There has been a debate for 140-plus years regarding whether Abraham Lincoln was really an emancipator, much less the Great Emancipator. We all know the facts: He signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. His reluctance and prevarication about abolition, and his willingness to not free the slaves if he could save the Union, are well known to those who study the man in his actions and words. So, should African-Americans be grateful for the work of "Father Abraham" to free them?

Last evening I had the oportunity to think a lot about this question. Drs. James and Lois Horton, two really superb historians and speakers, gave the annual Gettysburg College Remembrance Day lecture on Abraham Lincoln at the Majestic Theatre in downtown Gettysburg. The evening included a special award given to novelist E. L. Doctorow for civil war fiction. His recent book, The March, is about U. S. Grant’s march to the sea. This is the work that gained him the evening’s honor. (I have not read the book yet but I did get a signed copy, along with several of the Horton’s books as well. I’ll keep you posted.) In the presentation of the special Civil War fiction award to Doctorow novelist Jeff Shaara spoke about writing fiction as well, based upon his father Michael Shaara’s famous book Killer Angels, the finest work on the Battle of Gettysburg in existence. Jeffrey Shaara has also become a great writer of historical fiction on his own. Shaara’s words, along with Doctorow’s, were well worth the evening for me. How I wish I could write fiction. (I may take a stab at it someday, or so I tell myself.)

James Horton concluded that Abraham Lincoln was our greatest "flip-flopper" of all our forty-three presidents. He continued to change his thinking about slavery and race right up to four days before his death. (Booth heard him speak and seethed in his racial anger, so it was reported.) He not only changed his views about African-Americans but about their role in the future of America. He reasoned, as he came to embrace abolition openly toward the end of his life, that "if God is right and the Bible is true" then nothing can stop this movement toward full citizenship and freedom for all. (Sadly, it took a 100 more years, and the labors of Dr. Martin Luther King, to bring about Lincoln’s dream. Remember where King’s famous speech "I Have a Dream" was actually given!)

Two things stood out to me in the presentation about Lincoln last evening. First, Lincoln’s unbelievable humility, which I mentioned in an earlier post. Contrary to most leaders in our day he could admit that he made a mistake, continue to gain new information, listen to many people and their thoughts, and then change his mind. We call this "flip-flopping" but I call it courage and strength.

Second, what is striking is that Lincoln believed America’s future following this terrible war would be very dark. He believed we might remain deeply troubled about the race issue for a long time. Given the terrible history of how the nation had treated the African-American we faced dark days ahead. Lincoln spoke of America paying the last measure of judgment for the blood of black men that it had wrongly shed. I am not precisely sure how providence works in these matters but it does give us pause to consider how steep the price has been for America since 1865. Our injustice and brutality, all legally defended in our founding and perpetuated after Lincoln’s death by Jim Crow laws, is our real history.

What grieves me deeply is the way the church has responded, or not responded as is the case so frequently today, to this defining issue. We are still, generally speaking, influenced by a great deal of racism in the church. I am personally amazed at what some conservative white Christians still write and say about race. The struggle for justice and true equality under the law is a long way from over even though the 1960s saw great changes in the law itself. Will we keep pressing for a change that comes in our congregations and communities or will we allow this vile prejudice and racism of our American past to linger in our hearts and actions?

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  1. Fred Carpenter November 21, 2006 at 2:35 pm

    No, I don’t think so to answer your title queston. I think I saw (in previous R & R) where you reviewed DiLorenzo’s book, ‘The Real Lincoln.’ Forgive me if incorrect, but I can’t de-ify him as a Moses or father Abraham. Just recently Newt Gingrich was invoking Lincoln as foreign policy strategy to invade Iran, etc…I think we need the truth about him, not religious rhetoric to obscure, for example, his racism or denial of habeus corpus, etc…. He met with free black men toward the end and encouraged them to leave America, go to Liberia, as he believed without a doubt that blacks were genetically inferior to white men, and that we could not live side-by-side. But, as to your question as to the churches involvement one way or the other, I think we cannot separate Lincoln’s views and the ‘separateness’ that still exists today. People need the truth about our racist & imperialist past, so we can learn and move forward as a community of believers. I think some of the Gatekeeepers on the left or right that write on him tend to obscure most unpleasant facts about and it ultimatley will not help the present situation; so, I believe they need a good dose of DiLorenzo’s scholarship as well to face up to the past so we can move forward.

  2. John Armstrong November 21, 2006 at 8:33 pm

    Sorry but Di Lorenzo’s work is not good scholarship in the true sense at all. I cannot write a treatise on Lincoln at this point but there is very good reason that African-American leaders continue to speak well of Lincoln as a liberator of their race. The man was a racist, as can be shown from earlier writings, but he kept growing and learning and thus at the end of his life he was quite a different man. This is what DiLorenzo misses entirely. He sees this as hypocrisy. I see it, as do most Lincoln scholars, as growth and change. These are the facts that careful study has born out time and time again, especially among black historians who have rethought Lincoln pretty seriously in recent decades.
    I think the definitive word on his views about the slaves is not “Liberia” (which of course is a view he did advocate as a solution as late as 1863) but complete freedom, including the right to vote, which he spoke about publicly only four days before his tragic death.
    My point was that the man was a humble genius. And he changed his mind as he saw more clearly the issues in front of him. This is the very quality in Lincoln that is so greatly needed today, but I fear in such short supply. This is also why it is important that we not make Abe into a super-saint or a hypocritical racist bigot. His views are far more nuanced than these extremes and far more interesting than that type of conclusion.

  3. David L. Bahnsen November 22, 2006 at 4:16 pm

    Give DiLorenzo’s affiliation with the Lew Rockwell group, is he really to be taken serious as any kind of scholar (historian, economist, or otherwise)??

  4. Liberty February 3, 2009 at 1:17 pm

    DiLorenzo has an affiliation with Lew Rockwell? How terrible! How can anyone’s scholarship be accepted if they have an affiliation with a group with whom one disagrees? For goodness sake, don’t read the book, assume that your occasional short reading allows you a ‘sense of the man’ when contemplating historical figures, their records notwithstanding.

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