Contextualized Thinking in History
Samuel S. Wineburg and Janice Fournier University of Washington
Conjure up in your mind the bearded figure of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, "Honest Abe" from Kentucky, Commander in Chief during the Civil War and author of one of the most important documents in American history -- the Emancipation Proclamation. Consider these words of the man often referred to as the "Great Emancipator" on the topic of race relations:
I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which in my judgment will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality, and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a difference, I . . . am in favor of the race to which I belong, having the superior position. I have never said anything to the contrary. ( Lincoln, 1989 p. 512)
How are we to regard these words? At the very least, they complicate the image of Lincoln as enlightened benefactor of African Americans. Have we been duped? Is the image of this American "patron saint" a sham? Perhaps as one commentator claimed ( Bennett, 1968), the image of Lincoln as "Great Emancipator" should be replaced by another: Abraham Lincoln as "White Supremacist."
Which image, "Great Emancipator" or "White Supremacist," is more accurate? How should we think about the past in order to come to some conclusion? What assumptions about the past enable -- disable -- us from understanding Lincoln well enough to render judgment?