Eric Foner doesn’t think much of a book that claims Lincoln moved slowly to emancipate blacks because he was a racist

Historians in the News
tags: slavery, racism, Lincoln, Eric Foner, Great Emancipator



Eric Foner taught history at Columbia University for decades. 

Related Link Review of Fred Kaplan's book in the New Republic

Books about Abraham Lincoln often tell us as much about the authors and their times as about their subject. Although Lincoln died a century and a half ago, we see him as our contemporary. As the Great Emancipator, who freed slaves with a stroke of his pen, Lincoln enables readers to congratulate themselves about society’s progress toward racial justice. When optimism about race relations wanes, so does adulation of Lincoln. Fred Kaplan, who insists that even Lincoln could never bring himself to embrace racial equality, concludes his new book with references to Ferguson, white nationalism and the rise of the alt-right.

The author of several well-regarded biographies, including one of Lincoln, Kaplan is at his best with his brief portraits of a diverse cast of characters. Some, like Lincoln’s political idol, Henry Clay, and the abolitionist orator Wendell Phillips, are widely known. Others, including the black abolitionist H. Ford Douglas and Usher Linder, a pro-slavery Illinois lawyer whom Lincoln befriended, will be unfamiliar even to specialists in Civil War history. These vignettes succeed in highlighting the wide array of responses to the slavery issue in Lincoln’s America.

However, “Lincoln and the Abolitionists” never quite gels. As the bifurcated title and subtitle suggest, it lacks a clear focus. In addition, there are numerous historical errors, some trivial (the Northwest Ordinance was adopted in 1787, not 1795) but many egregious. Instead of giving African-Americans the right to vote in 1821, as Kaplan states, New York in fact disfranchised nearly all of them. It is astonishing to read that Tennessee, one of the 11 states of the Confederacy, “never left the Union” or that the Compromise of 1850 (rather than the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854) repealed the Missouri Compromise, a milestone on the road to civil war. ...

When it comes to the fraught question of Lincoln’s views on race, Kaplan again oversimplifies a complex situation. He rightly notes that Lincoln’s embrace of colonization reflected pessimism that blacks could ever enjoy equality in the United States. Kaplan quotes Lincoln’s disavowal, in his 1858 debates with Stephen A. Douglas, of black suffrage, jury service and other rights. But he dismisses as unimportant Lincoln’s insistence in the same debates that blacks were entitled to the inalienable natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence — rights that Douglas insisted applied only to whites.

Lincoln undoubtedly shared many of the prejudices of his era. During his career, however, he actually said very little about race. Unlike many contemporaries, he did not give orations on the glories of the white race. Unlike Clay and other colonizationists, he never berated free blacks as a dangerous, criminally-minded class. Lincoln was the first president to meet with blacks in the White House. The point is not that Lincoln was a modern egalitarian, but that unlike incorrigible racists such as his successor Andrew Johnson, he was capable of growth. As the war progressed, Lincoln’s racial outlook evolved. By the end of his life he was advocating suffrage for educated blacks and black soldiers — this at a time when only six Northern states allowed any African-Americans to vote. ...






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