In 1889, William Herndon, Abraham Lincoln’s close friend and law partner at Springfield, published a three-volume biography on Lincoln, which would provide one of history’s most brutally honest contemporaneous accounts of America’s sixteenth president. Many years in the making, it was a work borne out of Herndon’s repulsion that the American public had effectively deified the slain president as a martyr and out of the fear that the memory of Lincoln, the man, would be forever lost, dwarfed by the stature of Lincoln, the myth.
In the biography’s preface, he wrote:
If the story of his life is truthfully and courageously told — nothing colored or suppressed; nothing false either written or suggested — the reader will see and feel the presence of the living man…, live with him and be moved to think and act with him.
If, on the other hand, the story is colored or the facts in any degree suppressed, the reader will be not only misled, but imposed upon as well. At last the truth will come, and no man need hope to evade it.
Following this spirit, let us, but for a moment, take a look – truthfully and courageously – at the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation and the circumstances that compelled it.
Abraham Lincoln is known as “the Great Emancipator,” but is such a title an applicable moniker or a misnomer?
As American students, we were fervently taught that he had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, effective January 1, 1863, but what did that proclamation proclaim? It was announced on September 22, 1862, five days after the battle at Antietam, giving the South 100 days to return to the Union or to lose its slaves.
Several historians point out the ambiguity and double-talk of the document: “…shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” Lincoln knew he had no such power to make this statement without a Constitutional amendment. If ever there was a document that had the devil in its details, this was it. Not a single slave in any state was freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. They were only freed once each individual state decided to free its slaves, which culminated in the ratification of the thirteenth amendment on December 6, 1865. So the sting of the whip felt the same in Maryland on New Year’s Day of 1863 as it did scores and scores of years before.
Areas covered by the Emancipation Proclamation are in red. Slaveholding areas not covered are in blue.
The paradoxical nature of this document was recognized by those who understood its true intent, its meaning, and the circumstances in which it had to be released. Karl Marx reported in a European newspaper, to an audience who could consider the conflict more objectively, that it was a summons sent by one lawyer to another. At home, perhaps Secretary of State William H. Seward said it best, “We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them, and holding them in bondage where we can set them free.”
In effect, the proclamation was a warning shot fired at the South and a signal to Europe not to intercede in the war on behalf of the South. Lincoln said on many occasions that he was not for eradicating slavery where it presently existed but that he was against the expansion of slavery into western territories. This distinction is seldom emphasized in history, but the vicissitudes of the war made Lincoln’s former point subordinate to the latter. Contrary to popular opinion, he never claimed to be an abolitionist, and he scorned abolitionists such as John Brown.
The American Civil War was a war fought against the expansion of slavery into the territories acquired after the Mexican-American War. It was not about the moral rectitude of Lincoln or the North. Although he personally found slavery abhorrent, he believed in the innate superiority of the white race. His paramount goal was not the freedom of over four million black slaves but to save the Union at all costs. He once said:
My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race I do because I believe it helps to save the Union, and whatever I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.
In fact, Lincoln vehemently pursued the deportation of people of African descent, until it proved to be too impractical to implement. As a scion of Henry Clay, Lincoln viewed deportation as a method of purging the United States of its blackness and its original sin.
Furthermore, he did not believe in the miscegenation of the races nor the equality of the races. For example, he thought that paying white Union soldiers more than black soldiers was fair. This position angered many prominent blacks: Harriet Tubman was so outraged over it that she refused an invitation to the White House. Indeed, Lincoln is quoted as saying publicly:
I am not, nor ever have I been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races… I as much as any man is in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.
In the end, like most of his contemporaries, he placed white people above all other races. In fact, one of the reasons why Lincoln opposed slavery and its spread into territories to the west was that he believed slavery served as a catalyst for miscegenation, which thereby would pass on the superior white intelligence to an inferior black race.
Within ten years after his death, Lincoln’s persona had migrated from a hero to a saint. And so began the legend of the black race being freed by his merciful hand, and the resemblance of the man was eradicated by myth, as best exemplified by the Emancipation Memorial Statue located in Washington, DC. At the unveiling of the statue on April 14, 1876, the centennial year of the Declaration of Independence and the eleventh anniversary of his death, Frederick Douglass, a man who had several candid conversations with Lincoln and knew him well, said the following in front of President Grant, Supreme Court Justices, and members of Congress:
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.
Life is full of ironies. The person portrayed in the statue was a runaway slave Archer Alexander, the last fugitive slave captured in Missouri. Ironically, his emancipation had been declared by John Fremont, only to have Fremont’s proclamation revoked by Abraham Lincoln, thus taking away Alexander’s freedom and shackling him back into bondage.
Moreover, if Lincoln would have lived to serve a second term, his views on equality for black people may not have been any different from the Jim Crow South of the Gilded Age. In fact, if the South had offered him such a deal in those 100 days between the issuing and effective dates of the Emancipation Proclamation, America’s sixteenth president would probably have been elated.
Lincoln’s views on slavery are well documented, but his views on equality for all black people remain hidden behind the veil of his desire to place the white man first — and everyone else second. Although he now belongs to the ages, let’s not forget that he was a man of his times and not judge him by our times. Like the Founding Fathers of the United States and most white men of the post-Columbian era, he believed in the innate superiority of the white race, and there was nothing in his collective experience to alter such a view. Above all, he was a pragmatist and therefore did not truly believe in the Jeffersonian declaration that all men are created equal but instead believed that some men are more equal than others.
Edited by Gene Limb
Last edited July 8, 2019