Friday, January 30, 2009

Lincoln Bicentennial Articles

The obligatory articles about the meaning of Abraham Lincoln in American history have started appearing. The next is in this weekends USA Weekend supplement. Featuring the hyperbole that USA Today (McNews) is famous for -- here calling Presidential historian Michael Beschloss "America's foremost historian"* -- the cover article (whatever that's worth in USA Weekend) is still worth a look.

All seven of Beschloss' points is accurate, and I'm not sure what I would add. But I was most intrigued by #4 "[Lincoln] helped pioneer modern race relations." This is a very interesting way to put it. While Beschloss points to the legacy of emancipation, perhaps Lincoln should also be recognized for the way that his own treatment of African-Americans developed, especially during his presidency. Here was a man who was uncomfortable about the race issue, as opposed to the slavery issue, but who refused to allow his discomfort to prevent him from dealing with African-Americans (like Frederick Douglass) face-to-face. Part of this was political savvy -- he needed Douglass' standing among freed Blacks -- but part of it, I think, was his recognition that separating the races (via colonization) would never occur, and that he, just as a person, needed to learn how to live beside freed Blacks. Lincoln didn't always say the right things; he never completely lost his white supremacist viewpoint (a relic of his upbringing). But he refused to be a prisoner of his past, and he acted more often with charity towards others than with fear. In some ways, that could describe race relations in the United States for the last fifty years.

*By the way, I'm not sure who America's foremost historian is currently. Until his death, it was probably Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Popularly speaking, it might be David McCullough -- might be. But by any yardstick, Beschloss, respected historian that he is, should never be described as America's foremost historian.

No comments: