Since it’s President’s Day, and also the official commemoration of Lincoln’s bicentennial (he was actually born on February 12, 1809), it’s as good a time as any to reflect on Honest Abe and what his legacy tells us about presidential legacies generally.
As you may know, CSPAN just published a ranking of all 42 American presidents prior to Barack Obama (yes, 42, because Grover Cleveland served twice) based on a survey of 65 presidential historians. Lincoln ranked first, just ahead of George Washington and FDR.
And while no one this side of neo-Confederates would doubt Lincoln’s greatness, the bicentennial has revived some revisionist talk, most notably an article in The Root by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., entitled “Was Lincoln A Racist?”
Gates offers mainly a reexamination (much more positive in the end than the title might suggest) of well-known facts about the Great Emancipator’s attitudes on race: while always hating slavery, he also frequently disavowed any support for civic or social equality for African-Americans; was a longtime advocate of “colonization” (voluntary resettlement of black Americans in Africa) as the “solution” for the country’s race problems; was slow and halting in his steps towards abolition of slavery; was open to gradual emancipation in southern and border states to the very end of the Civil War; and expressed only partial support for voting rights–and then mainly for Union veterans–for freedmen (although one of his few such statements did convince John Wilkes Booth to execute his assassination plan).
What makes this controversy, and its first cousin, the question of Lincoln’s Reconstruction policies, so perennial is, of course, the premature termination of his presidency and his life. While the great Reconstruction historian Eric Foner in his own Lincoln bicentennial piece for The Nation stresses the steady evolution of Lincoln’s racial views in the direction of what we would today consider an enlightened position for a white politician of his time, some troubling facts remain. Before the Civil War ended, Lincoln fought hard for the readmission to the Union of Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee and Virginia with relatively few conditions; deployed much rhetoric (and advice to his generals Grant and Sherman) in favor of quick reconciliation and light treatment of former Rebels; and did, after all, at a minimum acquiesce in the nomination of Andrew Johnson as his second vice president, even though he had better reason than most to doubt Johnson’s racial views, having exempted Tennessee from the Emancipation Proclamation on Johnson’s private advice.
In his chapter on Lincoln in The Reconstuction Presidents, historian Brooks Simpson has this to say:
It is fascinating but futile to ponder what Lincoln might have done had he lived, in part because Lincoln himself did not know what he was going to do.
While Lincoln did not suffer from Johnson’s debilitating belief that “there is no such thing as Reconstruction” because no constitutional secession had actually occurred, there’s no question he was on a collision course with Radical Republicans in Congress over Reconstruction, and might well have, thanks to his incredible wartime prestige, prevailed in that battle and let the defeated South replace slavery with Jim Crow a decade earlier than was ultimately the case. (Without Congressional Reconstruction, moreover, Democrats would have almost certainly regained national power much earlier as well).
As Simpson notes, we’ll never know. But the one thing we do know is that Lincoln’s untimely death preserved his legacy intact. And it’s probably no coincidence that the most highly esteemed president in the CSPAN ranking was preceded by the lowest ranking, James Buchanan, and succeeded by next-lowest-ranking, Andrew Johnson.