Abraham Lincoln freed slaves.
Something about that statement continues to feel more obscure and scandalous than obvious. Why were people enslaved in “the land of the free” anyway? This is a question of gross contradiction that will forever plague the United States.
The answers are discoverable in the quest to make the American Dream a reality. All that accompanies this perceived notion of American success – privilege, status, supremacy – are embedded within the desires to make the Dream tangible. They are also associated with the hierarchical social systems invoked by the government to control it’s citizens.
Lincoln, and many others, understood America’s hypocritical contradiction. Some sought undoing the sinful predicament, but for varying reasons.
Men like William Lloyd Garrison and Lincoln, believed the barbarity of slavery cheapened and degenerated the morality of the nation. Others, like Frederick Douglass, knew and experienced the darkness of sin that engrossed every corner of the institution firsthand. For most abolitionists, however, it was a matter of progressive intellectualism, morality, and economic envy.
But Abraham Lincoln’s primary concern was for the well-being of the Union more than the well-being of the souls and bodies of enslaved Blacks. He and other Congressmen wanted Blacks out of “their” country.
White Nationalist in Chief?
Like some today, Lincoln did not believe this country – this piece of land – existed for anyone except white men. Honest Abe believed his race was superior.
He exposed his covert white nationalist thought in a lecture to five African American men in August of 1862: “But even when you cease to be slaves, you are yet far removed from being placed on an equality with the white race.” This led Lincoln to believe that African American colonization to Central America was the best resolve for whites and blacks.
Blamer in Chief
Deportation and colonization of African Americans were Lincoln‘s logical conclusion for a “better” Union. He believed Blacks were the cause of White America’s disunity and subsequent Civil War.
“But for your race among us there could not be war, although many men engaged on either side do not care for you one way or the other. Nevertheless, I repeat, without the institution of Slavery and the colored race as a basis, the war could not have an existence.”
Assimilationist in Chief
And in classic assimilationist manner, Lincoln appealed to the status of the African American leaders he invited to the White House. He believed that white thought and behavior was best, and that it was irresponsible for African Americans who were capable of thinking like white men to stay in America.
“It is exceedingly important that we have men at the beginning capable of thinking as white men, and not those who have been systematically oppressed.”
He considered it selfish if these leaders would not persuade African Americans – free and enslaved – to sacrifice their “present comfort for the purpose of being as grand in that respect as the white people.”
The Honest & Ugly Truth About Abe
Lincoln’s lecture reveals the darker parts of his morals. It is offensive to our senses as most of us were not taught these parts of history in school books or movies.
The honest, ugly truth about Abraham Lincoln was that Black people were an aggravating annoyance to his ideal America. Sure, he sympathized with the horrific physical and psychological abuses slaves endured. His conscience would not afford him the comforts of a Presidency while he knew of the atrocities African Americans suffered.
But it remains that Blacks seemed more of nuisance to Lincoln’s conscience than anything. The enslaved people were more of an annoyance to Lincooln than they were to the southern enslavers. At least to the enslaver – how despicably gross and immoral it is – Blacks obtained a usefulness. For Lincoln, the enslaved were without value to the morality and conscience of United States of America.
Lincoln was not a President concerned about American unity, but only White American unity.
Lincoln was not compelled by the imago dei to enforce the equality of all men and women. His theology did not inform his worldview of what freedom in Yeshua, the Christ, looks like for all men. Rather than tearing down the systemic dividing wall of hostility between Blacks and Whites that only Christ has the power to tear down, Lincoln wanted to reinforce and make that wall more concrete by deporting all Blacks.
Furthermore, his renowned Emancipation Proclamation was not merely an act of morality, but a tactic to gain an upper hand in the Civil War. It only proved how serious he was about White American unity, not how much love he had for Black People.
If he had it his way, he would have deported and colonized all African Americans from “his” land. Lincoln’s love for white America far outshined his love for people – Black people in particular.
An Unfortunate Lincoln Legacy
Lincoln’s bias of nationality and whiteness has left an ugly legacy that exists today. White nationalist protestors and murderers, whom our current President defines as “very fine people,” march and kill in honor of Lincoln’s American vision. The idea that if it weren’t for Blacks – Black thought, Black behavior, Black language, Black culture, Black bodies– America would be a greater nation, is underhandedly enslaving and grotesque.
While we can celebrate the advancement of human freedom and life as issued by Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, we can equally disdain the logic it flowed from. His misconfiguration of how humans from all cultures, ethnicities, and races were created to relate interpersonally should challenge those we’ve chosen to lead our church, governmental, executive, and educational institutions to consider their ongoing complicity in this matter.
Beauty in the Ugly
But the more pressing – and more offensive – questions on this matter, are self-revealing: What can we learn about ourselves from Abraham Lincoln’s tragic misappropriation of human relationships? Where might our “logic” be leading us to replicate more of the same?
Though Abraham Lincoln’s reasonings and wrestling with the matter of slavery were flawed, God still sovereignly used it as a means for good (Genesis 50:20–21). We can only pray that God show us how he is using our sin and ignorance to bring about a greater good for his glory. It’s possible he is creating something beautiful out of our ugly.
Musical Reflection: Crooked Ways – Propaganda (feat. Terrence F. Clark)
(For more on this topic, check out Ibram X. Kendi’s brilliant historical work “Stamped From The Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America”)