Abraham Lincoln…Saint or Sinner (BBC Documentary)

Abraham Lincoln epitomises what most Americans believe the nation should be. For black Americans he is the Great Emancipator. Assassinated on Good Friday in a Christian country. He epitomises the American dream…. from the Kentucky backwoods to the White House. The man who held a nation together and changed it radically for the better. The national secular saint? How true is his reputation?

This is an essay based on the BBC4 documentary. Primarily I am doing this for my American friends who can’t access BBC online. Responsible (?) for 650,000 deaths of his own people, a Southern white compares him to Stalin. An elderly black American recalls that everything he learned about Lincoln……from his parents, school, church or books….is a lie. A racist who wanted to deport blacks “home” to West Africa. Against a backdrop of Americans visiting the National Mememorial……many are black soldiers…the documentary poses the question that from the moment of his death (contemporary artwork shows him rising into heaven to be greeted by George Washington)…..Lincoln’s reputation is sealed and unchallenged.

His image is everywhere …the $5 bill in your wallet or the penny in your small change, he is (Prof Eric Foner states) the only President in Disneyland ….and a tourist industry which rivals Elvis in Memphis. Politics transformed his life. “Lawyer” Lincoln and  “Politician” Lincoln.

From our perspective in Europe, we just don’t get “Manifest Destiny” as anything other than naked imperialism. Imperialists always invoke God. But Manifest Destiny brought Slavery to the forefront as an issue…not so much the institution but the expansion…..with its effect on poor whites. Slavery is not just an engine of wealth for the South, it is also an engine of wealth for northern based banks.

Lincoln threw himself fully into the new Republican Party. Most were not abolitionists. It was feasible then (if not now) to be anti-slavery and racist. Northerners separated the slavery issue from the broader “Race” issue.

Prof Lerone Bennett jr (the elderly black man) claims that the pre-Civil War “white” generation was the greatest of all American generations. ..on a par with the Civil Rights generation of the late 1950s, early 1960s. Foner defends Lincoln as a man opposed to slavery itself but the lawyer/politician was so strong within him that he could not “do” anything. Other contributors are uncomfortable with Lincoln’s declaration (1858) that he is opposed to racial equality……he was, some say,provoked into this in debate with Stephen Douglas……and it was a 1858 context.

Yet Lincoln gets elected President in 1860…on just 39% of the vote. The South secedes. The Southern stance today is that Lincoln caused the War. He should have compromised. Was a compromise actually on the table?. And let’s be frank, the South fired the first shots. With hindsight, nobody in the North or South really saw the nightmare that the War would become.

Lincoln as Commander-in-Chief waged the war ruthlessly. Total War? Maybe just “Hard War” but certainly there’s no real appeal to any southern loyalty to the Union. Two elderly black men watch a small group (dressed in Confederate uniforms) from the Sons of Confederate Veterans at a small memorial. One “confederate” Chuck McMichael is interviewed and he angrily denounces that his ancestor was viewed an American traitor. He was fighting in Pennsylvania so that his mother and little sister would not be raped back home in Georgia. Michael Givens, the movie director and self-styled Commander of the Army of South Carolina Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans tells us that there is a class of southern people “who needed to be eliminated…we are talking genocide….Milosevic…….Stalin”.

My own prejudices kick in here. Givens had not mentioned Hitler as genocidal and I don’t think it’s an oversight. The camera is unkind to the Sons of Confederate Veterans. They look angry and rather pathetic as the camera lingers on the bemused two black men watching. These are men who probably remember a very different South Carolina when these white misfits would perhaps carry a certain amount of power.

The “liberal”, the “anti-racist” in me perhaps thinks that these are unsympathetic people and the documentary moves to Minnesota in 1861 and a little history fact which is under-reported. Native Americans in Minnesota had sold their land to the USA for $1.5 million and the Government failed to pay up. The starving Sioux rose in rebellion. They were defeated and over 300 sentenced to be hanged. Lincoln under pressure from foreign governments commuted these to just 39 hangings…although 60 more died in prison. Professor Alan Sked (LSE) claims this is unforgivable but Professor Jay Sexton wonders what Lincoln could have done. It would have been political suicide to have been “soft” on the Sioux. But of course native lands were opened up to speculators including many in Lincoln’s administration and the surviving Sioux driven further west and into more starvation.

Professor Ira Berlin (Univ of Maryland) talks about “colonialisation” a policy he calls “get them out of here” whereby black people were encouraged to leave USA to settle in Liberia or (it was hoped) Haiti or Central America. Lincoln supported this policy. His way of squaring the circle of Race and Slavery.

Some figures. There were 4.25 million blacks….about 4 million in the South. Lincoln and indeed others could not envisage a bi-colour USA. David Blight (Yale) brings up the infamous meeting between Lincoln and five handpicked black leaders at the White House to get their support. He makes the excellent point that hand- picked leaders are rarely representative. Notoriously Lincoln tells the black leaders that the War is the fault of Blacks.

But Professor Sked perhaps hits the nail on the head. The Deportation of black Americans is the “Final Solution” ( a loaded phrase) while Prof Bennett points out that Deportation was no random thought ..it is in the State of the Union address in 1862 and he nicely adds that had Deportation/Colonisation been successfully implemented then there would be no Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey or Tiger Woods.

Professor Nell Irvin-Painter (Princeton) repeats Lincolns’ view that if he could save the Union without freeing a single slave he would have done so. But essentially events were catching up on him. Freed slaves were flocking into Union camps as “helpers” as the Union army went deeper into Southern territory. The freed slaves saw the enemies of their enemy as their friends and liberators. Emancipation was inevitable as black men joined the Union Army. Professor Foner says they are staking a claim to citizenship with their blood. (Actually that was also true of many migrants). But I think Foner gets it totally right when he says that Emancipation was an Act of War (not an Act of Mercy).

Yet this is an uncomfortable thought. In the documentary American children against a background of “school room art” talk about Lincoln. It is simplistic.

We want our heroes to be perfect. Lincoln was not perfect. Yet his assassination…….Good Friday 1865….settles all contradictions. He is a martyr. Yet his legacy was not just Emancipation. It was Segregation, Jim Crow…and the adoption of Lincoln by Southern blacks as a symbol to “remind” USA of a broken promise.

On the Centenary of Emancipation, Martin Luther King spoke at the Lincoln Memorial. We remember “I Have A Dream” but actually we tend to overlook that MLK spoke about Americas broken promise…..the promissory note…..which MLK insisted the nation made good. While he was talking about the Constitution itself, he had the Emancipation Act in mind. Lincoln wrote a cheque. And it bounced.

President Obama……from Illinois…Land of Lincoln…..it is argued cloaks himself in Lincoln rhetoric as candidate and President….right down to the train journey to Washington. It works well but is it honest?

Is it possible to honour Lincoln AND be truthful?.

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