12 August 2008

Lincoln Vindicated? Part Two: Was Lincoln Racist?

On 18 October 1858, three days after wrapping up his series of debates with Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln wrote the following to James N. Brown:

"In four [of the debates] I have expressly disclaimed all intention to bring about social and political equality between the white and black races, and, in all the rest, I have done the same thing by clear implication.
"I have made it equally plain that I think the negro is included in the word 'men' used in the Declaration of Independence."

To the modern eye, the statements don't look consistent. If you think all men are created equal, how could you not act to "bring about social and political equality" among the races? For many modern writers, statements like these prove Lincoln a racist. For critics on the left, they prove that he was never dedicated to racial equality and should not be revered as if he did everything necessary to achieve it. For critics on the right, the libertarians and paleoconservatives, they prove Lincoln insincere in his moral arguments against slavery. Authors like Thomas DiLorenzo take Lincoln's "racist" utterances as license to speculate that the "Great Emancipator" had ulterior motives for waging the Civil War, namely to impose "big government" and biased economic policies on the entire country.

In Vindicating Lincoln, Thomas Krannawitter attempts to prove Lincoln's unwavering commitment to the principles of the Declaration of Independence. Followers of Leo Strauss, like Krannawitter, use the Declaration as a key to interpret the true meaning of the Constitution. They appear to prefer the Declaration because it appears to assert a principle of natural right, i.e. "all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights." Krannawitter himself asserts that the Constitution actually does incorporate the Declaration's natural-right principles. Here's how he strains to prove it: "In its very first sentence, the Constitution points to the Declaration: the Constitution is established in order to 'secure the blessings of liberty,' and what is a blessing other than a gift from God?" (p.157)

Lest you assume that Krannawitter's is a faith-based reading of history, he goes out of his way to condemn preachers who attempted to prove that the Bible permitted slavery. No matter that the evidence was on the preachers' side; Krannawitter's view is that "reason is no less the voice of God than sacred scripture" (251). Straussians as a group attempt to strike a balance between reason and revelation, believing that one without the other "leads to tyrannical fanaticism."

This is all very nice, and no one is questioning Leo Strauss or Thomas Krannawitter's commitment to racial equality, but none of them said anything like Lincoln did at his first debate with Douglas: "I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which in my judgment will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality." As in the letter to Brown, Lincoln followed immediately with this: "there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence."

The problem Krannawitter sets up for himself is to show that, because Lincoln affirmed the "natural rights enumerated in the Declaration," he should not be considered a racist by modern standards. Never mind that Lincoln himself distinguished between natural rights and "political and social equality;" Krannawitter infers from Lincoln's affirmation of natural rights that he would not object today were he to discover the races in a state of social and political equality. Better yet, Krannawitter hints that social and political equality was probably what Lincoln really wanted back then.

One of the ideas most closely identified with Leo Strauss is the notion that philosophers and statesmen through history have practised a form of esoteric writing dictated by prudence. These men are supposed to be dedicated to the uncompromising pursuit of transcendent truths, which Krannawitter identifies time and again as true for all times and all places, but they're wise enough to know that stating those truths baldly might not be prudent at certain points in history. They learned to write carefully, to make their works unobjectionable to the mob or the powers that be, but also in a way that fellow philosophers would recognize, and in which they'd recognize the unchanging truth affirmed after all. Because "natural rights" are a timeless truth, the Declaration of Independence signifies that Thomas Jefferson and his co-writers would ultimately endorse racial equality, even if they compromised on "social and political equality" in their lifetimes. While prudence dictates compromise in practice, statements like the Declaration allows authors like Krannawitter to credit Thomas Jefferson and his co-authors, as well as successors like Lincoln, with endorsing true equality both in advance and, in a sense, retroactively. Believe it or not. Ask yourself whether the Founders' or Lincoln's commitment to equal natural rights extended to sexual equality and Krannawitter's position may become an even tougher sell.

In any event, Krannawitter claims that Lincoln was obliged by prudence to phrase his speeches carefully in order not to lose votes. The author offers very careful readings of Lincoln's most controversial utterances in an attempt to demonstrate that Lincoln never explicitly endorsed the idea that blacks were inferior to whites. Instead, when prudence required it, Lincoln would say that he did not support measures toward controversial ends, while signalling through his repeated invocations of the Declaration to right-minded people, and to posterity, that he didn't really oppose the ends.

I'm not exactly convinced by Krannawitter's argument, but then again, I don't have a lot vested in the question of whether Lincoln was a racist. At the heart of the current debate over Lincoln's legacy is the fact that several conflicting ideological groups want to use him as a symbol. Critics on the right complain that Lincoln is used to justify everything from income taxes to the invasion of Iraq, while Krannawitter himself complains that 20th century liberals invoke Lincoln to justify economic and social policies that the author opposes. The Lincoln debate involves people who want to debunk him, perhaps in order to replace him with new heroes, as some leftists would do in favor of the Abolitionists, as well as people who want to enlist him in support of policies he never contemplated, as Krannawitter accuses Mario Cuomo and Barack Obama of doing, and people who want to take Lincoln away from some people and keep him for others, like Krannawitter himself.

The more interesting issue that emerges from this aspect of the Lincoln question is one I'll discuss further in the next installment. Krannawitter repeatedly upholds Lincoln as a role model for prudential statesmanship. He suggests that Lincoln was engaged in such statesmanship when he disclaimed intentions to promote racial equality during the debates with Douglas. He compares Lincoln favorably with the Abolitionists, who demanded immediate, unconditional and uncompensated emancipation of slaves, and suggests that the Abolitionists' goal could only be reached by Lincoln's prudent means. Going about it in the radical fashion that the Abolitionists might have preferred, Krannawitter suggests, might have reduced the Union to a state or anarchy or rule by arbitrary force, since the radicals would have to toss the Constitution aside to get their way. The point you should notice is that Krannawitter believes that there were higher priorities than freeing the slaves immediately. You'll notice later, however, that he uses the suffering of slaves as an argument against Lincoln letting the Southern states secede. So why doesn't the suffering of slaves justify the most immediate, even the most ruthless action to end slavery? Once Krannawitter concedes that relieving the suffering of slaves is not the most immediate moral priority, he throws one of his own arguments against secession into question. I'll test his arguments, and those of DiLorenzo and others in favor of secession, in the next installment.


Anonymous said...

anonymous1 returns:

The question of whether Lincoln was really a racist is an interesting one. This scribe believes that he was actually a beliver in the equality of the Negro, although he could not afford to say so publicly and, in fact, made many statements condemning blacks as racially inferior (as indeed they are). Lincoln talked out of both sides of his mouth, like so many politicians.

The more interesting question is whether blacks are racially inferior. No reasonable individual can doubt that they are. Their ten times higher crime rate, their lesser inteligence and lesser brain capacity leave no doubt of it. Anyone who has observed their relapse into the African jungle whenever white rule is removed can draw the plain and obvious conclusion.

Black racial inferiority was taken for granted by the 19th century feminists. Both Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton regarded blacks as savages. Indeed, one of their chief strategies for getting women the vote was to argue that the votes of white women, if added to the votes of white men, would counterbalance the votes of the emancipated slaves. (Another argument for female suffrage was to counter the votes of the communist Jews pouring into New York.) These untidy facts of history are largely forgotten by the current crop of feminists, Jewish inspired, who would shudder at the true colors of the white racist crusaders of yore.

These facts are in many ways as interesting as the real political views of Patrick Buchanan. Honest Abe wasn't all that he was cracked up to be. If the soldiers of the Union and Confederate armies could see Barack Obama and his Lady Macbeth running for president, they would both be marching under Field Marshal David Duke, rather than shooting at each other.

Samuel Wilson said...

Welcome back, Anon. One peculiar aspect of Lincoln's opinion on equality is his occasional statement that blacks weren't "equal in color" to whites. It sounds strange to modern ears because we equate "equality" with some sort of qualitative measurement, and we don't judge pigmentation qualitatively. Did Lincoln mean only that blacks were different in color, or did he imply that pigmentation made blacks aesthetically inferior in his eyes? Would he have recognized Lt.Uhura as a "charming negress," for instance, or would the terms be mutually exclusive for him?

As for your view, "inferiority" is only meaningful in a political context. The real issue isn't anyone's estimate of collective or aggregate faculties, but whether we're going to relegate different groups to "inferior" social status. Lincoln appeared to maintain a distinction between degrees of equality, insisting on blacks' minimal equality with whites in their common right not to be enslaved, although of course Lincoln honored this principle in the breach until the war came.

As for Anthony and Stanton, it should be remembered that they were involved in a bitter Obama-Clinton style dispute over the expansion of the franchise. While you exaggerate their attitude toward blacks, they were embittered by what they took to be a betrayal by the likes of Frederick Douglass, who wanted to secure the vote for black men before spreading it to any women. Anthony and Stanton were abolitionists who branched off into suffragism because they resented some abolitionists' tendency to exclude women from leadership in the movement. In any analysis they were less racists than radical feminists.

As for your final point, you may be right, but the real question is: would THEY be right? I wonder, however, why you assign Mr. Duke a rank unknown in the American military? A Freudian slip, perhaps?

In any event, I look forward to any further commentaries you care to contribute on the subject.

Anonymous said...

I do not believe that I am exagerrating when I claim that the suffragettes were indeed anti-black. It is true that there were other factors involved in the equation, as Mr. Wilson notes. However, more than a few feminist historians have written on the forgotten white supremacist nature of the 19th century feminist movement. The laws against abortion in the late 19th century were also largely passed at the instigation of these feminists. Either Stanton or Cady alleged that abortion was a practice "unworthy of woman" and confidently predicted that women would outlaw the practice if given the vote. (Cloudy crystal ball on that one.)

As to racial realities and political rights I think it is clear that superior and inferior races cannot permanently co-exist , side-by-side, in the same polity on a legal basis of fictional equality. At some point the charade must fail. We see this process taking place now with the Democratic Party openly proclaiming itself as the Party of the minorities and the blacks especially.

As to mixed metaphors, that may be a tip-off, as Mr. Wilson alleges, or it may simply be the workings of a quick-witted mind. Reverting to another of my favorite subjects, Jewish historian Tony Michels has published a very interesting book, "A Fire In Their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists In New York", making the origins of certain doctrines perfectly clear.

The present election is meaningless, as McCain is as devoted to the destruction of the US as a white country through unlimited hispanic immigration as Obama is devoted to the fiction that whites owe blacks something for having raised them out of African savagery. America is cracking wide open over racial bloc politics. If Hispanics become the number one racial group in the US, they will crack down on blacks far more ruthlessly than white castrati. They have no love for blacks at all-and do not believe the racial brotherhood fiction which whites have imbibed to their detriment.

Samuel Wilson said...

To an extent, the Democratic party has always been a party of minorities, whether they were Irish immigrants or Southern slaveholders or today's ethnic groups. The party has been inconsistent in its commitment to integration mostly because different minorities have always competed for precedence, with Irish and Southrons managing to shut out blacks until fairly recently.

Again, inferiority is really only meaningful as a political category unless someone can demonstrate that all members of any particular group, however defined, are inferior to all members of another group. In other words, any assertion of one group's inferiority is political rather than scientific unless all of one are inferior to all of another. In the absence of such proof, any assertion of political inferiority does injustice to individuals who are self-evidently superior to individuals of all groups.

By the way, can we suppose that your remarks on "African savagery" are as well-supported as your denunciations of Talmudic perfidy? At first glance, I suspect not.

Anonymous said...

Off to the races again, I see.

Mr. Wilson's logic is faulty. It does not follow that all individuals of Group A must be superior to all individuals of Group B to justify legitimate grounds for discriminating among them. The issue is the preservation of the racial and cultural homogeneity of the native group and the peace and domestic tranquillity which go with it. I will agree that if blacks are to remain in the US they should be accorded the rights of the other citizens. That, however, begs the question of whether they should be allowed to remain. Even Lincoln toyed with schemes for repatriating blacks back to Africa. So did various blacks, such as Marcus Garvey. It is also true that the Democratic Party has traditionally been the party of the minorities. Woodrow Wilson, when he was running for president on the Democratic ticket, had to explain away remarks he had made in a college textbook he wrote, complaining about "hyphenated Americans".

And, yes, I can justify my comments about blacks and their behaviour. Get a copy of Jerrold Taylor's "The Color of Crime" or peruse any back issues of American Rennaissance magazine and you will find abundant confirmation of the facts. Back to those much misunderstood Talmudic scriptures. Yes, I have read the Jewish apologetic defenses. They consist of the following techniques, among others. First, pretend that the passage is taken out of context. Next, pretend that a particulatrly odious passage is really just the irate outburst of a persecuted rabbi of long ago and not to be taken as an opinion of the entire Jewish people. Claim that the Talmud is a compendium of many opinions-and then quote a diametrically opposed opinion from another section of the book. If Jesus is described as being boiled in "hot excrement" for all eternity, claim that the passage refers to another Jesus, not you- know-who. Most paricularly claim, a la the Supreme Court, that the point in dispute is a very narrow one and cannot be generalized beyond the parameters of the particular nit-picking into a generalized formula for dealing with non-Jews, as the anti-semites (like me) claim. See, Samuel, I know how it is done. I know a great many thimgs, actually.

I have many well documented essays which are hardly suitable for posting on the comments section of your blog-but which would, I am sure, generate a lot of comments from your readership. If you would give me an E-mail, I would be happy to send to you as attatchments. My E-mail is billhermit@hotmail.com

Anonymous said...

Anonymous1 says:

Unlike some right-wingers who sing Dixie, I think it was necessary to prevent the South from seceeding, by force. There is an interesting parallel between the American secession dispute and the Holy Roman Empire in Germany before the Bismarckian wars of unification. Germany for many centuries was ruled by a loosely federated union of cities and principalities collectively known as "The Holy Roman Empire". The individual states were intensely jealous of their rights-and efective union was a sham. Germany was constantly overrun throughout the centuries because of its "states rights" mentality. Had "states rights" not be smashed by Otto Von Bismarck, Germany would never have risen to world power.

Had the American south been allowed to secede in the name of "states rights", America would never have risen to world power as a continental colossus. The eternal dilema of "free states versus slave states" would have continued, and it is more than likely that border clashes and attempted reunifications would have continued. Transcontinental railroads could not have been built over disputed territories and chaos would have reigned. The European powers, such as Maximillian in Mexico and the British Empire, would have been in a position to play off, and possibly divide the New World between themselves, as in the 16th through 18th centuries. In short, the South's position was, and still is, romantic fiction. Slavery was a disease and grossly inefficient economically.

None of this is a complete defense of Abraham Lincoln who did everything to provoke the war, who allowed his armies to commit great atrocities, who ruthlessly suppressed critics of the war, who kidnapped huge numbers of Irish and German immigrants into the northern armies and who greatly expanded the growth of the federal government in the process. But the secession did have to be stopped.

Both sides in the war were united on the principle of white supremacy. Blacks fought in both the Union and Confederate armies; in defense of the system which enslaved them as well as against it. The aftermath of the war was indeed brutal, with the usual tribe proliferating among the carpetbaggers and prostitute politicians exploiting the conquest of the South. Grant's famous order expelling Jewish merchants operating in zones occupied by the Northern armies was only too clearly based on reality. As the saying goes "Wars are the Jews harvest."

The South snivels about the War Between The States the same way that the Jews snivel over the fake "gas chambers" of Auschwitz. They have made a historical religion of it. The Germans suffered during WW2 every bit as much as the South suffered during Lincoln's war. But they got over it and the South should too.

Samuel Wilson said...

Anonymous 1 is no doubt familiar with the labelling of Lincoln as "the American Bismarck" by writers like Gore Vidal, who didn't necessarily mean it as a compliment. They anticipated Thomas DiLorenzo's position that consolidation was the ulterior motive behind the Civil War, above and beyond the mere preservation of the Union. The alternate outcomes Anon cites are sufficient to justify a preservationist point of view, but I remain unconvinced that Lincoln had the more drastic agenda alleged by DiLorenzo.

I'm not sure what you mean by the kidnapping of Irish and Germans into the Union army unless you mean the draft, but if that's what you mean than anyone who couldn't afford the commutation fee or the market price of a substitute was similarly "kidnapped," so why single out the immigrants as victims?

During the Civil War it's hard to say the North was "united" on anything, including white supremacy, though it's probably easier for someone who thinks that individual or minority opinions don't necessarily count. I'll concede, however, that the majority could no more countenance "social equality" for blacks than Lincoln claimed he could.

Anonymous said...

I've never said that individual rights do not count, only that said rights should be reserved for whites only in a white society.