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Abraham Lincoln, Viewpoints

Date published: 2/8/2009


--This year we begin the 200th commemoration of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, which occurs almost on the eve of the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Civil War. Lincoln has been controversial for more than 144 years. This will not change on the occasion of his birthday.

There have already been a few startling news reports about neo-Confederate opposition to celebrating Lincoln's birthday in Virginia. These detractors provide a necessary service: They work diligently to prevent the deification of Abraham Lincoln, and that is a good thing. No historical figure should be mythologized or deified, and that includes Robert E. Lee. The task of good history is to examine past leaders with a critical eye and acknowledge both their merits and flaws.

Abraham Lincoln was a successful president and a great leader worthy of national commemoration, but like all mortals, he was far from perfect. We commemorate his birthday because he accomplished two noteworthy goals: the preservation of the Union and emancipation of the slaves, or at least some of the slaves. These were no easy feats given the enormous opposition he faced.

On the eve of the Civil War, some 4 million slaves lived in the South, and were valued at $3.5 billion in 1860 dollars, or about $69 billion in 2009 currency. Where cash crops were most lucrative, enslaved people often represented about 70 percent of the population. Slaves were a vital part of the southern economy.


Lincoln understood the white South's enormous financial and philosophical investment in slavery. He had Southern roots and had never been an abolitionist, but he clearly recognized that slavery was wrong, and that he could not allow it to expand. Lincoln's contempt for slavery was neither radical nor unusual among political thinkers of the early republic. His opposition to the expansion of slavery did not necessarily mean that he favored racial equality. In an 1858 speech at Charleston, Ill., Lincoln argued:

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Theodore Carter DeLaney teaches American history at Washington and Lee University. His specialty is the American South. His current research focuses on public school desegregation in western Virginia.