Had enough of Abraham Lincoln? Of course you haven't. In the bicentennial year of his birth, Lincoln is more interesting than ever.
There are two Lincolns-the one we studied in school, the one full of myths that we fashioned into the image we wanted him to be, and the other, the real Lincoln, warts and all.
Many believe, erroneously, that because Lincoln signed The Emancipation Proclamation, he was always against slavery and an advocate for black people. Many also believe that the Proclamation freed all slaves immediately and forever.
These myths are debunked in a new book and TV program (Looking for Lincoln, airing Wednesday, Feb. 11 on PBS). The book (Lincoln on Race and Slavery) and the TV documentary are the works of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., who adds to his excellent body of material on race and African-American roots.
Far from diminishing Lincoln, the book and film deliver the real Lincoln as a man who struggled, along with his country and culture, over the inherent worth of black people. In short, he becomes fully human, not a mythical figure above the temptations and frailties of average mortals.
Lincoln evolved in the best sense of that word. Though like many in his and our time, he wrestled with his inner demons. As Gates writes, ". . . He seems to have wrestled with his own use of the 'n-word,' which he used publicly until at least 1862, and which most Lincoln scholars today find so surprising and embarrassing that they consistently avoid discussing it. . . ."
Yet, in a letter to Albert G. Hodges on April 4, 1864, Lincoln wrote. "I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not think so, and feel."
Is this a contradiction, even hypocritical? Not in Lincoln's mind. At several points, extending into the early 1860s, Lincoln seriously considered a proposal to deport all black people and colonize them in Liberia, the Caribbean, and/or Latin America. He was dissuaded primarily by the high cost, not by the immorality of such a venture.
Just days before his assassination in April 1865, Lincoln gave a speech in which he advocated the right to vote for "very intelligent negroes" and 200,000 black Civil War veterans. The rest he apparently would allow to remain in sub-citizenship because of a lingering belief that blacks, as a race, were not as gifted or intelligent as whites and the few who were should be regarded as exceptions. It was that speech, writes Gates, "overheard by John Wilkes Booth, by Booth's own admission, that led to his decision to assassinate the president."
The great abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, was a constant thorn in Lincoln's side, urging him to do what politically he did not always think he could do. Douglass pushed Lincoln toward dramatic and immediate action to free the slaves. He believed Lincoln was his only hope. Lincoln thought he could not move faster than the majority would tolerate and that in a nation already divided by the Civil War, he did not want to be the one to make things even worse, were that possible.
Douglass may have been the one least taken in by the Lincoln myth. While recognizing Lincoln's immense role in freeing some (but not all) slaves, he saw him first and foremost as devoted "to the welfare of the white race. . . ." And yet, in that same tribute to Lincoln following his death, Douglass could also say without contradiction that Lincoln was "the first black man's president: the first to show any respect for their rights as men."
In 1876, Douglass was asked to reflect on Lincoln's legacy. He said, "Though Mr. Lincoln shared the prejudices of his white fellow-countrymen against the negro, it is hardly necessary to say that in his heart of hearts he loathed and hated slavery."
Lincoln overcame his prejudices sufficiently to begin moving his country in the right direction, culminating in the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States. Without Lincoln, his struggles and political courage in the face of his own prejudices, civil rights for black people would almost certainly have been further delayed and the election of a black president further denied.
© 2009 Tribune Media Services Inc.