The title of this book is incomplete. It should be What Michael Lind Believes Abraham Lincoln Believed. And what Lind believes suffers from a strange case of literary schizophrenia. In the first and last chapters, the author develops the theme that Lincoln was “the champion of liberal democracy” who “continues to inspire people throughout the world.” But in the six interior chapters, this Dr. Jekyll Lincoln becomes a Mr. Hyde white supremacist and “lifelong segregationist” who wanted to create a racially homogeneous America by settling blacks in Africa or Haiti and who inspired the ethnic cleansing fantasies of such twentieth-century bigots as Senator Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi. For good measure, Lind also brands President Lincoln as a “profoundly illiberal” executive who justified his wartime suspension of certain civil liberties with “sophistical reasoning and deliberate lies” and whose 1864 re-election was abetted by “massive electoral cheating.”
Puzzled readers may be forgiven if they come away from this book convinced that Lincoln’s beliefs were closer to those of the Ku Klux Klan than to those of the NAACP–for that is precisely Lind’s argument in most of the book. Or perhaps they will conclude that Lind does not know what he is talking about when he maintains that there was no inconsistency between Lincoln the liberal democrat and Lincoln the racist despot. This conclusion would be reinforced by some of the alleged “facts” reported in these pages: that the Northwest Ordinance banned slavery in states (it applied only to territories); that the Dred Scott decision applied to a runaway slave in Ohio; that “most Northern states” in the 1850s banned free blacks from settling therein (only four of eighteen did); that William Seward was Secretary of State in the Grant Administration; that ratification by a simple majority of states could amend the Constitution; and that the Congress elected in 1936 contained 524 representatives and 112 senators (the actual numbers were 435 and 96, respectively).
These errors are not so serious as the erroneous premise on which Lind bases his interpretation of Lincoln the racist and his faulty use of evidence derived from this premise. Lind challenges what he describes as the orthodox separation of Lincoln’s political career into two parts: the antebellum Whig follower of Henry Clay and the wartime Republican who proclaimed emancipation. Lind insists that we should think of Lincoln’s career as a seamless whole: Clay’s Whig policies of protective tariffs, government investment in economic infrastructure, a national banking system–and the colonization abroad of free blacks and freed slaves to leave America an all-white nation–remained Lincoln’s lodestar for his entire life. It is quite true that Lincoln’s economic ideas remained consistently Whiggish, though he added some Jeffersonian touches, such as the Homestead Act to settle farmers on Western lands and eloquent rhetoric about equal opportunity. (Lind of course argues that, like Jefferson, Lincoln meant equal opportunity for whites only.) But Lind’s insistence that Lincoln’s racial ideas and policies remained frozen and unchanging is, quite simply, wrong.
During the antebellum generation Lincoln did share with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Henry Clay and many others the conviction that voluntary, government-assisted emigration of freed slaves would ease the racial tensions that constituted a powerful obstacle to any plans for emancipation. Lincoln carried this conviction into the first year or more of the war, when violent opposition by many in the North and border states to the prospect of emancipation threatened to undermine support for the war effort. After December 1862, however, Lincoln never again publicly mentioned colonization. During the next two years both he and the Northern majority moved progressively from partial emancipation to the complete abolition of slavery by constitutional amendment, to the enlistment of freed slaves in the Union army, and to the beginnings of a commitment to their equal civil and political rights. But the reader will find almost no discussion of these developments in What Lincoln Believed, for they are inconsistent with the author’s thesis of an unchanging, white-supremacist Lincoln.
One of Lind’s rhetorical devices is to take Lincoln quotations out of context and then supply an artificial context to sustain his thesis. A case in point is Lincoln’s colonizationist statements in 1862, whose principal purpose was to defuse dangerous opposition to war policies that now included emancipation. Another example comes from Lincoln’s famous debates with Stephen Douglas in 1858, when Douglas shamelessly played the race card by accusing Lincoln of favoring black voting, interracial marriage and social equality, which were anathema to most Illinois voters. Lincoln’s response that he did not favor these things, taken out of its political context, is easily twisted into a gratuitous expression of racism. Similarly, Lincoln’s wartime suspension of the writ of habeas corpus and the military trials of several civilians for treason can be made to look like egregious violations of civil liberties if they are presented as unconstitutional and typical, instead of as constitutional (suspension of habeas corpus) and untypical (military trials), which they were. And nowhere will the reader of this book learn that infringements of civil liberties in the North during the genuinely dangerous internal crisis of 1861-65 were relatively mild compared with the draconian enforcement of espionage and sedition laws during World War I and the internment of more than 100,000 innocent Japanese-Americans during World War II. As for the alleged “massive electoral cheating” by Republicans in 1864, it is simply untrue. Nor does Lind find room to mention the usual Democratic voting frauds by Boss William Tweed’s Tammany Hall in New York City or the arrest and conviction of Democratic commissioners from New York for trying to stuff the ballot boxes with the Democratic votes of the state’s soldiers at the front.
While Lind quotes Lincoln’s white supremacist statements out of context, he also tends to ignore or gloss over contrary or extenuating evidence. The reader of this book will not find any reference to an 1858 speech by Lincoln in which he declared: “Let us discard all this quibbling about this man and the other man, this race and that race and the other race being inferior, and therefore they must be placed in an inferior position…. Let us discard all these things, and…once more stand up declaring that all men are created equal.” Almost absent from What Lincoln Believed is any discussion of Lincoln’s commitment by 1863 to the enlistment of black soldiers in the Army, his praise for their contribution to Union victory and his belief that they had thereby earned equal citizenship. Lind does quote Lincoln’s famous statement in 1863, read by millions, that if the North were to win the war “there will be some black men who can remember that, with silent tongue, and clenched teeth, and well-poised bayonet, they have helped mankind on to this great consummation; while, I fear, there will be some white ones, unable to forget that, with malignant heart, and deceitful speech, they have strove to hinder it.” But Lind misses the main implication of these words–that black men who fought for the Union were more deserving of rights than white men who fought or spoke against it. Several times over the last two years of the war, Lincoln explicitly stated his belief that black veterans, along with literate blacks from civilian life, deserved the right to vote in postwar America. For Lind to acknowledge this belief, however, would undermine his continued insistence that Lincoln’s preferred legacy was an all-white America purged of an African-American presence.
By either misreading evidence or by relying on untenable evidence, Lind misunderstands Lincoln’s position on the issue of emancipation in 1862 and on Reconstruction in 1865. In July 1862 Congress passed a bill that confiscated the property (including slaves) of Confederates as a punishment for treason. Lincoln threatened to veto the legislation on technical grounds and because it violated the constitutional ban on bills of attainder. Lind mistakenly claims that the basis of Lincoln’s objection was that the act “permanently deprived slave owners of their property without compensation.” This is false. In his threatened veto message Lincoln explicitly endorsed permanent freedom for confiscated slaves; his objection concerned permanent confiscation of real property (slaves were chattel property), to which the bill of attainder clause in the Constitution applied. Congress modified the law to meet Lincoln’s objections, whereupon he signed it. And while getting this matter wrong, Lind also neglects to mention that at precisely this time (July 1862), Lincoln wrote and presented to the Cabinet the first draft of his Emancipation Proclamation, which declared that slaves in rebellious states shall “forever be free.”
Lind’s treatment of Lincoln’s conception of Reconstruction illustrates many of the problems of evidence, and its interpretation, that plague this book. “If Lincoln had lived,” he writes, “it is unlikely that he woud have supported anything like the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.” As evidence for such an assertion, Lind cites an article in the New York Times from August 28, 1860! Lincoln “declares his opposition to negro suffrage,” reported the Times, “and to everything looking towards placing negroes upon a footing of political and social equality with the whites; but he asserts for them a perfect equality of civil and personal rights under the Constitution.” To cite a secondhand statement from 1860 to describe what Lincoln might or might have done after 1865 is a perfect illustration of how not to write history. Moreover, the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments had nothing to do with social equality; the Fourteenth in 1868 mandated precisely the equality of civil and personal rights that, according to the Times, Lincoln had supported in 1860. And during the last year of the Civil War Lincoln moved step by step toward support for black voting rights, which the Fifteenth Amendment stipulated in 1870.
In what turned out to be his last public speech, on April 11, 1865, Lincoln discussed the question of Reconstruction before a crowd that had gathered at the White House to celebrate (most of them, at least) Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox two days earlier. Looking toward the future, Lincoln expressed a preference for enfranchisement of literate freedmen and black Union army veterans in the postwar South. He also promised an announcement, in the near future, of his new policy for restoration of the South to the Union. “That means nigger citizenship,” snarled John Wilkes Booth to a companion in the crowd. “Now, by God, I’ll put him through…. That is the last speech he will ever make.” Like Martin Luther King Jr. a century later, Lincoln was murdered by an instrument of the very idea of white supremacy that this flawed book would have us believe formed the core of his beliefs.