Sometimes blogging’s a reactive activity, because other bloggers believe you should be interested in the same things they are interested in. In some cases they presume to know what you think. In both instances, they might be wrong.
Such is the case with a bill in the Virginia legislature to declare February 12 Abraham Lincoln Day in the commonwealth.
Kevin Levin devoted a series of posts to the subject, which you can see here, here, here, and here. I confess that as soon as I saw the subject line, I wasn’t very interested in the issue. Yes, Lincoln had family roots in Virginia, and state legislators offer all sorts of resolutions, but I can’t say that it stirred my interest in a week where I was busy doing other things (like my job) and where I’d rather invest my time looking at replays of various Giants-Patriots games on the NFL Network. Frankly, the story barely passed the shrug test … and that’s about all it was worth to me.
Indeed, had I not come across a familiar name from various blogging exchanges, I would not have engaged this issue at all. But when Kevin mentioned that Richard Williams had also discussed the issue over at his blog, I decided to pay Mr. Williams’s blog a look … something I had not done in quite some time. Oh, I was aware that once upon a time Kevin and Mr. Williams had enjoyed exchanging viewpoints, and once Mr. Williams and I had a few exchanges of our own, but that was some time ago.
So I read what Mr. Williams had to say.
Mr. Williams says:
“And, knowing the obvious answer, why aren’t the same academics and history bloggers criticizing the Lincoln proclamation the way they criticized the CHM proclamation? I think we all know the answer.”
As Mr. Williams remarks in the comments:
“But it is the issue I’m raising here about professional historians and CW bloggers. They were all in a tizzy over the CHM for leaving out some of these aspects of history but seem to have no trouble looking the other way when it comes to Lincoln.”
I guess Mr. Williams doesn’t read my blog.
That said …
Well, first, I’m unaware that there is a Lincoln proclamation in Virginia. I understand there’s been a bill introduced calling for the establishment of a day to honor Abraham Lincoln … which is not the same thing as an actual proclamation.
Mr. Williams then asks:
“And where’s all the condemnation of ‘celebratory history?’ Seems those same academics have backslidden on their own religion of objectivity and attitudes toward heroes. Help me, I’m confused.”
Let me help straighten out the confusion, at least so far as it concerns me. As I wasn’t interested in the bill, I had not read it. I really didn’t care. Now, had the governor of Virginia actually issued a proclamation, I might have paid more attention. But a bill does not rise to the level of a proclamation. Had Kevin not mentioned it, I would still be oblivious to it.
That said, Mr. Williams argues that the bill’s wording overlooks several aspects of the Lincoln legacy. Let’s look at his list a bit more closely:
- Lincoln’s fondness for black minstrel shows, his frequent use of the “N” word, and his repeating racial jokes
I think this is a bit overstated (how frequently did Lincoln use the term in question? The word appears fourteen times in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln). But this is a matter of degree.
- His support of pre-Civil War “Black laws” which denied basic rights to blacks in Lincoln’s native Illinois
I would not argue with this, although Lincoln repeatedly made clear his support for equality before the law for blacks in prewar speeches. The question concerns what he did to attack discrimination against blacks in Illinois. I think it would be more accurate to say that he did nothing to repeal these laws.
- His support for fugitive slave laws (returning runaways to their masters)
As the Constitution provided for the return of fugitives to their masters, Lincoln was simply supporting the Constitution. Although he objected to the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, he was willing to support a revision of that law to incorporate notions of due process and the rights of the accused.
- His support of colonization (shipping all those of African descent to either Africa or South America)
Lincoln certainly supported colonization. This is well known. The debate has been over why (I think his support was sincere) and what happened to it during the war.
- His Emancipation Proclamation Act – which actually allowed slavery to continue in states where he could have ended it, but really did nothing in states where he lacked the power to end it
Well, first of all, it’s the Emancipation Proclamation … not the Emancipation Proclamation Act. Given Lincoln’s use of the concepts of presidential war powers and military necessity as supporting the proclamation, he argued that he could not end slavery constitutionally by proclamation in areas under the control of United States forces. Thus Mr. Williams is chiding Lincoln for not violating the Constitution (just as he chides him for honoring the Constitution’s provision about the return of fugitive slaves). Perhaps that’s his nod in the direction of political correctness.
Mr. Williams overlooks the ways in which Lincoln worked to destroy slavery in areas under US control … namely his support for compensated emancipation; the abolition of slavery in the territories and the District of Columbia; his efforts to end slavery by state action in Missouri, Maryland, Delaware, and in the states where he established loyal governments under his policy of Reconstruction (Louisiana stands out here); and, of course, his work to secure the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1864-65.
- His desire to keep slavery from spreading to other states and territories was motivated by his desire to protect jobs for whites
Not quite. Most people agreed that unless slavery expanded territorially, it would be set upon the road to ultimate extinction. Yes, there was a racial component to prohibiting the expansion of slavery into the territories, but it would be wrong to say that this was Lincoln’s primary motivation. As for expanding slavery into free states, I think Mr. Williams is off base. Is he saying that the states did not have the right to prohibit slavery? Can he point to a single instance in which Lincoln opposed a measure proposed in a free state to make that state a slave state? Indeed, can he point to measures in free states to make those states slave states?
- His support for the Corwin amendment (expressed in March of 1861), which would have specifically codified the unfettered legality of slavery in the U.S. Constitution forever
Again, not quite. Yes, Lincoln expressed no disagreement with the Corwin Amendment, precisely because it embodied his own understanding of the limits upon the power of the federal government concerning slavery (once more, is Mr. Williams chiding Lincoln for observing the Constitution?). However, if you read the Corwin Amendment, you’ll see that it would have achieved far less than Mr. Williams asserts it would have. I’ve gone over this before.
I suspect Mr. Williams’s target is somewhat different. As he says,
“Having one set of rules for some figures and another for others simply reveals what many Americans already suspect know – that many academic historians aren’t really as objective and non-partisan as they want us all to believe. Their ‘professionalism’ has it’s limits.”
Everyone’s a cheerleader, I guess. Anyone who offers that charge would have to apply it to their own views and their own work, which, taken to its logical extent, means that people will believe what they want to believe … or need to believe, making everyone’s sense of history nothing more than an exercise in justifying one’s own views and prejudices.
So be it.
It could have been worse (or better, depending on one’s point of view). Mr. Williams seems obsessed by race (some people would claim that this is a sign of “political correctness”). After all, one can say much more that is critical about Lincoln … his suppression of dissent, his handling of some of his generals, his treatment of Native Americans, and various other topics come to mind. Yet he omitted these critical issues in his obsession with Lincoln’s racial attitudes toward blacks.
So much for objectivity, indeed. 🙂
UPDATE: Robert Moore has an interesting entry detailing some of Lincoln’s Virginia connections here and more commentary on the issue here.