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Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.


Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln's White Dream

Lerone Bennett, Jr.

4 2000
Volume 6, Number 4


The Truth-Splitter 

Winter 2000 

Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln's White Dream by Lerone Bennett, Jr. (Johnson Publishing, 2000; xv + 651 pgs.)

The Swiss scholar Eduard Fueter once observed that every historian must decide whether he wishes to write from the perspective of his own time, or from the perspective of those whom he is studying. Few historical issues show the salience of Fueter's dictum as well as the interpretation of Abraham Lincoln's politics.Precisely illustrating the fallacy that Fueter had in mind, many have viewed Lincoln from the standpoint of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s.

To this way of thinking, Lincoln fought for the universal human rights proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence. He regarded the Union as the "last, best hope on earth" for a government "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." Accordingly, he did his utmost to preserve the Union and to end what he regarded as the greatest imperfection of that Union: Negro slavery.

This view of Lincoln by no means is restricted to mythologists in the style of Carl Sandburg. Quite the contrary, scholars such as Harry Jaffa, the leading promoter of Lincoln-as-philosophical-statesman, accept this view in its entirety. Lerone Bennett does not mention Jaffa in his outstanding new book, but the entire volume massively refutes his position. As Bennett abundantly shows, Lincoln cared little for blacks and wished them to leave the United States.

This surprising contention must face an obvious objection. Did not Lincoln repeatedly declare that the Declaration, and particularly the document's equality clause, was his most basic political principle? Bennett astutely turns the flank of the objection by partially conceding its truth. Lincoln did indeed believe that "all men are created equal." But historians have misunderstood what Lincoln meant.

Bennett derisively cites several historians who have made Lincoln "the patron saint of the Declaration of Independence. J.G. Randall said `the Declaration of Independence was his platform, his confession of faith.' Roy P. Basler [the editor of Lincoln's Collected Works] said `democracy was to Lincoln a religion'" (p. 311). Bennett comments: "If so, it was a Jim Crow religion with a separate-but-unequal Holy Writ" (p. 311-12).

How can Bennett say this? If he admits that the equality clause of the Declaration was central to Lincoln, has he not given away his case? The Declaration says that "all men are created equal," and no one, not even Chief Justice Taney, doubted that blacks were human beings.

Bennett shows himself fully equal to the challenge of this objection. He places great stress on Lincoln's distinction between "natural" and "political" rights. No doubt blacks, like all other human beings, possess natural rights; but rights of citizenship are an entirely different matter. Further-and this is crucial to Bennett's analysis-all essential political rights are prerogatives of citizenship. Natural rights, apart from citizenship, count for next to nothing in Lincoln's conception.

As our author notes, Lincoln expressed himself with complete clarity on the point. He cites the following, which he terms "so shocking that the best thing for us to do is to get out of the way and let Lincoln speak." Lincoln stated: "Negroes have natural rights, however, as other men have, although they cannot enjoy them here . . . no sane man will attempt to deny that the African upon his own soil has all the natural rights that instrument vouchsafes to all mankind" (p. 315).

For Lincoln, then, the question of blacks' rights in the United States could not be answered by looking at the Declaration in isolation. To do so would be to seek guidance from bare abstractions: Bennett terms these "Declaration A." Only by interpreting the Declaration within the concrete historical circumstances of America's founding ("Declaration B"), can one grasp a proper policy towards blacks.

If one interprets the Declaration in this historically sensitive way, Lincoln argued, blacks have little or no place in the American polity. During his debates with Stephen A. Douglas in 1858, Lincoln left little room for doubt about this, and Bennett cites statements that, if made today, might earn Lincoln an indictment for incitement to hate crimes. In the debate at Charleston, Illinois, Lincoln stated: "Judge Douglas has said to you that he has not been able to get from me an answer to the question whether I am in favor of Negro citizenship. . . . I tell him very frankly that I am not in favor of Negro citizenship" (p. 305).

Lincoln, then, did not wish political rights to be extended to blacks. But why not? Here is where Lincoln might encounter legal troubles today. He thought that America was a white man's country. Whites had founded the nation (exercising their natural rights under the Declaration) and had extended the rights of citizenship to other free, white people, not to blacks.

Again, during the Douglas debates, Lincoln famously remarked: "There is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will for ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch 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" (p. 208).

Defenders of the standard view are likely to answer Bennett in this way. "No doubt," they will say, "Lincoln made racist comments from time to time, largely for reasons of political opportunism." He showed his true devotion to the Declaration, though, by his unrelenting opposition to slavery. `A house divided against itself cannot stand.' During the Civil War, his Emancipation Proclamation freed many slaves and led the way to the Thirteenth Amendment. Even if he could not always transcend his background as a poor white from a border state, Lincoln richly deserves to be called the Great Emancipator."

Lincoln, as the imagined objection correctly states, opposed slavery. But, exactly in line with the distinction between natural rights and citizenship as Bennett construes it, he did not oppose slavery in the states where it existed. To do so would be to interfere with settled custom. "We must not disturb slavery in the states where it exists, because the constitution, and the peace of the country, both forbid us" (p. 249). Lincoln's opposition to slavery had an entirely different focus.

What he consistently attacked was extending slavery to the territories. Extension of slavery might lead to the overthrow of the Declaration, which would threaten the rights of white people. Lincoln denounced the "few, but an increasing number of men, who, for the sake of perpetuating slavery, are beginning to assail and to ridicule the white-man's charter of freedom-the declaration that `all men are created free and equal'" (p. 222).

To press the objection to Bennett further, though, did not Lincoln strike a blow for freedom with the Emancipation Proclamation? Once more, Bennett insists on the need to take into account the historical context when interpreting Lincoln's words and actions.

If one does so, one thing is clear. Lincoln, ever the follower of Henry Clay, wished at all costs to preserve the Union. Freeing blacks was simply a tool to be used in the fight against secession. Lincoln, in response to a letter from Horace Greeley urging that he enforce the Confiscation Act in order to free slaves, made clear his priorities. "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to 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" (p. 480, emphasis in original).

Is not our author here open to counterattack? Even if Lincoln viewed emancipation as a mere means in the struggle for the Union, he did, after all, free the slaves. Does this not count for something?

Bennett anticipates the objection and has a ready answer. The Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves only in areas in which the Union army had no control. True enough, as the army advanced, slaves came under Union jurisdiction; but Lincoln often held back generals from freeing slaves and supported those who did not. He seemed quite ready to abandon his own very limited emancipation plans at the slightest sign of a Southern government, however anti-black, that wished to rejoin the Union.

Bennett hammers home the theme that Lincoln's real hope for blacks was their colonization outside the United States. "Even as Lincoln basked in the glow of the Emancipation . . . some 450 African-Americans, . . . were being deported, with their consent, we are told, and at Lincoln's direction to establish the first Lincoln colony" (p. 553). Contrary to Lincoln's many apologists, he did not abandon colonization in the last years of the Civil War. Quite the contrary, the scheme formed an essential part of his plan for a centralized state based on white ethnic identity.

Bennett mounts a formidable case, and is on only a few points open to challenge. He claims that had Lincoln adopted the policies of the most radical Republicans, he could have ended the war much sooner. But he fails to offer evidence for this contention, and one suspects his view merely expresses his own approval of Thaddeus Stevens and his ilk. Bennett makes very heavy weather of Lincoln's love of jokes about blacks. Is this really evidence of racism? Further, in his extravagant praise of Frantz Fanon, he ignores Fanon's calls for murder of Europeans. But in his central contentions about Lincoln, Bennett has proved his case to the hilt.

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