- - Wednesday, March 3, 2021

The Black Lives Matter protests that roiled America’s cities in the summer of 2020 helped ignite a reckoning with the country’s history of racial injustice. Confederate statues and monuments that had stood for generations as towering symbols of Lost Cause mythology and Jim Crow segregation were torn down by mobs and, in some places, peacefully removed by local authorities.

As activists scrutinized the past in search of white supremacists to denounce, no historical figure was spared examination — not even Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator and savior of the Union.

The new focus of some of Lincoln’s lesser-known views on race (although none have been kept secret by historians who have written about them) has led officials in cities across the country to either remove or consider removing Lincoln statues.

In Boston, the famous Emancipation Memorial, which depicts an enslaved man breaking his shackles at Lincoln’s feet, was removed from a public park. The original casting of that statue still stands in a neighborhood park in Washington D.C. where police had to surround it with fencing to prevent protestors from destroying it last summer.

In Chicago, the city where Lincoln accepted the Republican Party’s nomination in 1860, five Lincoln statues have been placed on a list of monuments to be reviewed to ensure they do not offend any modern sensibilities. And in San Francisco, Old Abe’s name was taken off a high school.

As is the case with many important historical figures, the public discourse around Lincoln often swings from one extreme to another. But the reality is the sixteenth president was neither a faultless hero nor an irredeemable white supremacist — despite his words in an 1858 debate against Democrat Stephen Douglas, whose political program actually was dedicated to permanently subjugating Black people.

In one of the debates in the U.S. Senate race in Illinois, Lincoln was asked about his position on rights for Black people after Douglas had aired his own racist worldview.

“I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the White and Black races. … There is a physical difference between the White and Black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality,” Lincoln said.

These words, along with other statements and actions Lincoln made in the years before he became president, are enough to disqualify Lincoln from being memorialized today, according to some of his modern-day critics. But historian David S. Reynolds argues it is “utterly mistaken” to ignore the rest of Lincoln’s legacy when determining whether to remove his statues, including the famous Emancipation Memorial.

Lincoln drew close to Frederick Douglass “who called him the least prejudiced White person he had ever met,” said Reynolds in an interview for the latest episode of History As It Happens podcast. Reynolds is the author of Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times, which was awarded the prestigious Lincoln Prize for 2021.

Sojourner Truth and Martin Delany were among other Black abolitionists who admired Lincoln for his opposition to slavery and eventual public support, shortly before he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, of voting rights for African-Americans, Reynolds said. Lincoln was not an abolitionist, but he hated slavery and adamantly opposed its expansion into new states and territories.

“At first Frederick Douglass had suspicions about Abraham Lincoln. He felt he was too slow on making the Civil War a specifically antislavery war, so he held Lincoln in suspicion for the first couple of years of the war,” Reynolds said.

“But when he met Lincoln personally in the White House and when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, [Douglass] realized two things. First of all, Lincoln really wanted African-Americans to be citizens,” said Reynolds, citing a letter Lincoln wrote to Louisiana’s free-state governor endorsing Black suffrage. “And then Lincoln goes on and becomes the first president to publicly recommend the vote for African-Americans.”

How should Americans today have nuanced conversations about complicated figures from the past?

“The most important thing to do… is to try to be as informed as possible about people like Jefferson or Lincoln in their own contexts. We can’t impose today’s point of view on the past. We have to understand him in his times,” Reynolds said.

By cherry-picking only the least favorable aspects of Lincoln’s legacy, we risk flattening him to the point where his attitudes may appear no different than those of, say, Jefferson Davis, a ferocious White supremacist who led the war to destroy the Union Lincoln fought to preserve.

For more of Reynolds’ thoughts on Abraham Lincoln and the changing ways Americans remember Old Abe, listen to this episode of History As It Happens.

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