Time for a fresh look at the Great Emancipator.
Last month we celebrated Black History Month. Also, February 12 marked the end of the year-long celebration of the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. It is not by coincidence that Lincoln’s Birthday falls within Black History Month.
Since President Ford’s proclamation in1976, every February has been proclaimed Black History Month. The Month evolved from Black History Week that had been first promoted in 1926 by the eminent scholar, Dr. Carter G. Woodson (Berea College, 1903; Harvard Ph.D., 1912), founder in 1915 of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (now known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History) and in 1916 of the Journal of Negro History. Dr. Woodson chose the second week of February to build on two days already celebrated by the African-American community: Lincoln’s birthday on February 12 and Frederick Douglass’s on February 14. (Douglass chose February 14 as his birthday because his mother called him her “little valentine.”)
Many people have heard or read some things about Lincoln that have tarnished his image in their eyes. Maybe you, too, have heard or read that he was not an Abolitionist; that he fought the war to preserve the Union, not to free the slaves; that his Emancipation Proclamation was of very limited value since it applied only to slaves behind Union lines; that he entertained the idea of colonizing Africa with freed slaves; and that he was racist on the issue of social equality between the races. May I encourage you to take a fresh look? We may avail ourselves of a pair of volumes exploring the moral decision-making of Lincoln by University of Virginia Professor William Lee Miller: his 2002 Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography (2002), from his youth to his First Inaugural Address, and his 2008 President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman. I will proceed chronologically and briefly.
March 3, 1837 — As a state legislator, Lincoln made his first antislavery speech.
1849 — During his sole term in Congress, Lincoln sponsored a bill, with a fellow congressman, to emancipate slaves in the District of Columbia, the one jurisdiction in which Congress could constitutionally do so.
Early 1854 — Lincoln read in the papers of a bill sponsored by Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas that became the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Allowing slavery to expand beyond its historical borders stirred Lincoln to the depth of his being. He later said that it “aroused” him. Lincoln utilized all the library resources available to him in Springfield, Illinois, to study the congressional debates and the history of slavery in the United States since 1776. This was not an academic exercise. He, a private citizen, prepared to do battle against Douglas, the best-known Democrat in the country. Lincoln dismissed the fact that Douglas, in achieving Senate passage of the bill on March 4 by 37-14, had beaten down the arguments of the likes of Senators Seward, Chase and Sumner.
October 1854 — Douglas had no interest in giving Lincoln any notoriety by debating him. Instead, Lincoln trailed Douglas. When Douglas was scheduled to speak, Lincoln would be in the audience, taking notes. After Douglas finished, Lincoln would announce that he would give his own speech, either later that day or the next. And so it was — in his now famous speeches in Springfield on October 4 and Peoria on October 10, 1854. Sometimes he spoke without Douglas present: as in Urbana on October 24 and Chicago on October 27. Lincoln focused exclusively on the issue of slavery in new states, ignoring the wedge issues of the day: infrastructure (then called “internal improvements”), immigration (then called nativism), or drugs (temperance).
February to June 1856 — In February, at the same time that the Republican Party was organizing on a national level in meetings in Pittsburgh, Lincoln was the only person not a newspaper editor to an organizational meeting of the Republican Party of Illinois in Decatur. In May, he attended the first state convention in Bloomington. In June, Lincoln’s name was placed in nomination for vice president at the first national Republican Convention in Philadelphia. The core plank was the prohibition of slavery in the territories.
July to October 1858 — When Lincoln was the Republican nominee for the Senate in 1858, he continued to engage in informal debates with Douglas: Chicago on July 10, and Bloomington and Springfield on July 17. Then began the formal Lincoln-Douglas Debates from August through October of 1858 in seven Illinois towns.
1859 — Lincoln spoke on behalf of the Republican Party in Indiana, Ohio, Kansas, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
February 27, 1860 — Lincoln delivered his address to a full hall at Cooper Union in New York City. The address was printed in its entirety in a number of newspapers and distributed as a pamphlet. He delivered similar addresses throughout New England.
In 175 speeches in six years, Lincoln argued from first principles — the first principles of morality and the first principles of the founding of the United States. He argued that slavery was morally wrong (“If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong”), slavery dehumanized (a word he used) blacks, and the Declaration of Independence states the moral foundation of the country (“all men are created equal”). Lincoln argued that the Founders had only tolerated slavery: they had prohibited slavery in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 (the law governing what are now Midwest states); they had prohibited the export of slaves in 1794, the import of slaves into Mississippi Territory in 1798, the trading of slaves by Americans between foreign countries in 1800, and the import of slaves into the U.S. on the first day in 1808 allowed by the Constitution.
November 1860 to February 1861 — With states seceding one after another, before he had even been inaugurated, a number of people sought to soften the impact of Republican Lincoln’s presidency. Lincoln, however, was unyielding; there would be no geographical expansion of slavery on his watch. He would not compromise on the core issue of the Republican Party.
February 21, 1862 — Lincoln allowed Nathaniel Gordon, a captain of a slaver, to be hanged. He was the first in U.S. history.
March 6, 1862 — In his annual message to Congress, Lincoln was the first president to propose emancipation.
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