27 January 2012

Is The Lincoln Proclamation Missing Something?

Update: A comment made at CWMemory in response to this post: "The reason so many people were upset over the Confederate History Month proclamation is because slavery was so integral to the Confederacy’s reason for existence. For a CHM proclamation to gloss over it is a pretty big omission. For a Lincoln proclamation to ignore his racial views, not so much."

No, of course not. Man, you just couldn't make this stuff up. And, of course, the conversation descends into personal insults. Are these folks predictable, or what?

(End up update.)

Would anyone like to offer some thoughts on these two excerpts from the Lincoln Day bill in the Virginia Senate?

During the Civil War, Lincoln's family in Virginia were slave owners and Confederates, 

and . . .

That the Governor be requested to call upon the citizens of the Commonwealth to commemorate this day with appropriate tributes, programs, and events that honor the memory and legacy of Abraham Lincoln

Hmmm . . . slave-owning and "rebellion" were part of Lincoln's legacy here in Virginia yet we're being asked to "honor" that legacy? Kinda bucks the current trend, doesn't it? It's almost as if the proclamation is mentioning that in a positive tone as it sandwiches it in amidst all of the complimentary statements about Lincoln. And where's all the condemnation of "celebratory history?" Seems those same academics have backslidden on their own religion of objectivity and attitudes toward heroes. Help me, I'm confused.

But this proclamation also leaves out quite a bit of President Lincoln's legacy. In light of all the negative hoopla last year over McDonnell's Confederate History proclamation, I'm having difficulty reconciling all the celebration over this proclamation, with all the hysterical objections we heard over the Confederate History proclamation. It just doesn't add up. Am I the only one who sees the inconsistencies here?

The biggest complaint regarding McDonnell's CHM proclamation was more about what he left out than anything else. As already noted, there are parts of Lincoln's "legacy" left out of this proclamation as well; which was the same complaint we heard from the "objective" academics over the Confederate History Month proclamation. For example:

  • Lincoln's fondness for black minstrel shows, his frequent use of the "N" word, and his repeating racial jokes
  • His support of pre-Civil War "Black laws" which denied basic rights to blacks in Lincoln's native Illinois
  • His support for fugitive slave laws (returning runaways to their masters)
  • His support of colonization (shipping all those of African descent to either Africa or South America)
  • His Emancipation Proclamation Act - which actually allowed slavery to continue in states where he could have ended it, but really did nothing in states where he lacked the power to end it
  • His desire to keep slavery from spreading to other states and territories was motivated by his desire to protect jobs for whites
  • His support for the Corwin amendment (expressed in March of 1861), which would have specifically codified the unfettered legality of slavery in the U.S. Constitution forever

None of this is new information. Anyone who's studied Lincoln's life knows all this. Executive editor of Ebony Magazine, Lerone Bennett, Jr. has written a book pointing all this out; and much more. These facts, no matter how some scholars will spin them, are undeniable. Yes, I understand that his attitudes were not uncommon among 19th century Americans. And, yes, I understand and believe that Lincoln was morally opposed to slavery. But so were Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee, as well as other Confederates. Painting either side in that epic struggle with broad 21st brushes in order to score political points today is the worst kind of presentism. All I'm asking for is consistency.

Let's look at the two proclamations in another way, and this is a point I've raised before. Of the two proclamations - Confederate History Month and the Lincoln Day proclamation - which of the following is "lesser known" history:

  • The Confederacy's association with slavery?
  • Lincoln's racist attitude toward blacks?
The answer is obvious. And I'm not alone in suggesting that more folks are ignorant of Lincoln's views than are of the Confederacy's connection to slavery.

Back in February of 2009, the Wall Street Journal interviewed Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. about his book and PBS series on Lincoln and race. Here's how the WSJ introduced the interview:

Racial jokes? Shipping freed slaves to Africa? These aren't the sorts of things most people generally associate with Abraham Lincoln, whose 200th birthday is on Feb. 12. In a new book, "Lincoln on Race & Slavery," and a new series airing Feb. 11 on PBS, "Looking for Lincoln," Harvard professor and documentary filmmaker Henry Louis Gates Jr. takes a fresh look at the 16th president. (Emphasis mine.)

So knowing this, which proclamation - if you were to have to choose one - is there more of a need to reveal that lesser known aspect of history? And, knowing the obvious answer, why aren't the same academics and history bloggers criticizing the Lincoln proclamation the way they criticized the CHM proclamation? I think we all know the answer.

All this being said, I've never been one who thinks that every time an early American historical figure like Lincoln, Jefferson, Lee, Washington, etc  or whoever, is mentioned that we need to follow with a laundry list of their sins and failures. Most semi-educated Americans already know that aspect of our history. The constant need to dredge all that up and repeat it tells us more about the dredger than it does the dredgee:

If you talk about a good aspect of a great man or generation, you are expected to immediately follow up with a list of their flaws and mistakes as well. If you don’t, you’re seen as a rube who has swallowed the traditional version of history and isn’t in on the new “secret” information that has been revealed. The self-satisfaction of those who consider themselves in the know and like to give you the “real scoop” is invariably palatable. ~ Brett McKay

However, if that is to be the standard for remembering someone's legacy, then let's at least be consistent. Having one set of rules for some figures and another for others simply reveals what many Americans already suspect know - that many academic historians aren't really as objective and non-partisan as they want us all to believe. Their "professionalism" has it's limits. Personally, I don't have a big problem with giving Lincoln his day - as long as the record includes the whole story, as was demanded for Confederate History month. We do want to be consistent and objective, don't we?


Brock Townsend said...

Collectivists = inconsistencies

Lindsay said...

As always your post is enlightening and provides for some interesting points to consider.

I really am in opposition to this proposed bill for a number of reasons, however, if it does go through you are correct - it must not be subject to a different set of standards.

That being said, it would not surprise me one bit if "we" NEVER heard about the other side of Lincoln's history and legacy though (until I started educating myself neither had I. It is something that is quietly tucked away in public school curricula.)

To only include the flattering aspects is dishonest and not an accurate representation of Lincoln himself. I agree with you, he has a lot of admirable qualities but like everyone else, he has some that are not so admirable (in my opinion.) Just like Confederate history...

The sponsors of this bill need to be asked these questions - and I am only supposing here (and I haven't researched it to see that this is true) but I imagine that they are some of the same people who were so opposed to the CHM proclamation. Their explanations would be interesting to say the least.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Hello Lindsay. The whole issue brings up the old "reconciliation" perspective of how to handle these various perspectives.

"some of the same people who were so opposed to the CHM proclamation."

Don't know about that in regards to the sponsors. But it is the issue I'm raising here about professional historians and CW bloggers. They were all in a tizzy over the CHM for leaving out some of these aspects of history but seem to have no trouble looking the other way when it comes to Lincoln. It simply confirms much of what others accuse them of and which they vehemently deny.

Thanks for your comments, as always you contribute much to the discussion.

15th Georgia said...

I guess my first question would be: "Why would there be a "Lincoln Day" in any southern state?A "Lincoln Day" in the commonwealth of Virginia. My. My. This is something that I can probably state with 100% surety that you will never see in the state of Alabama. Seems like after years and years of brow beating, why do some southerners feel ashamed of our heritage or push these politically correct "activities" that are so ridiculous. It's like those apologists say "We get it. We are getting in line now." I guess their philosophy is: "To get along, we are going to go along"
Sad that so many are willing to turn their backs on their heritage and their ancestors.

Lindsay said...

I completely agree with you Georgia, it is really sad. I think too many people are afraid of what they will be accused of if the point oppose things like this.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

If you'll head over to Kevin Levin's blog at www.CWMemory.com, you'll see the comments and justification (Lincoln "grew" vs. Lincoln was politically expedient - amazing.) for Lincoln's various positions provide textbook examples of my point here - a glaring double standard. Thanks for the affirmation fellas.

Michael Lynch said...

My point in making the comment you referred to above is simply that slavery was more important to the Confederacy than Lincoln's racism was to his intellectual makeup. I don't see why that's so hard to understand.

If you can demonstrate that slavery and the Confederacy weren't inextricably linked, nobody's stopping you from attempting to make that case. Or if you want to demonstrate that Lincoln's racism is indispensable to understanding his historical role, you can do that, too. Have at it. That's how history works.


Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...


It depends on the context and what you're discussing. For my topic - proclamations and honoring legacy - its a hypocritical position to take.

"If you can demonstrate that slavery and the Confederacy weren't inextricably linked"

That's a distraction. Nice try. How about you demonstrating that Lincoln's views and various positions on slavery aren't "inextricably linked"?

"Lincoln's racism is indispensable to understanding his historical rule"

Bennett, and others, have already done that. No need to reinvent the wheel. I'm just pointing out the double-standard. Moreover, there are far more Americans ignorant of Lincoln's attitudes on race and slavery than are of the Confederacy's, yet whenever the Confederacy is mentioned, one has to make sure slavery is brought up, yet Lincoln, in your words, "not so much."

And you don't see the hypocrisy? I'm amazed.

Michael Lynch said...

It's not a distraction, because it's the basis for the point I was trying to make.

We have a proclamation to commemorate Confederate history, and a proclamation to commemorate Lincoln. You wondered why there would be more criticism of one than the other, criticism based on interpretations of race and slavery. I said that it's not unreasonable to criticize the CMH proclamation for an omission of slavery, since one simply can't understand the Confederacy without slavery. Lincoln's enjoyment of racist jokes and minstrel shows, on the other hand, did not play as central a part in his historical role as slavery did to the Confederacy.

My point was not to condemn the Confederacy or exonerate Lincoln, but to simply to make a statement about the relative importance of slavery in understanding two different historical topics, the Confederacy and Lincoln.

Now, if you disagree with either of these points, I welcome and would enjoy reading an explanation of why. But when it comes to explaining why I distinguished between the critique of the CMH proclamation and your critique of the Lincoln one, I'm afraid I've exhausted my command of the English language.

As to who was "right" or "wrong," or who accumulated more amoral baggage in the course of their existence, it's not a question which interests me, since defending the honor of people who died more than a century ago is not high on my list of priorities. I have no beef with the nineteenth-century South, nor any personal stock in Lincoln's historical reputation. I simply argued that slavery was central to the one, racism an interesting aspect of the other.


Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

"Lincoln's enjoyment of racist jokes and minstrel shows, on the other hand, did not play as central a part in his historical role"

That's patently absurd; especially in the way many understand and remember Lincoln. Besides, there's much more to Lincoln and race than jokes and shows. Again, nice try.

"My point was not to condemn the Confederacy or exonerate Lincoln"

Fair enough, but neither is mine to exonerate the Confederacy nor condemn Lincoln. I'm just saying that if full disclosure in the standard, then be consistent and don't turn a blind eye when promoting your proclamation of choice.

"I welcome and would enjoy reading an explanation of why."

Fine, then go back and read my post again. It's not all that complicated.

"I have no beef with the nineteenth-century South, nor any personal stock in Lincoln's historical reputation. I simply argued that slavery was central to the one, racism an interesting aspect of the other."

That's fine. Slavery was central to America, not just the South. I'd recommend "Complicity - How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery." The centrality of slavery to the Confederacy was more nuanced than that, particularly the upper South. Discussing all those nuances and their degrees is for books and classrooms, not proclamations. But, again, if you can't leave out slavery in any kind of proclamation regarding Virginia's history and the Confederacy, then you can't leave out Lincoln's racial views and "flexible" views on slavery in a proclamation about him.

Which do you think is the lesser known?

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

". . . Bennett presents compelling evidence of how historians have consistently soft-pedaled Lincoln's racial views." ~ Eric Foner

While Foner is no fan of Bennett's book, "Forced Into Glory", he could not deny all I'm pointing out here. Historians have consistently soft-pedaled Lincoln's views on race, not as much as they once did, but that tendency is still there, as evidenced by the debate on this proclamation. I would add they hard-pedal on the South's views on race, turning the issue into a moral argument (North bad, South good) rather than a historical one. Nothing wrong with that as long as you make the distinction.

Not to beat a dead horse, but comparing the two proclamations, we see the soft-pedaling making a rather selective and obvious comeback.

Michael Lynch said...

My whole point is that full disclosure is not the standard. I don't expect commemorative proclamations to be all-inclusive. I do expect them to reflect the general outlines of historical knowledge, which hold that when it comes to secession, slavery was a matter of great import. If you think Lincoln's early views on race merits inclusion in a commemorative proclamation, fine. I personally happen to think it's not among the most salient points I'd want to convey to the public.

I'm afraid that the necessary minimum of agreement for
you and I to discuss these two proclamations seems to be absent. I think I'm going to accordingly remove myself from this discussion. It's been interesting.


BorderRuffian said...

Lincoln represents the North (they voted for him) and he fairly represents Northern views on race.

The South wanted the territories open to slavery.
Lincoln and the North wanted them reserved for free whites. No blacks in. All Indians out.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

BR - right. These debates always descend to "whose worse." Its silly. We all realize the vast majority of 19th century Americans were racists compared to 21st century values. That's NOT my point. I'm just pointing out the double standard of the "objective ones."

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Michael - I've said before, I don't think all the details need to be included in any of the proclamations, i.e. "Columbus was an evil European who brought destruction and disease to Native Americans, but what the heck, let's celebrate and close the Post Office anyway." Where does it all stop? It's ridiculous.

But one of the points I'm trying to make, (partly in response to yours about the differences regarding the Confederacy and Lincoln)is that its even more ridiculous when most Americans already know the details - in this case about the Confederacy. That's not true when it comes to Lincoln.

Thanks for your input.

BorderRuffian said...

"Abraham Lincoln Day in Virginia"

The proclamation should also list all the wanton destruction committed by Lincoln's troops in Virginia.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

No, you can only insist on the whole story if its a Confederate history proclamation.

13thBama said...

The suspense of Habeus Corpus. Let's talk about that.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Only under George Bush.