Book Review: Lincoln On Race & Slavery

Lincoln On Race & Slavery, by Abraham Lincoln, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

The editor of this volume modestly claims not to have been a Lincoln scholar when writing this particular book.  If he wasn’t a Lincoln scholar before, though, he certainly is one afterwards, given the way that this book takes the massive collected works of Abraham Lincoln [1] and focuses attention on those writings that deal with questions of race and slavery.  The editor takes the viewpoint that Abraham Lincoln was big enough to be inconsistent and that a thoughtful look at his body of work expresses some complexity and a high degree of compartmentalization between different aspects of the question of race, slavery, and colonization that strikes many modern readers as being puzzling.  Accordingly, the editor has both a great deal of praise for Lincoln as well as a great deal of criticism, putting him squarely within the tradition of black intellectuals like Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois.  This book demonstrates from Lincoln’s own writings that Abraham Lincoln struggled with and to a large extent was able to overcome a racist background in the border South through his commitment to honorable treatment of black Civil War veterans as well as his friendship with Douglass during the course of the Civil War.

After a very lengthy introduction in which the editor not only details his own perspective on Abraham Lincoln’s complicated and nuanced view of race and slavery, which combined a sober view of the difficulties of granting blacks citizenship given the level of racism in the United States with a consistent hostility to slavery and a longstanding preference for solutions that got rid of the problems of race by getting rid of blacks.  The editor demonstrates his view not through his own writing but largely through the writing of Abraham Lincoln over the course of more than three hundred pages of written material that include some editorializing that sets the context for Lincoln’s writing.  The writing as a whole shows an admirable mixture of familiar speeches of Lincoln’s like the Lyceum Speech, Peoria Speech, several of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, as well as the Second Inaugural and the last speech of his life which promised limited citizenship and voting rights to black veterans and intelligent blacks in Louisiana along with less familiar personal and political correspondence.  The racial views of Lincoln, as discussed by the author, are not easy for contemporaries to respect, but are certainly honestly and openly discussed.  Lincoln, for all of his greatness, was a man of his own time and not of our own, and we do him a great deal of injustice by forcing our own expectations on him.

There are more than ten thousand books about Abraham Lincoln, and it can be a challenge for people who are not particularly voracious readers to know whether a particular book about him is worth reading.  This particular book has a narrow focus and that makes it easy to recommend to those readers with a particular research interest.  If you are a writer looking to tackle an aspect of Lincoln’s racial views, this is a worthwhile book to look at because it gives both Lincoln’s own words, which are often fairly emphatically stated, in letters as well as speeches, as well as the thoughtful analysis of someone who appears genuinely interested in untangling Lincoln’s unusually complicated views on the subject.  As might be expected the author has some extensive sources and gives a great deal of credit to previous researchers as well.  If the author felt it necessary to speak modestly about his own credentials as a Lincoln scholar, this book demonstrates that he has something to offer to future researchers about that great and complicated man.  What more can be expected of someone?

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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