Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Statue for Abe Lincoln? Maybe not so fast

There's little doubt that anyone who has studied our 16th president in depth will find he was a complicated man as well as a man of his times. We're usually quick to criticize the past based on present morals and opinions, but after reading the research I'm not so sure Kalamazoo officials should rush towards a decision on erecting a statue of Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln, like many abolitionists leading up to the Civil War, abhorred slavery, but as far as empathy for African-Americans, that's about where it ended. The war began as a means of preserving the Union while blocking slavery in newly admitted states and territories. Lincoln had no initial plans to free the slaves and in fact would have accepted slavery in the existing southern states if that's what it took to keep the Union together. In other words, he was willing to punt the problem down the road if necessary.

Obviously, as president his views changed and emancipation moved slowly to the forefront. But his stance on equality in all aspects of life did not change. He firmly did not believe whites and blacks were equal, or that they could ever be equal. He believed as did the majority of whites that their race was superior over the African race.

Ronald White Jr., in his substantial biography titled A. Lincoln (Random House 2009), told of Lincoln's views on colonization rather than the two races learning to live and work together. This was a similar view to that of Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner who expressed his concern that slavery would eventually destroy our nation and the best solution was to relocate anyone with African blood to an island in the Caribbean or to Central America. Rather than simply try to explain what White wrote about Lincoln and what the president said, here's an excerpt from the book (with my highlights):

A. Lincoln: A Biography by Ronald C. White, Jr. (2009)
In a more recent publication, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jon Meacham's The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels (Random House 2018), reinforced White's point that Lincoln did not necessarily favor equality or at least had not evolved to that point.

The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels, Jon Meacham (2018)
African-American historians have also concluded the same regarding Lincoln although noting as I have that the president's views were evolving over time and one has to wonder how different Reconstruction might have been had he lived. But that would only be conjecture and all we have to go on is the recorded history of his public speeches or written notes: Esteemed Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in his just-published book Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow (Penguin Press 2019), explains further how being an abolitionist of slavery did not infer "being a proponent of the fundamental equality of black and white people, or the unity of the human species..."

Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow,
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (2019)
Carol Anderson, Chair of African American Studies at Emory University, is more concise as she points out Lincoln's early flawed thinking in White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide (Bloomsbury 2016).

White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, Carol Anderson (2016)
Certainly credit is due where it was earned and Abraham Lincoln was the principle leader behind the ending of slavery. Frederick Douglass, a black abolitionist who had escaped the bonds of slavery, pointed this out in 1875 during a speech while unveiling a monument to emancipation: “in his heart of hearts he loathed and hated slavery.” This was certainly a change in attitude by Douglass as early in the war he was quoted as saying, “Abraham Lincoln is no more fit for the place he holds than was James Buchanan, and the latter was no more the miserable tool of traitors than the former is allowing himself to be.” Distinguished historian James A. McPherson noted in a review written for The New York Review of Books (3/29/2007):

But in Douglass’s view, Lincoln backslid after issuing the proclamation. Just as the President had seemed too slow in 1862 to embrace emancipation, he seemed similarly tardy in 1864 to embrace equal rights for freed slaves. For a time Douglass even supported efforts to replace Lincoln with a more radical Republican candidate for president in the election of 1864.

My point with this post is not to disparage Abraham Lincoln or throw him into the gutter with those disgusting Americans throughout history and even today who see the white race as supreme over blacks and other races. Rather, during this difficult time of continuing to reconcile our past differences and attempting to unite all Americans regardless of race, this just might not be the right time or it may never be the right time to raise a statue of our 16th president in Kalamazoo. Rather, the city leaders might want to engage a more inclusive discussion of the merits of honoring Abraham Lincoln and the appropriate way of doing so.

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