Lincoln on Race & Slavery
Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr.
(October 2009 Civil War News)

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Illustrated, notes, 343 pp, 2009. Princeton University Press, 41 Williams St., Princeton, NJ 08540, $24.95 plus shipping.

“The problem of the twentieth century,” wrote Harvard educated scholar W.E.B. DuBois in his seminal work The Souls of Black Folks (1903), “is the problem of the color-line.” As we end the first decade of the new millennium and celebrate the bicentennial of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, it is all together fitting that Harvard University scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. offers up a compelling and important analysis of Lincoln’s stance on the color-line.

Not one to shy away from sensitive matters, Gates wades fully into the crux of the place that race and slavery played in Lincoln’s life by analyzing 70 pieces of Lincoln’s writings and remarks in public speeches, letters and memos within a 19th-century context that is nuanced with a subtle nod to our present.

This is in no way revisionism, but rather a way of looking at Lincoln through a prism which some people find uncomfortable. Gates forces readers to get out of their comfort zone and consider Lincoln the man, not the myth nor the bronze or marble god.

The author’s use of history in this judiciously edited volume is not some appropriation or use of history to address current needs, but is an honest appraisal of the human being that was Abraham Lincoln, a man, who, like all of us, was a complicated individual who could on the one hand write words that reflect a paragon of virtue while at the same time entertain visitors with “darkie” jokes referring to blacks as Sambo, Cufee, and other derogatory terminology.

Of singular importance is Gates’ opening essay, which lays out his argument about Lincoln’s racial attitudes. He does so quite craftily, using Frederick Douglass as a foil, by raising the litmus test for Lincoln’s racial attitudes, through the lens of Douglass’ 1876 dedicatory remarks at the Emancipation/Freedmen’s Monument in Washington, D.C.

Gates’ reflection on Douglass’ words includes the author’s admission that Douglass’ perception of Lincoln shifted and changed as well in the years between the end of the Civil War and the end of Reconstruction. Famously, Douglass in 1865 called Lincoln “preeminently the black man’s president.” By 1876 Lincoln was “preeminently the white man’s president.”

What could offer such a change of posture? For Gates it was Douglass’ ability to look at the whole of Lincoln, the man who claimed “if slavery isn’t wrong, then nothing is wrong,” yet dawdled on emancipation.

And herein lies the genius of Lincoln on Race and Slavery, for Gates, while he is perfectly willing to acknowledge Lincoln’s growth on racial issues, contends that to understand Lincoln and race relations of antebellum and Civil War America one cannot compartmentalize Lincoln the man.

Lincoln on Race and Slavery is an important work and belongs on the bookshelf of every American who is seriously interested in the Civil War, Civil Rights, and the struggle to earn those rights, and who is willing to let preconceived notions be challenged.

Reviewer: James A. Percoco

James A. Percoco teaches U.S. and Applied History at West Springfield High School in Springfield, Va. He is author of A Passion for the Past: Creative Teaching of U.S. History and Divided We Stand: Teaching About Conflict in U.S. History. Percoco is a USA TODAY All-USA teacher and is an adjunct professor in the School of Education at American University where he serves as History Educator-in-Residence.