Guest Essay: Was Lincoln a Racist?

Above Image: Abraham Lincoln “The Emancipator” (Park Plaza, Boston).

Guest post by Alfred J. Andrea

In the recently published Seven Myths of the Civil War (Hackett Publishing Co.), one of the book’s six authors, Ian Patrick Hunt, confronts head on the dual issue of Abraham Lincoln’s private opinions and official positions regarding African Americans. Through his nuanced analysis of the evolution of Abraham Lincoln’s thoughts and actions, Ian Patrick Hunt puts to rest the oft-repeated charge that the sixteenth president of the United States  was a racist. But the question remains, was he “The Emancipator,” as this statue in Park Plaza, Boston proclaims? Known as both the Emancipation Memorial and the Freedmen’s Memorial (due to the original’s having been funded by freed slaves), this copy of Thomas Bell’s statue was presented to the city in 1879. The original stands near Capitol Hill in Washington D.C.  Consider its imagery. A larger-than-life Lincoln places his right hand on the Emancipation Proclamation that rests on a pedestal, thereby bringing to mind his presidential inauguration when he placed his hand on a Bible. Assuming a heroic yet benign posture, he towers over a kneeling former slave. Unseen in this photograph, a whipping post draped in cloth stands behind the two men. This is a powerful statement, but how true is it?

As several of the authors of Seven Myths of the Civil War pointedly demonstrate, to ascribe all of the fruits of emancipation to the actions of the Great White Man, or even to a coterie of abolitionists, is to deny the active agency of hundreds of thousands of African Americans who seized and even fought and died for their and others’ freedom. Denying them their rightful roles in the complex story of the Civil War is to perpetuate stereotypes and myths that are best relegated to the trash bin of history. As readers of this book will discover, its seven authors, the outstanding historians that they are, refuse to deal in yes-and-no, black-and-white simplicities.

Yes, complexity and ambiguity are the essence of historical analysis but, that noted, there are a few moments and currents in the past that were straightforward and unambiguous, and allow no valid contradiction. So far as the American Civil War is concerned, the one abiding truth, as all of the authors of  Seven Myths of the Civil War agree, is that slavery was the root cause of Southern secession and the conflict that followed. For that reason, the key role played by African Americans in the struggle for their full recognition as human beings is all the more important and must not be minimized. And Seven Myths of the Civil War does not fail in this regard.

Photo by Alfred J. Andrea


See also: Dr. Wesley Moody, editor of Seven Myths of the Civil War on “Was Abraham Lincoln a Racist?”