Abraham Lincoln has always provided a lens through which Americans examine themselves. He has been described as a consummate moralist and a shrewd political operator, a lifelong foe of slavery and an inveterate racist. Politicians from conservatives to communists, civil rights activists to segregationists, have claimed him as their own. With the approach of the bicentennial of his birth, the past few years have seen an outpouring of books on Lincoln of every size, shape and description. His psychology, marriage, law career, political practices, racial attitudes and every one of his major speeches have been subjected to minute examination.
Lincoln is important to us not because of his melancholia or how he chose his cabinet but because of his role in the vast human drama of emancipation and what his life tells us about slavery’s enduring legacy. The Nation, founded by veterans of the struggle for abolition three months after Lincoln’s death, dedicated itself to completing the unfinished task of making the former slaves equal citizens. It soon abandoned this goal, but in the twentieth century again took up the banner of racial justice. Who is our Lincoln?
In the wake of the 2008 election and an inaugural address with “a new birth of freedom,” a phrase borrowed from the Gettysburg Address, as its theme, the Lincoln we should remember is the politician whose greatness lay in his capacity for growth. Much of that growth stemmed from his complex relationship with the radicals of his day, black and white abolitionists who fought against overwhelming odds to bring the moral issue of slavery to the forefront of national life.
Until well into the Civil War, Lincoln was not an advocate of immediate abolition. But he was well aware of the abolitionists’ significance in creating public sentiment hostile to slavery. Every schoolboy, Lincoln noted in 1858, recognized the names of William Wilberforce and Granville Sharpe, leaders of the earlier struggle to outlaw the Atlantic slave trade, “but who can now name a single man who labored to retard it?” On issue after issue–abolition in the nation’s capital, wartime emancipation, enlisting black soldiers, amending the Constitution to abolish slavery, allowing some blacks to vote–Lincoln came to occupy positions the abolitionists had first staked out. The destruction of slavery during the war offers an example, as relevant today as in Lincoln’s time, of how the combination of an engaged social movement and an enlightened leader can produce progressive social change.
Unlike the abolitionists, most of whom sought to influence the political system from outside, for nearly his entire adult life Lincoln was a politician. He first ran for the Illinois Legislature at 23. Although he spoke occasionally about slavery during his early career, Lincoln did not elaborate his views until the 1850s, when he emerged as a major spokesman for the newly created Republican Party, committed to halting slavery’s westward expansion. Like Barack Obama, Lincoln came to national prominence through oratory, not a record of significant accomplishment in office. In speeches of eloquence and power, Lincoln condemned slavery as a violation of the founding principles of the United States as enunciated in the Declaration of Independence–the affirmation of human equality and of the natural right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.