Was Lincoln Really the Great Emancipator?

John ArmstrongHistory

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?