation were disrupted because the central government could not assert its constitutional authority against a dissatisfied minority, it would discredit the principle of republican government and convince the world that order and stability could only be maintained through monarchial or oligarchial institutions. As he said at Gettysburg, the war was being fought so that government of the people, for the people, and by the people would not perish from the earth. In another notable sentence he told Congress, "The struggle of today is not altogether for today - it is for a vast future also."

Lincoln's sense of history permitted him a vision of that future; the leading object of the democratic experiment be was struggling at such frightful cost to save was "to elevate the condition of men - to lift artificial weights from all shoulders - to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all - to afford all an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life."

Today that future is close upon us, and when the present generation of black and white Americans insists that blacks be included in it as full and equal participants, it is simply giving its own meaning to the democratic faith which Lincoln preserved.

What does it matter that Lincoln did not believe in racial equality? Racial equality is the issue of our time, not his; the issue of his time was the non-expansion and ultimate extinction of slavery, and on these questions he was progressive and uncompromising. To condemn him for failing to free the slaves out of moral compassion as soon as he entered the White House is as simple-minded and as disregardful of his obligation "to preserve, protect, and defend" the Constitution as it would be to condemn some other president for failing to sit down at his desk and proclaim woman suffrage before the adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment, or for not issuing an edict outlawing war, poverty, and injustice.

It is true that Lincoln accepted many of the anti-Negro prejudices of his time, that he was fond of minstrel shows and darky dialect stories. But he lived in the nineteenth century, not the twentieth, and he was fond of all kinds of theater and all kinds of stories. Nor were his prejudices fixed and ineradicable. His respect for blacks grew with his sense of indebtedness towards them; he knew that be could not have won the war without them, and in his dealings with individual black men he was, as always, unself-consciously equalitarian. As Frederick Douglass said, "He was the first great man that I talked with in the United States freely, who in no single instance reminded me of the difference between himself and myself, of the difference of color.... I felt as though I could go and put my hand . . . , if I wanted to . . . , on his shoulder. Of course I did not do it, but I felt that I could."

Julius Lester and all other black and white Americans who have recently become disenchanted with Lincoln are wrong; they should not be angry at him and they do have reason to be grateful to him. For Lincoln kept the democratic principle alive to be fulfilled by us as we define it, and by future generations as they will define it. If it is high time blacks stopped worshipping him as the Great White Father, they still have abundant reason to give him his due as a great white man.



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