Henry Louis Gates Jr. and John Stauffer: What would Lincoln make of a black president?





[Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the editor of “Lincoln on Race and Slavery” and the producer of the forthcoming PBS documentary “Looking for Lincoln.” John Stauffer is the author, most recently, of “Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.”]

... Much has been written about what Mr. Obama thinks about Lincoln; but not much has been said about what Lincoln would think of Barack Hussein Obama. If his marble statue at the Lincoln Memorial could become flesh and speak, like Galatea, what would the man who is remembered for freeing the slaves say about his first black successor?

It is difficult to say for sure, of course, but one thing we can be fairly certain about is that Lincoln would have been, um, surprised. Lincoln was thoroughly a man of his times, and while he staunchly opposed slavery — on moral grounds and because it made competition in the marketplace unfair for poor white men — for most of his life he harbored fixed and unfortunate ideas about race.

Lincoln had a very complex relationship with blacks. Abolition was a fundamental part of Lincoln’s moral compass, but equality was not. While he was an early, consistent and formidable foe of slavery, Lincoln had much more ambivalent feelings about blacks themselves, especially about whether they were, or could ever be, truly equal with whites.

For example, on Aug. 14, 1862, he invited five black men to the White House to convince them to become the founders of a new nation in Panama consisting of those slaves he was about to free. A month before emancipation became law, he proposed a constitutional amendment guaranteeing financing for blacks who wished to emigrate to Liberia or Haiti.

Degrading words, deplored by most white abolitionists, like “Sambo” and “Cuffee,” found their way into Lincoln’s descriptions of blacks; he even used “nigger” several times in speeches. He also liked to tell “darkie” jokes and had a penchant for black-faced minstrel shows. The Lincoln of pre-White House days was a long way from the Great Emancipator; “recovering racist” would be closer to the truth....

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