- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 11, 2002

The following is excerpted from "How Abe Lincoln Lost the Black Vote," a lecture given at the White House yesterday by historian Allen C. Guelzo, dean of the Templeton Honors College at Eastern University, and a Lincoln Prize laureate for his book "Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President."

No other American President has wielded the power of words with greater skill than Abraham Lincoln. Massachusetts congressman George Boutwell thought that "Lincoln's fame" would "be carried along the ages," especially by his writings, and particularly the "three great papers the proclamation of emancipation, his oration at Gettysburg, and his second inaugural address."
Not too many, even today, would disagree with Boutwell about Lincoln's eloquence. What may jar us is the order in which Boutwell placed his top three Lincoln picks: the Second Inaugural last, the Gettysburg Address second and the Emancipation Proclamation first.
But Boutwell was convinced that the Proclamation was Lincoln's greatest document. "If all that Lincoln said and was should fail to carry his name and character to future ages, the emancipation of 4 million human beings by his single official act is a passport to all of immortality that earth can give." When Lincoln's Tomb was dedicated in 1874, the figure of Lincoln standing before the tomb's obelisk held a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation in its left hand, and eight of the 11 outdoor statues of Lincoln installed in public squares and parks before the end of the century depicted him in various poses with the Proclamation.
In the jubilation that surrounded the arrival of emancipation, free blacks in the North and enslaved blacks in the South rejoiced over the Proclamation. Lincoln was "our Moses," wrote Elijah Marrs, who had run away from slavery to join a Union regiment.
"Lincoln was indeed our Moses," remembered one African-American soldier. "He gave us our freedom." Or if not Moses, Lincoln was even more exalted: "Lincoln died for we, Christ died for we, and me believe him de same mans," said one freed slave on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina.
There was more than just gratitude behind this adulation. Lincoln the Emancipator turned out to be vital to African-American identity after the Civil War. If blacks could claim themselves as heirs of Lincoln's special attention and interest as the Great Emancipator, then that strengthened their claim to a share in the American Dream.
Booker T. Washington, who came the closest of any African-American to being a sort of national spokesman for American blacks in the Jim Crow era, claimed, "I think I do not go too far when I say that I have read nearly every book and magazine article that has been written about Abraham Lincoln. In literature he has been my patron saint." In the 1918 poster "Welcome Home," a black soldier returning from the First World War greets his family underneath a portrait of Lincoln; the 1919 print "The Emancipation Proclamation" surrounds a central oval of Lincoln with vignettes of black accomplishment.
But the Proclamation has also had its critics. One reason for this was that, legally, Lincoln's Proclamation could only extend to those areas in wartime where war and rebellion were actually in full cry. That meant that slaves in areas of the South which had never joined the Confederacy, or which had been recaptured by the Union before the Proclamation could be issued, could not be liberated by presidential decree. Another reason for criticism of the Proclamation was stylistic. Unlike the Gettysburg Address or the Second Inaugural, the Emancipation Proclamation had not been written with a view toward speaking, and it lacked the guiding purpose of Lincoln's other rhetorical masterpieces, the desire to persuade.
One of the first voices to send up wisps of sarcasm over the Proclamation's language was Karl Marx. The author of a few proclamations of his own, Marx was half-amused that Lincoln's language reminded him of "ordinary summonses sent by one lawyer to another on the opposing side." But the unkindest cut at the Proclamation came from the hands of historian Richard Hofstadter, in his savage essay on Lincoln in "The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It" (1948).
Lincoln's opposition to slavery, in Hofstadter's reckoning, was purely political in nature, and that was what explained its stylistic flaccidity. "Had the political strategy of the moment called for a momentous human document of the stature of the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln could have risen to the occasion." Instead, the Proclamation "had all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading."
In time, even blacks began to have their doubts about the Proclamation.
Frederick Douglass praised Lincoln as "the first great man that I talked with in the United States freely, who in no single instance reminded me of the difference between himself and myself, of the difference of color." But in 1876, at the dedication of Thomas Ball's famous Emancipation statue in Washington, Douglass described Lincoln as "a white man, and shared the prejudices common to his countrymen toward the colored race."
By the 1920s, a new black middle class was on the rise which had no personal memory of slavery, and which increasingly resented the suggestion that it owed its advancement to any whites, including Lincoln. No one traced the arc of black middle-class disenchantment with greater accuracy than W.E.B. Du Bois. In 1922, as editor of the NAACP's magazine The Crisis, Du Bois shocked black and white readers equally by warning blacks not to be so naive as to forget that the same Lincoln who wrote the Proclamation had also uttered a string of racist and derogatory comments about blacks.
Du Bois died, an expatriate in Ghana, in 1963, the year of the Proclamation's centennial. By that point, the long, dry decades of Jim Crow had rendered the Emancipation Proclamation remote, almost impotent, in black minds. The organizer of a symposium on the Proclamation at the University of Chicago wondered sardonically why "there was not a grand and official national celebration of the hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation," and answered his question with another question: "What is there to celebrate?"
James Baldwin, in "The Fire Next Time," advised his nephew that "the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon." The Emancipation Proclamation was only "a technical emancipation" in Baldwin's eyes so long as the African-American remained "the most despised creature in his country."
Even Martin Luther King described Lincoln the night before his own assassination in Memphis as "a vacillating president" who "finally" decided that he had no choice but "to sign the Emancipation Proclamation."
Disenchantment now turned into outright denunciation, marked vividly in February 1968, when Lerone Bennett posed the wickedly provocative question, "Was Abe Lincoln a White Supremacist?" on the pages of the black cultural magazine Ebony. Bennett spent the next 30 years refining and enlarging his case against Lincoln and the Proclamation, and when it emerged in its fullest form in 1999 as "Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln's White Dream," Bennett indicted Lincoln as a calculating bigot who issued the Emancipation Proclamation precisely to head off the real emancipation that abolitionists and blacks were pressing for.
While Bennett's book was scorned and sometimes caricatured by white reviewers (Pulitzer Prize-winner James M. McPherson titled his New York Times review of Bennett, "Lincoln the Devil"), it awakened its readers to what is surely one of the most dramatic transformations in American historical self-understanding in the past century, and that is the slow, almost-unnoticed withdrawal of African-Americans from what was once the great consensus of blacks' admiration for Abraham Lincoln.
Bennett's acid skepticism scorches more than just the historical standing of Abraham Lincoln. The withdrawal from Lincoln by African-Americans has moved in step with the emergence of a profound nihilism in the minds of many Americans which sees little meaning in American freedom and little hope for real racial progress. At just the moment when the engagement of blacks and whites as Americans has never been more necessary, simply (as William Julius Wilson argues) in the name of economic survival in the face of devastating economic globalization, and even at the moment when (as Orlando Patterson has reminded us) blacks have never been closer to the goal of economic and civil integration into the American mainstream, the levels of resentment, despair, and alienation over America's racial future have never been higher. Bennett's book was an uncomfortable marker of the depth of that bitterness, funneled at the single, largest popular symbol of racial reconciliation in American history.
What I have sought here this afternoon is to remind us of the central importance Lincoln and his Proclamation once occupied in the minds of black and white Americans alike. I want us to recognize the Proclamation as the most socially revolutionary pronouncement of any American president, and to restore the Proclamation to a position in the canon of African-American testimonies to freedom and deliverance.
A major problem for us in understanding the Emancipation Proclamation is that this prudential politics was, even in Lincoln's lifetime, being eroded by a romantic Kantian politics of absolutism, which allowed for no compromises with the demands of free will, choice, and autonomy. From the 19th century abolitionists to modern constitutional theory, Kantianism (especially in the contemporary work of John Rawls) has held much of the ground of public ethics, casting Lincolnian prudence further and further into the shade and forcing us to ask questions about Lincoln's motives in emancipation as though they were merely matters of his own impulse or preference.
Most important, I believe that Lincoln understood that Emancipation inevitably entailed citizenship and civil equality for blacks. In his last public speech on April 11, 1865, Lincoln praised the fledgling Reconstruction government of Louisiana for "giving the benefit of public schools equally to black and white, and empowering the Legislature to confer the elective franchise upon the colored man."
By the time of his last Cabinet meeting, on the day of his assassination, Lincoln's "expressions in favor of the liberality toward negro citizens in the reorganization" of the defeated Confederacy "were" (according to radical journalist Whitelaw Reid) "fuller and more emphatic than" at any earlier time. In the end, his death at the hands of John Wilkes Booth, a negrophobe and white supremacist who was enraged at Lincoln's endorsement of black civil equality, was directly linked to those expressions.
If the Proclamation was "a bill of lading," it itemized the destinies of 4 million human beings, bound in the way of danger for the port of American freedom.


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