This weekend, the much-anticipated movie, Lincoln, will be debut across the country to much fanfare and pre-release hype. In preparation for what will likely be another Stephen Spielberg masterpiece, starring, among others, Daniel Day Lewis and Sally Field, it seems appropriate to reflect upon a few of the complexities and ambiguities of our 16th and still greatest President.
The movie reportedly focuses on the last 100 or so days of our Abraham Lincoln’s life. The basic story line is one most Americans learned at an early age — during these last months of Lincoln’s life, he devoted himself to finishing the Civil War, lobbying for Congressional passage of the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which would permanently abolish slavery in the United States, and contemplating how to reconstruct a nation and provide freedmen the right to vote.
But in watching this compelling final chapter of our Redeemer President’s life, we should also keep in mind the incredibly capacious open-mindedness and moral goodness which allowed Lincoln to reach this level of enlightenment by the end of his life. After all, he had entered office in 1861 with a commitment to leave slavery undisturbed in those states where it was already in place.
Furthermore, as most pro-Lincoln scholars have long known and written about, Abraham Lincoln’s profession was as a politician, and his campaigning for popular support led to some most uncomfortable and outright racist expressions of his views in earlier years as well.
In order to more deeply appreciate Lincoln’s unsurpassed moral and national greatness, we should view his ambiguities and the “learning curve” of his life journey through the eyes of some of his harshest critics from the abolitionist movement of his own time and from the early 20th century Civil Rights movement.
Following are a few fairly well known giants in their own rights expressing their views about an imperfect man who became America’s very best “Angel of our Nature.” I’ve selected three well credentialed abolitionists/civil rights leaders in order to get a more candid glimpse at Lincoln’s leadership and legacy. Two of them, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Frederick Douglass, knew Lincoln personally and were not shy about “holding his feet to the fire” to pursue more rapid and comprehensive eradication of slavery.
Harriett Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) wrote about her impressions of Lincoln in February, 1864, prior to the dark and bloody summer clashes between Grant and Lee and his seemingly doomed re-election bid, which was ultimately salvaged through the fall of Atlanta and other late military victories. Stowe reflected first on his earlier career, suggesting of Abe’s single term in Congress (1847-48), that, “Lincoln’s whole nature inclined him to be a harmonizer of conflicting parties… rather than a committed combatant on either side.”
She then shifted to describing Lincoln the President as a “strong man. But his strength,” she continued, “is of a peculiar kind; it is not aggressive so much as passive, and among passive things, it is like the strength not so much of a stone buttress as of a wire cable. It is strength swaying to every influence, yielding on this side and on that to popular needs, yet tenaciously and inflexibly bound to carry its great end; and probably by no other kind of strength could our national ship have been drawn safely thus far during the tossings and tempests which beset her way.”
Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) recognized Lincoln’s limited goal at the beginning of his presidency but also recognized his inner strength and hatred of slavery, and his ultimate role as the Great Emancipator. Speaking to a crowd including much of “official Washington” in 1876, Douglass delivered a lengthy speech about Lincoln, including the following excerpts:
“He was preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men… He came into the Presidential chair upon one principle alone, namely opposition to the extension of slavery. His arguments in furtherance of this policy had their motive and mainspring in his patriotic devotion to the interest of his own race.”
To his largely white audience, Douglass continued, “You are the children of Abraham Lincoln. We are at best only his step-children, children by adoption, children by force of circumstances and necessity.”
Yet Douglass went on to say that, “while Abraham Lincoln saved for you a country, he delivered us from a bondage, according to Jefferson, one hour of which was worse than ages of the oppression your fathers rose in rebellion to oppose.”
After reciting a number of the more egregious examples of Lincoln’s compromises and hesitation on anti-slavery measures during the war, Douglass said: “Despite the mist and haze that surrounded him; despite the tumult, the hurry and confusion of the hour, we were able to take a comprehensive view of Abraham Lincoln, and to make reasonable allowance for the circumstances of his position. We saw him, measured him, and estimated him… by a broad survey, in light of the stern logic of great events — and in view of that divinity which shapes our ends, …we came to the conclusion that the hour and the man of our redemption had met in the person of Abraham Lincoln… His great mission was to accomplish two things; first, to save his country from dismemberment and ruin, and second, to free his country from the great crime of slavery.”
My third selected commentator on Lincoln is W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the founders in 1910 of the NAACP and longtime editor of its publication, The Crisis. Although not born until three years after Lincoln’s death, Du Bois was personally acquainted with former slaves and their stories, and was also familiar with Lincoln’s complex and evolving views of race and equality.
W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963) attracted intense criticism and condemnation when he wrote in May 1922: “Abraham Lincoln was a Southern poor white, of illegitimate birth, poorly educated and unusually ugly, awkward, ill-dressed… Aristocrats — Jeff Davis, Seward and their ilk — despised him, and indeed he had little outwardly that compelled respect. But in that curious human way he was big inside. He had reserves and depths… so that, at the crisis he was big enough to be inconsistent — cruel, merciful; peace-loving, a fighter; despising Negroes and letting them fight and vote; protecting slavery and freeing the slaves. He was a man — a big, inconsistent, brave man.”
Several months later, in September 1922, Du Bois stood by his views, but went on to explain them further for his upset readership, both black and white:
“Abraham Lincoln was perhaps the greatest figure of the nineteenth century. Certainly of the five masters — Napoleon, Bismarck, Victoria, Browning and Lincoln, Lincoln is to me the most human and lovable. And I love him not because he was perfect but because he was not and yet triumphed.”
Alluding to poorly educated and racist white Americans of both Lincoln’s time and the present day, Du Bois continued, “To these I love to say: See this man. He was one of you and yet he became Abraham Lincoln. The scars and foibles and contradictions of the Great do not diminish but enhance the worth and meaning of their upward struggle: it was the bloody sweat that proved the human Christ divine; it was his true history and antecedents that proved Abraham Lincoln a Prince of Men.”
In the longer written work of the three writers quoted above, there is reassurance not just of the goodness and greatness of Lincoln the individual, but also of the wisdom of continuing to pursue that elusive theme of the “perfectibility of mankind” which we all scratched our heads about in early literature classes.
For readers interested in getting to know Abraham Lincoln through the observations, perceptions, and speculation of other great writers from 1860 to the present, I highly recommend The Lincoln Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Legacy from 1860 to Now, edited by Harold Holzer (2009, Literary Classics of the United States). The excerpts in this column are from this anthology.
Patrick Teegarden has been chronicling the 150th anniversary of the Civil War for The Statesman over the last year and a half. By the time you read this Teegarden will be in Gettysburg for the annual Lincoln Forum conference, where he and other attendees will be treated to a special screening of the movie. We look forward to his continued articles on the subject.