For a Vast Future Also: Essays from the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association

By Thomas F. Schwartz | Go to book overview

4
Abraham Lincoln and the
Recruitment of Black Solthers

John T. Hubbell

FOR ALL THE VOLUMES written about Abraham Lincoln, for all the eloquent words spoken by Lincoln himself, for all the polls that mark him a great man, a national, even international, hero—the Civil War president remains something of an enigma.1 Our continuation today of the “Lincoln and” tradition suggests our preoccupation with his views on great issues. Given a corollary interest in the topic of race in American history, it is not surprising that Lincoln’s place in that central theme remains a subject of debate. The revolutionary developments of the post-World War II period in the area of what is broadly termed “civil rights” have led to a reevaluation of Lincoln— from the great emancipator to the reluctant emancipator to the white supremacist, or, in more vulgar terms, Lincoln as just another tionkie.

Historians, ordinarily a judicious lot, are as much involved in the reevaluation as those with more obvious ideological interests. But historians should have a greater appreciation of context. Hence, to wrench Lincoln from context, from the backdrop of his times, from the exigencies of policy, from the fortunes of war, and from the historical record, is not a path calculated for arrival at something approximating historical truth. In our relativistic age, perhaps it is too much to expect fidelity to the record; perhaps Lincoln should remain more symbol tiban historical reality. Perhaps the record is discomfiting; it often is.

Abraham Lincoln was born into a political culture that was profoundly racist (to use a somewhat anachronistic term). For centuries, Europeans, whether living on the continent, in the United States, or elsewhere, had deemed the Africans a race apart, one that was in no guise the equal of the European. It was a combination of that racism

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