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.