Posted: February 1, 2009
erone Bennett, Jr. published an article in the February 1968 issue of Ebony magazine that posed the question: "Was Abe Lincoln a White Supremacist?" He answered in the affirmative. Thirty-two years later, Ebony's executive editor has expanded his six-page critique into a book of more than 600 pages. As Lincoln was "forced into glory" against his personal and political wishes by the "real emancipators"—black and white abolitionists (among others)—to whom the book is dedicated. At the heart of his revisionist appraisal of Lincoln's legacy is the claim that the Emancipation Proclamation did not free a single slave, nor was it Lincoln's intention to do so. If the "great emancipator" had his way, Bennett says, he would have instigated "the racial cleansing of the United States of America."
Where to begin?
Never has so much been so wrong about so important a subject. The only way to misrepresent Lincoln more would be to misspell his name. Add to this Bennett's denigration of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Booker T. Washington, Winston Churchill, Ronald Reagan, and conservatism generally, along with frequent references to Lincoln's endorsement of "ethnic cleansing" and a "final solution" to the race problem, and his diatribe becomes almost impossible to take seriously.
Bennett allows Lincoln's rivals to second-guess Lincoln's own explanations for what he was attempting to do as president of a republic during a rebellion. Bennett's attempt to understand Lincoln's principles and policies on American slavery falters on so many fronts that it would be impossible to document all his errors. Given constraints of space, I will focus on the greatest misunderstandings, especially as they pertain to the American form and the practice of self-government.
Although Frederick Douglass heads the list of "real emancipators" in his dedication, Bennett quotes selectively from his "Oration in Memory of Abraham Lincoln" (1876). To portray Douglass as a tepid supporter of Lincoln, Bennett violates his own admonishment against "the fallacy of the isolated quote" by highlighting only criticisms of Lincoln by the famous abolitionist speaker. Douglass did say that Lincoln "was preeminently the white man's President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men." But Bennett omits several passages that show Douglass's more sober and deliberate assessment of Lincoln. Unlike Bennett, Douglass praised the Emancipation Proclamation as "the immortal paper, which, though, special in its language, was general in its principles and effect, making slavery forever impossible in the United States."
Douglass concluded that if Lincoln "put the abolition of slavery before the salvation of the Union, he would have inevitably driven from him a powerful class of the American people and rendered resistance to rebellion impossible." It's as if he grows in his understanding of Lincoln's statesmanship as the speech progresses. But Bennett sours from the beginning, unable to appreciate with Douglass the great difficulty of Lincoln's task and the nobility of what he accomplished.
* * *
Bennett also dedicates his book to a couple of "radical humanitarians," John Brown and Wendell Phillips. (Bennett crosses abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison off his list because he was a Lincoln supporter in 1864.) These so-called freedom-lovers sought to free Americans by preaching against the limitations of constitutional self-government and free elections. Bennett admits these and other abolitionists "inflame" public opinion and "create contempt" for the Constitution, but he applauds them for it because of the purity of their motives.
Upon finding several of Lincoln's contemporaries complaining for his contempt for abolitionists, Bennett concludes that Lincoln did not, in today's parlance, "feel the slaves' pain." A better indication of Lincoln's personal feelings regarding the plight of the slaves, however, can be found in an 1855 letter he wrote to his best friend, Joshua F. Speed: "I confess I hate to see the poor creatures hunted down, and caught, and carried back to their stripes, and unrewarded toils; but I bite my lip and keep quiet." Lincoln also reminded Speed, a Kentucky slaveholder who professed "the abstract wrong" of slavery, of the shackled slaves they saw onboard a steamboat they rode in 1841: "That sight was a continual torment to me."
Lincoln's refusal to join the abolitionist cause derived not from callous indifference toward the slave but from principled devotion to the American regime—a form of government that would extend its protection of freedom as far as the governed would allow. As he put it to Speed, "I also acknowledge your rights and my obligations, under the constitution, in regard to your slaves." Lincoln, in short, distinguished his personal sentiments from his political responsibility regarding a subject that he said had "the power of making me miserable."
Lincoln's hesitation to emancipate slaves during the Civil War derived from his recognition that the American experiment in self-government was in danger. "We already have an important principle to rally and unite the people in the fact that constitutional government is at stake," he wrote. "This is a fundamental idea, going about as deep as any thing." Lincoln was at pains to figure out how to preserve a constitutional regime from the physical force of rebellious southerners as well as the rhetorical force of rebellious abolitionists: the former were unwilling to obey a duly elected Republican administration, while the latter were unwilling to support a constitutional union of freemen and slaveholders. To act simply according to an abstract truth about the natural equality of human beings—by proclaiming the natural injustice of slavery—without acting in accordance with the coeval truth that government can act legitimately only by the consent of the governed, would be to subvert the very form of government and law-abiding habits that make for a free society.
The Constitution vests limited powers in the three branches of the national government. This was always Lincoln's understanding, and one he reiterated at the onset of his First Inaugural Address as it pertained to slavery in the South. "I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists," he said, "I believe I have no lawful right to do so." The Constitution restricted what Lincoln as president could do about "the peculiar institution," and as the most deliberate and settle will of the American people, the Constitution stood as the political lodestar for Lincoln.
Upon what authority, then, did he proclaim freedom to slaves in the South almost two years later? As the final Emancipation Proclamation states it: "by virtue of the power in me vested as Commander-in-Chief, of the Army and Navy of the United States in times of actual armed rebellion against authority and government of the United States, and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion." The nation had moved from peace to war since his inauguration, which legitimated his war-making authority; in addition, Lincoln judged that the uneven progress of the war now called for eliminating the support that slavery gave to the southern war effort.
* * *
Lincoln gave the clearest statement of his intention as president and commander-in-chief regarding slavery and the war effort in response to a public letter by New York Tribune editor Horace Greely. "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery," Lincoln wrote. "If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that." Of course, he led the nation through all three scenarios by the time of his Second Inauguration, at which point the 13th Amendment had been approved by Congress and was on the way to state ratification by year's end.
Lincoln's devotion to the constitutional union took precedence over the abolition of slavery, but in a way that set the nation on a course of ridding itself of slavery. Miss this, as Bennett does from cover to cover, and you misunderstand the Emancipation Proclamation and its connection to the Union war effort. Lincoln's apparent hesitation to free slaves simply cannot be understood without a clear understanding of constitutional obligations, which Bennett overlooks completely.
Bennett also claims that Lincoln deliberately undermined the Proclamation by its selective application: "What Lincoln did—and it was so clever that we ought to stop calling him honest Abe—was to 'free' slaves in Confederate-held territory where he couldn't free them and leave them in slavery in Union-held territory where he could have freed them." This argument implies that what Lincoln should have done regarding slavery concerned only military might, and not constitutional right. But Lincoln omitted the so-called "border slave states" of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware from the Emancipation Proclamation because they were not in rebellion against the federal government and therefore its citizens deserved the full protection of their constitutional rights.
The explicit exceptions Lincoln made of southern, slave-holding areas under Union-army control prior to January 1, 1863 (i.e., the counties constituting West Virginia and portions of Virginia and Louisiana) also fall under this category. When Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase argued for applying the Emancipation Proclamation to the areas of Virginia and Louisiana, Lincoln replied he could only do so "without the argument of military necessity, and so, without any argument, except the one that I think the measure politically expedient, and morally right." He added, "Would I not give up all footing upon the constitution or law? Would I not thus be in the boundless field of absolutism?"
Lincoln shows that a president, even acting as commander-in-chief, must exercise authority not as a dictator—benevolent or otherwise—but within the limits set forth by the Constitution. Lincoln wanted to rid the nation of slavery, but not at the price of free government.
* * *
As for the claim that the Emancipation Proclamation was a dead letter to slaves behind Confederate lines, Lincoln committed "the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof," to "recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons." Slaves escaping from their rebellious masters would no longer be viewed as fugitives from justice but receive legal protection of their freedom by the national government. For Bennett, this amounts to an empty promise because the slaves were free only on paper and not in practice. But what alternative was there for slaves behind enemy lines?
As Lincoln himself admitted only nine days before his preliminary proclamation: "Would my word free the slaves, when I cannot even enforce the Constitution in the rebel states?" He therefore waited for a Union victory as a sign that as commander-in-chief, he could back ink on paper with swords on the battlefield.
Bennett chides Lincoln for promoting gradual, compensated emancipation and the colonization of freedmen as the means of achieving his dream of a lily-white America." In this context, Bennett asserts that the preliminary proclamation, announced 100 days before its implementation on January 1, 1863, was merely a ruse to delay emancipation until Lincoln could persuade Congress to "deport" all blacks from the United States. Lincoln did favor gradual emancipation as well as colonization of blacks, but not because he was a white supremacist. Although he recognized the manifest injustice of slavery, he also believed that emancipation was at best only half the battle. As George Anastplo observes in his excellentAbraham Lincoln: A Constitutional Biography, one then had to devise a way for former masters and former slaves to live with each other as free men.
Bennett makes no allowance for sensible and learned men like Lincoln to believe that American blacks and whites en masse simply would not live peaceably with each other at the close of an oppressive history. The racial divide still present in America today confirms the difficulty Lincoln, Tocqueville, and others anticipated when former slaveowners and former slaves, and their descendents, continued to reside in the same territory.
Bennetts exercise in exasperation over Lincoln as the Great Emancipator displays his woeful ignorance about the principles and practices of American self-government. Lacking even a rudimentary grasp of how the ideas of human equality and the consent of the governed inform the constitutional operation of the American government, it's no wonder Bennett is unable to grasp Lincoln's political prudence. Bennett concludes, "There is thus nothing we can learn from Abraham Lincoln about race relations, except what not to say or do." By reading Forced Into Glory, one learns nothing from Lerone Bennett about the requirements of statesmanship within a constitutional democracy. With Lincoln as his tutor instead of his target, you would think he might have learned something.