Sunday, March 15, 2009

Of All The New Lincoln Books . . . .

Bruce Trinque of Amston, CT feels this way about Lincoln on Race and Slavery , Henry Louis Gates Jr. (Editor, Introduction), Donald Yacovone (Editor), Princeton University Press, 408 pp., 2009, $24.95.

"In this bicentennial year of Abraham Lincoln's birth, there has been a flood of new books about him. I suspect that Henry Gates's "Lincoln on Race & Slavery" may turn out to be the one volume among that pile which will prove the most important in understanding the most important American figure of the mid-Nineteenth century and his relationship of the most important question of mid-Nineteenth century America.

Gates's approach is dramatically straight-forward. He presents, in chronological order, all of Lincoln's major public and private declarations (speeches, letters, etc., dating from the 1830s until a few days before his death in 1865) upon the separate but related threads of slavery, race, and black colonization (the movement aimed at relocating blacks to colonies in Africa or Latin America to avoid the inevitable complications and frictions arising from free blacks and whites living side by side in America). Gates introduces each statement with a lucid explanation of the context for Lincoln's words.

The picture which emerges is more complex and subtle than either the hagiographic myopia that often presents Lincoln as a flawless secular saint or ill-natured vitriol that condemns Lincoln as a racist who fails to meet standards of the late Twentieth or early Twenty-first centuries. Gates ably demonstates that we must view Lincoln as a man in transition over decades of public life, with opinions and actions evolving with time. Although Lincoln abhorred slavery from the beginning, actions he undertook in the midst of civil war to suppress it were beyond his imaginings as a political candidate in the 1850s. A man who declared himself opposed to the idea of black citizenship and voting in the 1850s came to advocate exactly that idea, at least for black veterans and the "very intelligent", by the time of his death. While Lincoln fervently defended blacks' equal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, he never openly embraced the notion that in general blacks were fully equal to whites in ability. Gates shows that we must judge Lincoln in his own Nineteenth-century context to genuinely appreciate what Lincoln accomplished." Bruce Trinque, Amston, CT from

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