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A PRAGMATIC AND HONEST ABE GOT THE JOB DONE page 3
Abraham Lincoln, Viewpoints

Date published: 2/8/2009

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Lincoln's words were unfortunate, but they should not condemn him. History has redeemed lesser men for greater sins. Whether Lincoln held white supremacist views is unimportant because his Emancipation Proclamation opened the possibility for black equality in the American experience. And, his critics would have us forget that the Confederate Constitution enshrined slavery as a permanent institution, aiming to create a nation where black skin and slavery would forever be synonymous.

'Mr. douglass'

Perhaps the most reliable critic of Abraham Lincoln's racial views is Frederick Douglass. Douglass had met with him on several occasions. He recalled his initial 1863 meeting with Lincoln and noted that Lincoln greeted him as "Mr. Douglass." During the course of that first conversation, Lincoln's secretary twice announced the arrival of the governor of Connecticut, to which the president responded: "Tell Gov. Buckingham to wait, for I want to have a long talk with my friend Frederick Douglass."

Speaking in 1874 at the Freedmen's Monument in Memory of Abraham Lincoln, Douglass acknowledged that preservation of the Union was more important to Lincoln than emancipation. He noted that Lincoln was president to white men, and "we are at best only his step-children; children by adoption, children by forces of circumstances and necessity." Douglass asserted that "though the Union [meant] more to him than our freedom or our future, under his wise and beneficent rule we saw ourselves lifted from the depths of slavery to the heights of liberty and manhood. "

Once freed from shackles of slavery, African-Americans could engage in the struggle to achieve life, liberty, and property, in spite of the constraints of inequality.

Lincoln's modern-day detractors may criticize his actions, but surely they agree that preservation of the Union and emancipation of slaves were great achievements. Lincoln did not live to preside over the opening years of Reconstruction, and we can only wonder if his noble words--"with malice toward none; with charity for all"--would have provided better guidance for the nation than his successor.

As with many great men, Lincoln seems to be a work in progress. As the nation celebrates his 200th birthday, Americans should read and reflect on his life and on his significant contributions. No, he was not a saint, but he was truly a great leader.


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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.