All of them, if you believe how Lincoln has been portrayed by some historians and in pop culture. The Great Emancipator has become the great shape-shifter — his image has been twisted like licorice to fit all sorts of agendas. He’s become a pop icon who has been depicted in “South Park,” on “Robot Chicken” and in a Geico insurance ad. Scholars offer wildly different theories about everything from Lincoln’s mental health to his romantic proclivities.
That question is another vestige of the Civil War that some Americans are still fighting today.
“I have never called Lincoln a racist,” says Eric Foner, one of the nation’s preeminent historians on Lincoln and the Civil War.
“He shared some of the prejudices of his time. Was Lincoln an anti-racist? No not really. Was he an egalitarian in the modern sense? No. Race was not a major concern of Lincoln. He didn’t think about race about very much. To ask if he’s a racist is the wrong question. And if you ask the wrong question, you’re going to get the wrong answer.”
Lincoln’s legacy is complex and evolving
But in some circles, “Honest Abe” is increasingly becoming Racist Abe.
Questions over Lincoln’s racial views have intensified over the years as historians, activists, and politicians question how Lincoln regarded Black people and Native Americans.
But Jeffries’ interpretation of Lincoln’s racial views reflects our contemporary tendency to see racism as an either/or proposition: You’re either a racist or a not. Lincoln was something else, and many still haven’t caught up with the enigmatic man who David Blight, a leading Lincoln historian, calls “a creature of contradictions and ambiguities.”
Why some say Lincoln was a racist
If some of Lincoln’s public utterances about Blacks were retweeted today, he would have been canceled on social media and likely run out of office.
During one of his famed senatorial debates with Stephen Douglas in 1858, Lincoln said:
“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.”
But Lincoln’s actions must be viewed in historical context, scholars say.
“Basically, every White person in antebellum America is a racist,” McDermott says. “The whole system is set up for racism. There is an economic system of slavery that relies on people believing that Black people are inferior. Black people don’t have legal standing. Even many radical abolitionists, who were heroes of mine, did not believe that Black people were equal.”
Why some say Lincoln wasn’t a racist
Yet McDermott does not call Lincoln a racist. She says he never displayed the visceral dislike of Black people that was the norm during his era. Lincoln saw Black clients in his law practice.
Lincoln always opposed slavery, but it would be simplistic to say his opposition was based solely on how Black people were treated. He believed that every human being had natural rights and was repulsed by the notion that people could be used for labor but not get paid for their work.
“His critique of slavery was on an abstract level,” Foner says. “It was a matter of principle. It was a matter of democracy. It was a matter of the enjoyment of the fruits of your labor.”
How Lincoln changed his views
Lincoln’s political evolution — not his racial views — is what fascinates many historians.
Civil rights activist Malcolm X reportedly once told Black people to “take down the picture” of Lincoln that hung in the living rooms of so many homes.
But Malcolm shared a rare quality with Lincoln — the capacity to admit he was wrong and evolve. Malcolm went from a fiery Nation of Islam leader who preached Black separatism to someone who embraced the common humanity of all people just before he was assassinated.
If there is a right question to ask about Lincoln, it’s this: How was he able to evolve and grow in such dramatic ways?
The answer could help us in such a politically divisive time.
We’re accustomed to electing political leaders on the left and right who never seem to change their mind. The refusal to have an open mind is now seen as a political virtue. When is the last time you heard a politician admit that they were wrong?
But Lincoln did evolve, and that was part of his greatness. Yes, he told Black people that they should go back to Africa. But he also risked his political career — and gave his life — to help Blacks become more equal.
Why was he able to change? Scholars cite several reasons.
Blight, the historian, says Lincoln was able to change because of his morality.
Foner thinks Lincoln could change because he was an independent thinker.
“He grew up on the frontier, but Lincoln was able to separate himself from the culture he grew up in,” Foner says. “He didn’t like to hunt. He didn’t like to kill animals and he didn’t hate Indians like a lot of frontiersmen. He didn’t drink, which was widespread. He made his own decisions. He had the self-confidence to decide for himself what to believe regardless of what the surrounding culture told him.”
Lincoln evolved because was “educable,” says McDermott, the Lincoln historian.
“He had a voracious appetite for knowledge,” she says. “He was always reading, thinking, and rehashing. It’s really hard to not have your mind change when you’re a voracious reader.”
The real question we should ask about Lincoln
What all great presidents shared was one trait, he said.
“What set great presidents apart was their intellectual curiosity and openness,” Grant wrote. “They read widely and were as eager to learn about developments in biology, philosophy, architecture, and music as in domestic and foreign affairs. They were interested in hearing new views and revising old ones.”
Lincoln’s evolution is precisely why so many different people with different agendas can cite him because he was full of “splendid inconsistency,” Blight, the historian, once wrote in an essay.
“Lincoln has long been infinitely malleable,” Blight wrote. “He can serve as everyone’s aid or tool in one struggle over historical memory after another.”
But any of us can embrace what Blight calls the “contradictions and ambiguities” that helped make Lincoln great: Listening to people with whom we disagree, admitting we’re wrong and changing our mind.
Maybe we should stop asking if Lincoln was a racist. Here’s a better question: How did a “racist” become the Great Emancipator?
And how can more of us adopt a little of Lincoln’s “splendid inconsistency” for the partisan era we live in today?