Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth President of the United States of America, is one of the Presidents that captures the imagination of authors that write about Presidents, yet what is interesting about Lincoln is that he went from humble beginnings to become the occupant of the top office in the country. Born to Thomas and Nancy Lincoln, Abraham suffered from a melancholy which was amplified through events like his mother's death when he was nine, his first wife's death, and the death of his children. Yet, with his depression Lincoln kept educating himself and, eventually, started practicing law. Slowly, the auto-didact progressed in his career, ran for State Legislature, and then won a bid for a seat in the House of Representatives; however, the events that made Lincoln a national figure and, perhaps, Presidential were the Lincoln-Douglass debates. Though, he lost the race for Senate seat; the debates put him on a path to becoming the presidential nominee for the Republican Party four years later. Not only did Lincoln become President after winning the nomination, but it also put him on track to be known as the "Great Emancipator," even though the title does not imply that he, indeed, "freed the slaves" because there is no consensus on what the word "freedom" means nor its legal and constitutional ramifications.
Yet, if there is anything that dilutes the power in the statement that President Lincoln did "free the slaves," then it is the fact that Congress passed legislation that freed the slaves; Lincoln just signed legislation--that required bicameral agreement--into law, therefore, saying that Lincoln freed the slaves is an overstatement. In fact, Congress deserves as much credit as the President for the Thirteenth Amendment; yet, Lincoln bore the criticism from the Democratic Party because he was seen as a radical who sought to end slavery. The President's radicalism is a reason why the South seceded from Union because white Southerners believed that they had "the freedom to own slaves, and the analogous freedom to treat workers more or less however one pleased" (Burt 971). What was problematic, though, was that White Southerners derived their freedom to own slaves from the Constitution, but worse yet is that to some voters "freedom" means little or no Federal government, so this small government paradigm would have perpetuated slavery because there is no way to rid of slavery without slave owners disguising their arguments by saying that slavery is a State issue, not a Federal matter (Leiker 40). The image of "Great Emancipator" comes with a caveat: by freeing the slaves, the President was abridging the freedom that gave White Southerners the right to have slaves, thus, creating a constitutional dilemma that Congress fixed in 1865 with its Thirteenth Amendment.
Even though Lincoln abridged the rights of White Southerners by freeing the slaves, Lincoln was not so different from White Southerners because he shared their views on preventing Blacks from integrating into White society. Indeed, the President's stance on slavery was diametrically opposed to the South's stance, but Lincoln's views were not based on moral principles; rather, on economic reasons. The Emancipator's exact words on the economy are, "Is it not rather our duty to make labor more respectable by preventing all black competition, especially in the territories" (Lind 95). Clearly, the president sought to emancipate slaves so that slave labor does not compete with free white labor, nor did he want free Blacks to compete with Whites. What is also interesting is that Lincoln did not just want to free the slaves, but he wanted to colonize Blacks abroad. Although, it is true that the President freed the slaves, his words indicate that he would have been in favor of policies that manifested themselves in the Plessy case because Lincoln wanted to emancipate the country from African-Americans.
Perhaps the most toxic byproduct from Lincoln's administration was the shift of racial ideology because White Southerners continuously made Ecclesiastical arguments in support of slavery, but near the end of the civil war there was a paradigm shift that used science as a way to support white supremacy (Bonner 316). The response to enfranchised Blacks was that Whites got into groups representing white supremacist ideals advocating in favor of the Democratic Party (Lewis 148). It was clear, however, that the central theme in anti-black groups was that their belief that, "The most dangerous dogma of modern times, and that which, unconsciously to the majority of those who accept it, underlies every social, political, and religious heresy that mars our civilization, is the dogma of the equality of man" (Bonner 301). People in the U.S. South were far from ready to accept African-Americans as fellow voters and set out to deny them the vote through intimidation. Not only were Blacks intimidated, but whatever breakthroughs freedmen had made after the civil war had their rights slowly taken away by the local governments, State government, and the Supreme Court. Clearly, calling Lincoln an emancipator is insulting because he delivered African-Americans from slavery to second-class citizenry and because freed people were slowly losing rights conferred by the three amendments to the Constitution added after the Civil War.
What is most perplexing about African-American rights after the Civil War is how Constitutional amendments were pre-empted by local and State governments because the Constitution reads that laws written in the Constitution take precedence to any local or State law, meaning they invalidate local or State law if Federal law conflicts with local or State laws. More shocking is how people accepted and adapted changes whenever there were legal sanctions. For example, one way that Whites were able to curtail Black votes was by imposing a poll-tax and was described "...as an act of necessity—a last resort for the protection of the community from negro rule" (Lewis 169). What whites found is that rather than use violence to intimidate blacks it is easier to keep them from voting by 'legal' means, that is, a poll-tax. Specifically, the rhetoric used for the poll-tax was that since the government is not discriminating on race so poll-taxes were constitutional, but what was observed was that Blacks were sometimes unable to afford the tax, thus, were kept from voting. Once again, it is not clear how Lincoln freed the slaves because he did not give Blacks equal protection of the law in regards to their voting rights.
It was not until the Civil Rights movements of the 1950s that African-Americans started to see equality on many fronts including in education, access to public places, and their voting rights. Yet, the mindset from the Civil War lingered and there are still Congress people voting against Civil Rights for minorities on the basis on whether Civil Rights are constitutional (Shepard 39). In one of the most famous letters in Civil Rights history Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, "We can never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was 'legal' and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was 'illegal.' It was 'illegal' to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany" (Fiero 105). The reason why King chose an extreme example like Hitler is because King wanted to illustrate how laws sometimes are devoid of morality and vice-versa. In regards to the U.S. Constitution, there are sections that would embarrass people today such as provisions that read that "one equals three-fifths." In addition, even the Supreme Court can be morally wrong and Congress needs to draft legislation to overturn a court decision. Linconln's legacy as Emancipator carries on as minorities seek to combat inequalities, yet there has been much progress since the Civil War.
It is difficult to call President Lincoln the "Great Emancipator" seeing as how the notion of "freedom" is vague and has, historically, been stretched thin to exclusively benefit Whites. What also stains Lincoln's image as the hero of the slaves is that he had misgiving about African-Americans as his fellow Southernmen. Even the changing mindset that started happening during civil war changed how Whites saw blacks in regards to fellow voters. More troubling is how rights can be taken away as easily as they are given, but as King stated people need to be able to distinguish morality from justice. A recent article in the New York Times made the case that President Lincoln is losing his appeal as time passes because people are not visiting museums in his honor and perhaps the reason is because he was not concerned about integrating African-Americans into the United States, rather he was more focused on Containment to keep America white by holding Blacks in the South, while contriving means to send out freed slaves abroad (Lind 95).
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