Reflections on Abraham Lincoln and Slavery

 

Rappin with Robert Allen Jones, Janie Jones and Miss Barbra 002 The First Baptist Church of St. Augustine Florida

 A New Year’s Remembrance circa 2015

When I was a boy the black churches in Florida used to hold a “Watchman” service every New Year’s Eve. As I remember it we would gather in First Baptist Church around ten o’clock, and there would be singing and sermons and communal prayers. At some point the electric lights would be turned off and we would sit by candle light as the preacher would call out “Watchman what time it is!” And the Watchman would reply “It’s eleven o’clock” and so on at various intervals growing shorter as we got round bout midnight until the New Year dawned and the congregation rejoiced in jubilation. Then we would enjoy a delicious repast prepared by the sisters in the basement of the church.

Held in the shadow of the old slave market, whose iron and stone structure was still standing a few blocks away just as it was during ante-bellum times, the Watchman ceremony had real meaning to the people at First Baptist. For unlike today, when young black people talk so glibly about how “nothing has changed” and a New York Times sports writer who ought to know better titles his book about rich black professional athletes “Forty Million Dollar Slaves,” there were still people in our community who had been been born into slavery and they and their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren were among those huddled in the church waiting for the clock to strike midnight.

The Old Slave Market in Downtown St. Augustine

My Trip to florida with Makeda ETC 509

We viewed this as a sobering symbol of how far we had come

 I have no doubt that if these people who carried the memories of slavery in their hearts and minds could hear 21st century Afro-Americans, living in a time when a black family occupies the White House and many other black people doing everything they are good enough to do, comparing their problems to those of slaves they would surely have regarded such words as the mutterings of fools or a scandalous attempt to mock their ordeal in the hell of American slavery – one of the worse systems of human bondage ever devised by the minds of evil men. Harriet Tubman said it was “worse than hell” and Frederick Douglass told a white audience “One minute” as an American slave “was worse than centuries of that which your forefathers arose in armed revolt against.” Hence to anybody that actually experienced slavery – like my Aunts Gussie and Sally, who showed me the lash marks from the overseer’s whip – the casual equations of their conditions with the problems faced by present day Afro-Americans would be viewed as blasphemy.

They would also have looked upon the denigration of Abraham Lincoln’s role in ending their bondage and bringing about the Day of Jubilee, when the Emancipation Proclamation became law, as sacrilegious. The reverence with which President Lincoln was held by Afro-Americans in St. Augustine Florida is self-evident in the name they chose for their community, the oldest in the nation, which before the Civil War was known as “Little Africa,” but after Emancipation was renamed “Lincolnville.” Even Frederick Douglass – who famously spoke in the city after the Civil War put an end to slavery – and was quite candid in his criticism of Lincoln, had this to say about the assassinated president at the Washington dedication of the statue by Thomas Ball known as the “Freedman’s Memorial,” on April 14, 1876:

“We are here in the District of Columbia, here in the city of Washington, the most luminous point of American territory; a city recently transformed and made beautiful in its body and in its spirit; we are here in the place where the ablest and best men of the country are sent to devise the policy, enact the laws, and shape the destiny of the Republic; we are here, with the stately pillars and majestic dome of the Capitol of the nation looking down upon us; we are here, with the broad earth freshly adorned with the foliage and flowers of spring for our church, and all races, colors, and conditions of men for our congregation — in a word, we are here to express, as best we may, by appropriate forms and ceremonies, our grateful sense of the vast, high, and preeminent services rendered to ourselves, to our race, to our country, and to the whole world by Abraham Lincoln.”

Douglass would go on to say: “we, the colored people, newly emancipated and rejoicing in our blood-bought freedom, near the close of the first century in the life of this Republic, have now and here unveiled, set apart, and dedicated a monument of enduring granite and bronze, in every line, feature, and figure of which the men of this generation may read, and those of aftercoming generations may read, something of the exalted character and great works of Abraham Lincoln, the first martyr President of the United States.”

The Freedman’s Memorial

Freedman's Memorial II

A Commemoration by Former Slaves

Having begun by unambiguously enumerating Lincoln’s virtues, Douglass, the most incisive and thoughtful commentator on the great issues of his time, understood that in order to learn from history one had to first tell it like it was. Hence he made no attempt to mask Lincoln’s shortcomings. He told the august gathering:

We fully comprehend the relation of Abraham Lincoln both to ourselves and to the white people of the United States. Truth is proper and beautiful at all times and in all places, and it is never more proper and beautiful in any case than when speaking of a great public man whose example is likely to be commended for honor and imitation long after his departure to the solemn shades, the silent continents of eternity. It must be admitted, truth compels me to admit, even here in the presence of the monument we have erected to his memory, Abraham Lincoln was not, in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model. In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man.

He was preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men. He was ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people to promote the welfare of the white people of this country. In all his education and feeling he was an American of the Americans. He came into the Presidential chair upon one principle alone, namely, opposition to the extension of slavery.

His arguments in furtherance of this policy had their motive and mainspring in his patriotic devotion to the interests of his own race. To protect, defend, and perpetuate slavery in the states where it existed Abraham Lincoln was not less ready than any other President to draw the sword of the nation. He was ready to execute all the supposed guarantees of the United States Constitution in favor of the slave system anywhere inside the slave states. He was willing to pursue, recapture, and send back the fugitive slave to his master, and to suppress a slave rising for liberty, though his guilty master were already in arms against the Government.

The race to which we belong were not the special objects of his consideration. Knowing this, I concede to you, my white fellow-citizens, a pre-eminence in this worship at once full and supreme. First, midst, and last, you and yours were the objects of his deepest affection and his most earnest solicitude. You are the children of Abraham Lincoln. We are at best only his step-children; children by adoption, children by forces of circumstances and necessity.”

Frederick Douglass

Frederick douglass III

The Wisest Voice in the Nation

Then with his characteristic eloquence and unfailing evenhanded approach to argument, he noted:

“When, therefore, it shall be asked what we have to do with the memory of Abraham Lincoln, or what Abraham Lincoln had to do with us, the answer is ready, full, and complete. Though he loved Caesar less than Rome, though the Union was more to him than our freedom or our future, under his wise and beneficent rule we saw ourselves gradually lifted from the depths of slavery to the heights of liberty and manhood; under his wise and beneficent rule, and by measures approved and vigorously pressed by him, we saw that the handwriting of ages, in the form of prejudice and proscription, was rapidly fading away from the face of our whole country; under his rule, and in due time, about as soon after all as the country could tolerate the strange spectacle, we saw our brave sons and brothers laying off the rags of bondage, and being clothed all over in the blue uniforms of the soldiers of the United States; under his rule we saw two hundred thousand of our dark and dusky people responding to the call of Abraham Lincoln, and with muskets on their shoulders, and eagles on their buttons, timing their high footsteps to liberty and union under the national flag; under his rule we saw the independence of the black republic of Haiti, the special object of slave-holding aversion and horror, fully recognized, and her minister, a colored gentleman, duly received here in the city of Washington; under his rule we saw the internal slave-trade, which so long disgraced the nation, abolished, and slavery abolished in the District of Columbia; under his rule we saw for the first time the law enforced against the foreign slave trade, and the first slave-trader hanged like any other pirate or murderer; under his rule, assisted by the greatest captain of our age, and his inspiration, we saw the Confederate States, based upon the idea that our race must be slaves, and slaves forever, battered to pieces and scattered to the four winds; under his rule, and in the fullness of time, we saw Abraham Lincoln, after giving the slave-holders three months’ grace in which to save their hateful slave system, penning the immortal paper, which, though special in its language, was general in its principles and effect, making slavery forever impossible in the United States. Though we waited long, we saw all this and more.”

The wise and candid Douglass, who had devoted his entire adult life to the struggle for the abolition of slavery, who had rejected the call to African emigration issued by the nationalist intellectuals who opted for “African Redemption,” a euphemism for Afro-American colonization of Africa supported by the white racist in the American Colonization Society, asked if free blacks left America: “who would speak for the millions in chains.” Having been a slave – unlike the African Redemptionist such as Reverend Alexander Crummell, Dr. Martin R. Delany, and Reverend Edward Wilmont Blyden -no one was more emotionally invested in the evolution of the Emancipation Proclamation in a land where the enslavement of Africans and their descendants was a life sentence.   And he provides us moving first hand testimony as to the mood of African Americans on the eve of the Emancipation…the first “Watch Night.”

Can any colored man, or any white man friendly to the freedom of all men, ever forget the night which followed the first day of January, 1863,” he asks, “when the world was to see if Abraham Lincoln would prove to be as good as his word? I shall never forget that memorable night, when in a distant city I waited and watched at a public meeting, with three thousand others not less anxious than myself, for the word of deliverance which we have heard read today. Nor shall I ever forget the outburst of joy and thanksgiving that rent the air when the lightning brought to us the emancipation proclamation. In that happy hour we forgot all delay, and forgot all tardiness, forgot that the President had bribed the rebels to lay down their arms by a promise to withhold the bolt which would smite the slave-system with destruction; and we were thenceforward willing to allow the President all the latitude of time, phraseology, and every honorable device that statesmanship might require for the achievement of a great and beneficent measure of liberty and progress.”

Black Folk at Watchman Ceremony

Watchman Service on New Year's Eve

A black southern church in the early 20th century

For anyone interested in a balanced assessment of Abraham Lincoln this speech by Frederick Douglass is a must read; the text can be easily found on Google. But for the purpose of this essay I shall offer but one other quote. It was selected for its clarity in stating a fact that few of Lincoln’s contemporary critics recognize: Politics is the art of the possible! Douglas, astute political analyst that he was, understood that Lincoln was not a king; that his power was checked by two other branches of government, and that powerful members of both branches vehemently opposed any attempt at emancipating black slaves. Given that reality he had to make deals, enter into compromises that offended moral purists. He did not always understand this and was wont to condemn these vacillations, but in the end Douglass saw the light.

I have said that President Lincoln was a white man, and shared the prejudices common to his countrymen towards the colored race. Looking back to his times and to the condition of his country, we are compelled to admit that this unfriendly feeling on his part may be safely set down as one element of his wonderful success in organizing the loyal American people for the tremendous conflict before them, and bringing them safely through that conflict. His great mission was to accomplish two things: first, to save his country from dismemberment and ruin; and, second, to free his country from the great crime of slavery. To do one or the other, or both, he must have the earnest sympathy and the powerful cooperation of his loyal fellow-countrymen. Without this primary and essential condition to success his efforts must have been vain and utterly fruitless. Had he put the abolition of slavery before the salvation of the Union, he would have inevitably driven from him a powerful class of the American people and rendered resistance to rebellion impossible. Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.”

Alas, as the learned and insightful social/intellectual historian and thoughtful commentator on America politics and culture Harold Cruse has observed: Americans are anti-intellectual and anti-historical. Thus people who regard themselves as well educated enough to post their opinions about weighty historical matters on Facebook – that great unmediated forum of opinion – do not take the time to read what Frederick Douglass thought of President Lincoln, despite the fact that they were contemporaries and Douglass watched his every move because ending slavery was the grand crusade of his life. Instead they seek the opinion of popular historians and magazine writers and swear by them.

Indeed, the raison d’etre of this essay is just such an opinion posted on Facebook. The self-assured commentator is convinced that he has found out “the truth” about Lincoln he feels compelled to spread it with the conviction of a Jack legged preacher proclaiming “the good news,” and with no less conviction.

“Folks really need to read Lerone Bennett’s book on Lincoln, “Forced Into Glory.” the writer tells us, “People like Lyman Trumball, Wendell Phillips, Thaddeus Stevens, all more progressive than Lincoln on race. Lincoln used nigger more than Richard Pryor and refused to sign two of the Confiscation Acts which would have doomed slavery years before the Emancipation Proclamation. And the emancipation thing enslaved a half million black people when it was enacted and freed none. But yeah I get the popular mythology of Lincoln”

President Lincoln at Antietam Battlefield

Abraham Lincoln Antietam

The Civil War….and Lincoln’s prosecution of it is no myth

Like most polemics that prize passion over reason this argument misses the mark by a mile.  From the outset our self-styled savant is fatally handicapped by his ignorance of history.    Lyrone Bennet Jr, a friend and respected scribe with whom I shared the podium on several occasions, was a very compelling magazine feature writer, not a professional historian.  This is a distinction that laymen are not equipped to understand but is in a very real distinction nonetheless.

In a nutshell what it boils down to is that historians go to the original records and attempt to present objective arguments based on that evidence regardless of their personal feelings about the subject.  And the work they produce is subjected to rigorous peer review.  Stacking the evidence in order to make a polemical point is called “Special Pleading.”  In its worst manifestation it is called “popular mythology,” which is what magazine writers do.  It is an approach to historical writing that is universally rejected by professional historians, and for very good reason.

Lyrone Bennett was Senior Editor of Ebony Magazine, whose role as stated by its founder and longtime publisher, John Johnson, is to report positive news about black Americans and denounce racist discrimination.  It is a noble goal but it is not what professional historians are about.  The failure to understand this distinction is what led so many black writers to attack Dr. Manning Marable’s book on Malcolm X.  If you really want to understand something about the writing of modern scientific history read my essay “Is Dr. Marable’s Malcolm yet another Reinvention?” on this blog. ( And by the way, if you wish to know what qualifies me to present  this analysis read my resume on this site under “A thumbnail Sketch”)

For anyone to suggest that Abraham Lincoln was a passive figure in the emancipation of American slaves reveals an embarrassing ignorance.  The Emancipation Proclamation was a war time executive order, which ONLY a president could issue.  That way Lincoln could avoid the machinations of a contentious Congress, which would NEVER have voted to end slavery!  Furthermore Lincoln’s position on slavery evolved while he was in office.  When the South started the war he was a “Free Soiler” who mainly looked at slavery as an economic issue, although he personally abhorred the system he was a lawyer who recognized that it was LEGAL and thus had no intention of overthrowing it where it was already established, but he was opposed to its expansion onto “free soil” i.e. non slaveholding states.  However during the war he became a passionate abolitionist who believed that slavery was a mortal sin.

There is no better indication of the depth of his commitment to ending slavery everywhere in the US than his refusal to make a compromise with the Confederates to end the war by allowing them to retain their slaves.  To those that know but little of history this may not seem like a big deal.  However let me point out a couple of facts that should be considered in assessing Lincoln’s opposition to slavery on moral grounds. The US Civil War was the most destructive war in the history of the world at the time, because it was the first war that used modern methods of production, transportation and technology.

Before it began nobody could envision what a bloody affair it would become.  That’s why Lincoln was urged by his closet advisors to end the war by compromising with the Confederates and allowing them to retain their slaves but he refused their advice! This is a compromise that he would have readily made BEFORE the war, but during the travails of war Lincoln spent his evenings reading Shakespeare and the Bible; he came to believe that the horrors of the war was God’s punishment of America for the “sin” of slavery – just as the “Founding Father” Thomas Jefferson, a former president and slave holder had earlier confessed regarding slavery: “I shudder for my nation when I reflect upon the fact that God is just.”   And Lincoln believed: “The judgments of the Lord are always right and just.”

Like everybody that ever lived Lincoln had his contradictions, but for a white man of his time he was enlightened in his view of race, otherwise he would NEVER have invited Douglass to the Inaugural Ball – the first black American to attend that prestigious gathering of the nation’s power elite – and definitely not proclaim him “the most meritorious man in the nation.”  These were radical acts by 19th century standards and cannot be dismissed with simple minded, ahistorical rhetoric based on 21st century standards.  That kind of thinking is mindless propaganda designed to make points in contemporary polemics not scholarly history.

Such tampering with the historical record may help win political arguments but does little to help us understand our past. Of course, I do not expect the average person to understand these distinctions, and thus to recognize their value, but being a compulsive pedagogue who is genetically predisposed to combat ignorance wherever I find it – especially about things that really matter – I feel compelled to offer this explanation of the difference between history and propaganda….i.e. “popular mythology.”

I reiterate: the greatest justification for presenting history based on rigorous adherence to the evidence is that this is the only way for us to learn the lessons it can teach. For instance the criticism made of President Lincoln by our Facebook savant is strongly reminiscent of the criticisms made of his fellow Illinois native Barack Obama today.  When the Facebook savant argues:“People like Lyman Trumball, Wendell Phillips, Thaddeus Stevens, all more progressive than Lincoln on race. Lincoln used nigger more than Richard Pryor and refused to sign two of the Confiscation Acts which would have doomed slavery years before the Emancipation Proclamation. And the emancipation thing enslaved a half million black people when it was enacted and freed none.”

In this one passage we can discern the basic themes in the anti-Obama polemics endlessly reiterated by critics among black and white leftists and Black Nationalists, who have accused him of everything from being a tragic mulatto with divided racial loyalties, to “the brown face of American imperialism.” The comparison with Trumbull, Phillips and Stevens with no mention of the powerful opposition Lincoln faced, is echoed in Cornel West’s criticism of President Obama for not being like Dr. Martin Luther King and other “black prophetic voices” of the past. It is an absurd expectation, the product of a mind trained in theology and philosophy and appears to have no idea of the complexities of politics or the different roles philosophers and politicians must play in society – for a thoughtful discussion of this difference see “On Moral Preachment vs. Political Realities” on this blog.

Then there is the ever present problem of “presentism” when layman discusses historical figures.  The charge that Lincoln used nigger more than Richard Pryor “ is a classic case in point.  Our Facebook savant obviously did not take into account the fact that the use of “nigger” to describe black folks was au courant at the time and was used by a wide variety of people of varying political views, including abolitionists passionately fighting to end slavery.  It was certainly not the subject of near universal condemnation as it was when Richard Pryor was using it in his monologues like a stuck record.  Yet there is no one who believes that Pryor’s intention was to insult or injure black people.  Here the commentator does not appear to make any distinction between words and deeds in assessing the intentions of the speaker or taking the measure of a man, only the race of the speaker is considered….and he is totally indifferent to historical context.

Randall Kennedy, an Afro-American Professor of law at Harvard, has made such distinctions in a thoughtful and provocative discussion in his book titled “Nigger.”  Professor Kennedy selects two white American historical figures that made monumental contributions to the political and cultural advancement of Afro-Americans, and thus based on their deeds cannot reasonably be accused of seeking to injure or insult us despite their documented use of the word “nigger”: Carl Van Vechten and Lyndon B. Johnson.

Van Vechten is well known to students of the Afro-American cultural movement of the 1920’s known to history as the Harlem Renaissance,  because he was one on the men who helped make it happen by introducing the works of black writers to major white publishers, and arranging salons in his downtown digs so that black artists could meet and fraternize with the patrons and exhibiters in the downtown art world, etc.    Yet Professor Kennedy tells us “Carl Van Vetchen, for instance, wrote of ‘niggers’ in correspondence with his friend Langston Hughes and Hughes did not object…should he have objected?” asks Kennedy.  To wit he replies “No. Van Vecthen, a key supporter of the Harlem Renaissance, had shown time and time again that he abhorred racial prejudice, would do what he could to improve the fortunes of Afro-Americans, and treasured his black friends.”

We see this same  attitude about the use of “nigger” by whites who are considered friends in the position taken by black players on the Miami Dolphins football team during the dispute between the Afro-American tackle Johnathan Martin and the white defensive end Richie Icognito.  When Johnathan Martin accused Incognito of hurling racist epithets at him the black players said it was cool for Ritchie to call them “niggers” because he was “more of a brother” than Martin. While this all sounds crazy to me, because I am not down with any white folks calling me nigger under any circumstance, we can see that other black people view the use of the word by some whites differently.

For Professor Kennedy it is purely the intent of the speaker that matters.  In President Lyndon Johnson he provides another compelling example of a friend of Afro-Americans who used the word “nigger” liberally in private conversation; about as often as Abraham Lincoln is said to have used it.   He tells us “In 1967, President Lyndon Baines Johnson decided to appoint an African American to the Supreme Court for the first time in American history.  First on Johnson’s list of candidates was Thurgood Marshall – “Mr. Civil Rights” the hero of Brown v. Board of Education and, of course, the man he ended up putting on the Court.  But before he announced his selection, Johnson asked an assistant to identify some other possible candidates.  The aide mentioned A. Leon Higginbotham, whom Johnson had appointed to the federal trial bench.  Reportedly, the President dismissed the suggestion with the comment “The only two people who ever heard of Judge Higginbotham are you and his mamma.  When I appoint a nigger to the Supreme Court, I want everyone to know he is a nigger.”

It ought to be obvious to all thoughtful readers by now that it is folly to equate Abraham Lincoln’s use of the word nigger with a hatred for black people.  And it ought to be abundantly clear that all talk about President Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation having nothing to do with the abolition of slavery is nothing more than ignorant prattle that reveals an innocence of any knowledge of the history of the period, alas.

Those who care to read a biography of Abraham Lincoln that reveals this complex man in all of his virtues and flaws, a man of conviction who vacillated to accommodate the realities of politics, read With Malice Toward None by Dr. Steven Oates.  And for an excellent account of how Lincoln was viewed by the abolitionist movement read Black Abolitionists, by the pioneering black historian and first biographer of Frederick Douglas Dr. Benjamin Quarles.  And finally, whatever contemporary Afro—Americans may believe about Abraham Lincoln, to those who endured American slavery and witnessed the coming of freedom, the people who huddled with their descendants in black southern churches as the Watchman called out the hour of night…Abraham Lincoln was their deliverer. Of this the great Frederick Douglass left no doubt:

Had Abraham Lincoln died from any of the numerous ills to which flesh is heir; had he reached that good old age of which his vigorous constitution and his temperate habits gave promise; had he been permitted to see the end of his great work; had the solemn curtain of death come down but gradually — we should still have been smitten with a heavy grief, and treasured his name lovingly. But dying as he did die, by the red hand of violence, killed, assassinated, taken off without warning, not because of personal hate — for no man who knew Abraham Lincoln could hate him — but because of his fidelity to union and liberty, he is doubly dear to us, and his memory will be precious forever.

Fellow-citizens, I end, as I began, with congratulations. We have done a good work for our race today. In doing honor to the memory of our friend and liberator, we have been doing highest honors to ourselves and those who come after us; we have been fastening ourselves to a name and fame imperishable and immortal; we have also been defending ourselves from a blighting scandal. When now it shall be said that the colored man is soulless, that he has no appreciation of benefits or benefactors; when the foul reproach of ingratitude is hurled at us, and it is attempted to scourge us beyond the range of human brotherhood, we may calmly point to the monument we have this day erected to the memory of Abraham Lincoln

 

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Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
 January 4, 2015

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