LA Times  April 9, 2000             Was Abraham Lincoln a Racist?
                                              FORCED INTO GLORY; Abraham Lincoln's White Dream
                                           By Lerone Bennett Jr.; Johnson Publishing: 652 pp., $35

                                           By ERIC FONER
 

                                                Each generation, it is said, reinvents history in its own
                                           image. This is certainly true in the case of Abraham Lincoln.
                                           Portraits of Lincoln have gone through innumerable
                                           permutations, depending on the era in which historians were
                                           writing. Lincoln has been depicted as a statesman who
                                           merged politics and moral purpose by liberating 4 million
                                           slaves and as a political pragmatist who opposed the
                                           radicals within his party almost as much as secessionist
                                           Southerners. Most recently, in David Donald's masterful
                                           biography "Lincoln," he emerged as an indecisive leader with
                                           few firm convictions, a man constantly buffeted by events,
                                           rather reminiscent of Bill Clinton. Rarely, however, has a
                                           scholar launched the full-scale assault on Lincoln's
                                           reputation that Lerone Bennett offers in "Forced Into Glory."
                                                Although not an academic historian--he has long worked
                                           as an editor at Ebony magazine--Bennett produced three
                                           pioneering and important works of African American history in
                                           the 1960s. "Before the Mayflower" surveyed the black
                                           experience in America from the first appearance of slaves in
                                           colonial Virginia, "Black Power USA" challenged prevailing
                                           interpretations of Reconstruction by stressing how blacks
                                           achieved significant political power after the Civil War and
                                           "Pioneers in Protest" offered portraits of key leaders in black
                                           history. Popular history at its best, these books brought the
                                           fruits of scholarly research to a broad audience at a time
                                           when the civil rights revolution had created tremendous
                                           interest in America's black past.
                                                But it was his brief article, "Was Abe Lincoln a White
                                           Supremacist?" which appeared in Ebony in 1968, that put
                                           Bennett on the radar screen of academic history. Seeking to
                                           dismantle the "mythology of the Great Emancipator," Bennett
                                           argued that Lincoln "shared the racial prejudices of most of
                                           his white contemporaries." He resolutely opposed black
                                           suffrage and other expressions of racial equality and freed
                                           few if any slaves with his famous proclamation. Far from
                                           being a symbol of racial harmony or enlightened white
                                           leadership, Bennett concluded, Lincoln embodied the
                                           nation's "racist tradition."
                                                Apart from Bennett's indignant tone, little in the Ebony
                                           piece was actually new. Millions of readers had already
                                           encountered Richard Hofstadter's brilliant portrait of Lincoln
                                           in "The American Political Tradition," which belittled the
                                           Emancipation Proclamation as lacking "moral grandeur" and
                                           pointedly juxtaposed Lincoln's 1858 speech in Chicago
                                           affirming the equality of man with his address the same year
                                           in pro-slavery Southern Illinois in which he insisted that he
                                           opposed "bringing about in any way the social and political
                                           equality of the black and white races." In the early 1960s,
                                           Malcolm X urged blacks to "take down the picture" of
                                           Lincoln--that is, to place their trust in their own efforts to
                                           secure racial justice rather than waiting for a new white
                                           emancipator. In 1968, however, with so many national icons
                                           tumbling from their pedestals and Black Power the new
                                           rallying cry of the black movement, Bennett's article struck a
                                           powerful chord. It also evoked a furious counterattack from
                                           Lincoln scholars intent on defending Lincoln's credentials as
                                           a racial egalitarian. Henceforth, no one writing about Lincoln
                                           could ignore the subject of his racial outlook.
                                                Now, three decades later, Bennett has produced a
                                           full-scale elaboration of his argument that Lincoln was a
                                           racist and a supporter, not a foe, of slavery. In brief, Bennett's
                                           indictment runs as follows: As an Illinois legislator,
                                           congressman and political leader before the Civil War,
                                           Lincoln opposed the abolitionists, supported enforcement of
                                           the fugitive slave law, favored removing all blacks from the
                                           United States and explicitly endorsed the state's laws barring
                                           blacks from voting, serving on juries, holding office and
                                           intermarrying with whites. According to the reminiscences of
                                           his contemporaries, he enjoyed minstrel shows and used
                                           the word "nigger" in private conversation and sometimes in
                                           speeches.
                                                As president, Bennett continues, Lincoln initially allowed
                                           the four slave states that remained within the Union during
                                           the Civil War--Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri--to
                                           dictate his policy toward slavery. Bennett says that Lincoln
                                           refused to free and arm the slaves because of his ingrained
                                           racism. Credit for emancipation should go not to Lincoln but
                                           to abolitionists such as Wendell Phillips and to Radical
                                           Republicans in Congress, who in 1862 pushed through the
                                           Second Confiscation Act, freeing slaves of owners who
                                           supported the Confederacy. The Emancipation Proclamation,
                                           Bennett insists, did not free a single slave because it applied
                                           only to areas outside Union control. In fact, Lincoln designed
                                           it to "save as much of slavery as he could." To the end of his
                                           life, in Bennett's view, Lincoln was a devoted proponent of
                                           white supremacy.
                                                               * * *
                                                Repetitious, full of irrelevant detours and relentlessly
                                           polemical, "Forced Into Glory" is not likely to convince many
                                           readers who do not already believe that Lincoln was an
                                           inveterate racist. But the book deserves attention, for it
                                           contains insights into Lincoln's era and the ways historians
                                           have treated the 16th president. Bennett offers a valuable
                                           discussion of the notorious Black Laws of pre-Civil War
                                           Illinois, which not only denied blacks basic civil and political
                                           rights but also required any black entering the state to post a
                                           bond of $1,000. He highlights little-known acts of Congress
                                           that paved the way for emancipation--not only the
                                           Confiscation Act of 1862 but also the earlier revision of the
                                           military code that forbade soldiers to return fugitive slaves to
                                           bondage and a later measure that freed the families of black
                                           men who enlisted in the Union army, effectively destroying
                                           slavery in the loyal border states where the Emancipation
                                           Proclamation did not apply.
                                                Most important, perhaps, Bennett presents compelling
                                           evidence of how historians have consistently soft-pedaled
                                           Lincoln's racial views. Previous scholars, he rightly points
                                           out, downplay or ignore Lincoln's commitment to colonizing
                                           blacks outside the country, a position he inherited from his
                                           political hero, Henry Clay, and advocated publicly for almost
                                           his entire political career. This was no passing fancy: Lincoln
                                           mentioned the idea in numerous prewar speeches, two State
                                           of the Union addresses, several cabinet meetings and in a
                                           notorious meeting with black leaders at the White House, at
                                           which he urged them to encourage their people to emigrate.
                                                Lincoln was hardly the era's only colonizationist--virtually
                                           every major political leader of the early republic, including
                                           Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Andrew Jackson and
                                           John Marshall, supported the idea. Their ideal America was a
                                           white republic. But historians have found Lincoln's embrace
                                           of colonization embarrassing and have emphasized--through
                                           what Bennett calls the "fallacy of the isolated
                                           quotation"--Lincoln's condemnations of slavery while ignoring
                                           his support of colonization.
                                                Writers on the Civil War era are almost certain to quote
                                           Lincoln's allusion to the "monstrous injustice" of slavery in
                                           his Peoria speech of 1854 but not the passage in the same
                                           speech asserting that he would prefer to send the slaves,
                                           once freed, "to Liberia--to their own native land" (a term he
                                           used even though some blacks' ancestors had been in North
                                           America longer than Lincoln's). They cite his message to
                                           Congress in December 1862 with its eloquent passage
                                           about the "fiery trial" through which the nation was passing
                                           but rarely note that, in the same speech, Lincoln not only
                                           affirmed "I strongly support colonization" but for the first time
                                           used the ominous word "deportation."
                                                If, on colonization, Bennett scores some powerful points
                                           against existing Lincoln scholarship, his argument as a
                                           whole seems overwrought. Bennett is the kind of critic who
                                           cannot take yes for an answer. Thanks, in part, to his 1968
                                           article, few historians today refer to Lincoln as a racial
                                           egalitarian and discussions of the Emancipation
                                           Proclamation almost always emphasize its limitations as
                                           well as its broad impact. It would be hard to find a book
                                           published in the last 20 years that portrays Lincoln freeing all
                                           the slaves with a stroke of his pen. Nor are Radical
                                           Republicans and abolitionists, as Bennett claims, still viewed
                                           as fanatics and zealots bent on punishing the white South.
                                                Today's historical works are more likely to emphasize the
                                           idealism of Wendell Phillips, Thaddeus Stevens and
                                           Frederick Douglass, much as Bennett does in this book.
                                           Historians today are far more sensitive to issues of race than
                                           when Bennett first wrote about it. And judging from textbooks,
                                           even today's schoolchildren imbibe a far more nuanced view
                                           of Lincoln than the one that Bennett is attacking.
                                                Bennett, however, is after larger game. Lincoln, for him,
                                           stands as a symbol of core American myths and values, "the
                                           key," as he writes, "to the American personality." By
                                           demythologizing Lincoln, he hopes to demonstrate the
                                           centrality of racism in all of American culture--today, as in the
                                           19th century. Thus, Bennett is not content to show that
                                           Lincoln held racist views. Racism, Bennett insists, was
                                           Lincoln's most deeply held belief, "the center and
                                           circumference of his being." The Great Emancipator, he
                                           asserts, was, in reality, "one of the major supporters of
                                           slavery in the United States" and "in and of himself, and in his
                                           objective being, an oppressor." These statements are totally
                                           unfounded.
                                                Prosecutorial briefs rarely make for satisfying history.
                                           Bennett is guilty of the same kind of one-dimensional reading
                                           of Lincoln's career as are the historians he criticizes. If they
                                           downplay Lincoln's racism and emphasize instead his
                                           anti-slavery and egalitarian rhetoric (that is, his statement that
                                           the "equality of man" is the "central idea" of the American
                                           nation, his soaring language accusing Stephen A. Douglas of
                                           "blowing out the moral lights around us" for refusing to
                                           oppose the expansion of slavery), Bennett dismisses such
                                           statements as meaningless rhetoric--"this was not an
                                           argument about rights and realities; it was an argument
                                           about words."
                                                Which was the real Lincoln, the racist or the opponent of
                                           slavery? The unavoidable answer is both. Bennett cannot
                                           accept that it was possible in 19th century America to share
                                           the racial prejudices of the time and yet simultaneously
                                           believe that slavery was a crime that ought to be abolished.
                                           Nor is Bennett convincing in his account of Lincoln's policies
                                           toward slavery during the Civil War or in his belittling of the
                                           Emancipation Proclamation as a meaningless "ploy"
                                           designed to perpetuate slavery as long as possible. The
                                           Proclamation may not have freed many slaves on the day it
                                           was issued, but it marked a turning point in the war and in
                                           Lincoln's own policy. It ignored colonization and, for the first
                                           time, authorized the large-scale enlistment of black soldiers
                                           in the Union army. In making the destruction of slavery a
                                           Union objective, it transformed a war of armies into a conflict
                                           of societies and ensured that Northern victory would produce
                                           a social revolution within the South.
                                                Contemporaries fully understood the Proclamation's
                                           significance--among them the slaves, free blacks and white
                                           abolitionists who celebrated its issuance on Jan. 1, 1863. So
                                           did Karl Marx, observing American events from London. "Up
                                           to now," Marx wrote, "we have witnessed only the first act of
                                           the Civil War--the constitutional waging of war. The second
                                           act, the revolutionary waging of war, is at hand."
                                                Once the proclamation had been issued, Lincoln
                                           embraced the role of Emancipator and refused demands that
                                           he abandon or modify it. (Were he to do so, he told one
                                           visitor, "I should be damned in time and eternity.") He had
                                           been reluctant to employ black soldiers but came to believe
                                           them critical to the Union's eventual victory. To secure
                                           emancipation against a future national retreat, he insisted
                                           that any supporter of the Confederacy seeking a pardon from
                                           the federal government pledge to support the abolition of
                                           slavery. In 1864 while the war still raged, he sought to bring
                                           Louisiana back into the Union under a new constitution that
                                           outlawed slavery and worked tirelessly to secure the
                                           passage of the 13th Amendment, abolishing the institution
                                           throughout the country.
                                                               * * *
                                                By the end of the war, Lincoln, for the first time, called
                                           publicly for limited black suffrage in the postwar South. These
                                           developments--striking examples of his capacity for growth
                                           that characterized the last two years of Lincoln's life--are
                                           strongly emphasized in LaWanda Cox's 1981 work "Lincoln
                                           and Black Freedom," a brief for the defense in the case of
                                           Lincoln, race and slavery. But Bennett says nothing about
                                           them, except to criticize Lincoln for not enfranchising all black
                                           men and, indeed, ignores Cox's book.
                                                Lincoln was not an abolitionist or Radical Republican, a
                                           point Bennett reiterates innumerable times. He did not favor
                                           immediate abolition before the war and held racist views
                                           typical of his time. But he was also a man of deep convictions
                                           when it came to slavery, and during the Civil War he
                                           displayed a remarkable capacity for moral and political
                                           growth. If America ever hopes to resolve its racial dilemmas,
                                           we need to repudiate the worst of Lincoln, while embracing
                                           the best.
                                                               - - -

                                           Eric Foner Is, Most Recently, the Author of "The Story of
                                           American Freedom" (W.w. Norton). he Is the Dewitt Clinton
                                           Professor of History at Columbia University