Lincoln’s shadows

At the fourth of seven Lincoln-Douglas debates, the following was spoken, “I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black 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 I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And in as much 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. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied everything. I do not understand that because I do not want a negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. My understanding is that I can just let her alone.” So whom do you think said this? Hint, it wasn’t Douglas.

But, less than a month later, while in Galesburg during the 5th Debate, Lincoln said, “Now, I confess myself as belonging to that class in the country who contemplate slavery as a moral, social and political evil, having due regard for its actual existence amongst us and the difficulties of getting rid of it in any satisfactory way, and to all the Constitutional obligations which have been thrown about it; but, nevertheless, desire a policy that looks to the prevention of it as a wrong, and looks hopefully to the time when as a wrong it may come to an end.”

So, which Lincoln do we know or choose to remember? Obviously, most of us learn that Lincoln was the champion for equality and eliminating slavery. We learn that he was a man who was killed because he had the courage to support such “radical” ideas during a different, less “enlightened” period in our nation’s history. Yet, in simplifying and mischaracterizing his beliefs and contributions, aren’t we making a major error, one that makes it harder to understand today’s political discourse and action as well?
Obviously, based on the two quotations provided, Lincoln was very conflicted about race and equality. He didn’t see humans as equal but at the same time he didn’t think it was right for one person to be so powerful relative to another. This is simple to understand, yet we generally don’t learn this complexity in school. Many other “great” Americans (such as Thomas Jefferson) thought that certain humans were inherently inferior and to others and this belief rationalized their superior position and privilege. This is our nation’s history. Rather than recognize it, we are too willing (or wanting) to accept the rosy and simple version of it. (For a great piece on modern slavery, check out Doyle’s article from 2006, link.)

Though it might “feel good” to publicize and celebrate the “good” beliefs/thoughts/actions of our heroes and sheroes, we do a disservice not being more honest about our history. By living with a “lily-white” version of history, we fail to understand the complexities and hypocrisies that our former (and current) leaders live with. A truer picture of our history reveals that all of our idols had/have contradictions and confusions. And, by extension, so do we. It is one of those things that comes with being human. This shouldn’t be used as an excuse to justify irrational or immoral beliefs or actions, but it does allow us to understand things as they were/are rather than glossing over disagreeable elements in our past and present.

History is formed through contestations–moral, intellectual and physical. Our predecessors made it and we are also playing a part in making it. Realizing this in light of the inconsistencies and contradictions of our historical icons might give us reason to be: (a) more inquisitive about our collective past; (b) more textured in our assessment of our nation’s success; and, (3) more willing to be self-critical about our own beliefs about important challenges we face today. With these things in mind, we should be able to be better makers of history ourselves.

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