Abraham Lincoln on trial for racism

Standing Lincoln sculpture in Chicago’s Lincoln Park

I was brought up to revere Abraham Lincoln as the Great Emancipator.  But in recent years, I’ve read more and more claims that, in fact, he was just a white racist.

Last year some of the Black Lives Matter protestors toppled statues of people they considered symbols of American’s racist past.

They didn’t stop with Confederate generals, but went on to destroy statues of iconic American statesmen, up to and including Abraham Lincoln himself.

In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot appointed a Monuments Project advisory committee to evaluate the city’s public statues, and the committee produced a list of 41 as possible candidates for removal.

The list includes five statues of Abraham Lincoln, as well as two of George Washington, one each of Benjamin Franklin and Ulysses S. Grant, and various French explorers, Civil War generals, generic Indians and other notables, plus plaques commemorating the first white settlers of the region.

The committee did not list Chicago’s statue of Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln’s great opponent on the issue of slavery, but it said it might recommend other statues for removal later on.

The Indictment

The case against Abraham Lincoln is as follows.

During his whole political career, he never was an abolitionist.  In fact, he went out of his way to assure white Southerners that he had no intention of abolishing slavery where it was.

Instead he was a supporter of the Free Soil movement, which opposed adding new slave states to the Union.  The Republican Party was founded to support Free Soil

Some Free Soilers were abolitionists, but others were outright white racists and many didn’t care one way or the other about slavery in the South.  Their objection was to free workers having to compete with slave labor.

Lincoln in many of his public statements despaired of white people and black people living together peaceably with equal rights.

Like many others of his day, he hoped that black Americans could emigrate to Liberia, a quasi-independent African nation established by the USA for that purpose.

Once elected President, his priority was to save the Union, not to abolish slavery.

He only issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862 when the Confederacy seemed about to win recognition from Britain and France, as a means of rallying progressive world opinion to the Union side.

Even then, the proclamation only applied to areas under control of the Confederacy.  It freed not one slave in Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri or any other area under Union control.

The defense

Opposition to the spread of slavery was a big deal.  Both opponents and defenders of slavery believed that, without new territory for slave-worked plantation agriculture, slavery would die out in the USA.

That’s why, after Lincoln’s election, seven Southern states declared their independence before he was even inaugurated.

He did not try to entice these states back into the Union through compromise.  Instead he asserted federal authority by ordering the resupply of Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, S.C.

His priority was to save the Union.  If the Union had not been preserved, there would have been no possibility of abolishing slavery.

He had two possible ways to weaken the South.  One was to appeal to white Southerners who were loyal to the Union.  The other was to attack the institution of slavery itself.  When it came to a choice, he chose the second.

Abraham Lincoln did not have the power of a dictator.  He was limited by the laws.  He could not have abolished slavery by decree.

But as a war leader, he could claim authority to take actions that weaken the enemy.  That is what he did.

The Emancipation Proclamation did affect slavery in the Confederacy.  Many enslaved people fled to Union lines and freedom.

The Confederates, who were fewer in number than the Union forces to begin with, had to keep military-age men at home in order to avert possible slave rebellions.

Lincoln and the Union paid a price for the Emancipation Proclamation and the later decision to enlist black troops in the Union army.

It meant that a compromise peace with the South was impossible, and that the Confederacy would fight on even when things seemed hopeless.

In the 1864, Democratic candidate George B. McClellan campaigned on a promise to seek a compromise peace, and, if not for some last-minute Union victories, he might have won.

Lincoln in his last days pushed for enactment of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which permanently abolished slavery throughout the Union.  He did not have to do this.

Abolitionists, both black and white, criticized Lincoln and pushed him to act faster than he did.  But they all regarded him as someone who was on their side.

Why the indictment?

Abraham Lincoln was revered for decades by both white and black Americans.  The only exceptions were die-hard sympathizers with the Confederacy.  Why the change?

I think that many black people justifiably resent the “white savior” story, which is what I was taught when I attended high school in the 1940s and college in the 1950s.

This is a story of how the Civil War was a conflict between two groups of white people, with black people as onlookers.

What the older story leaves out is the slave revolts, the Underground Railroad and the black abolitionists in the North, who led the way for white abolitionists.

If black people had passively accepted their enslavement, slavery would have persisted for much longer than it did—possibly well into the 20th century.

But it’s also true that without white allies, black Americans could never have thrown off the chains of slavery when they did nor could they have achieved the civil rights victories of the 20th century when they did.  That’s nothing to be ashamed of.

Critical race theorists hold that white people are a monolith that, with minor individual exceptions, holds black people down.  If that’s true, then Lincoln would be part of that monolith, no matter what he actually did, and that’s why it would be necessary to discredit his memory.

I also think that focusing on symbolic issues, such as statue removal, can be a substitute for doing things that materially benefit her black constituents.


Chicago Monuments Project web site.

Chicago mayor targets monuments to American Revolution, Civil War by Tom Mackaman for the World Socialist Web Site.

A eloquent defense of the Lincoln legacy and debunking of Mayor Lightfoot, well worth reading in full.

Lincoln, the Dakota 38 and the racialist falsification of history by Renae Cassimeda for the WSWS.

A defense of Lincoln against a different charge.

The New York Times’ 1619 project by the WSWS.

The New York Times sponsored the 1619 Project, which is a debunking of the U.S. historical legacy.

The WSWS is the most eloquent critic of the 1619 Project.

Its editors took the trouble to interview leading historians of the American Revolution and Civil War about the 1619 Project’s claims.  I don’t know of any other publication that did this.  None of those historians were consulted by the NYT.

If you click on the link above and scroll down to “Interviews With Historians,” you’ll find interesting commentary with good insights into American history.

We live in strange times when the USA’s most prestigious newspaper attempts to debunk America’s most cherished historical legacies, and it falls to followers of Leon Trotsky to defend them.

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