While Django Unchained is stirring controversy, Steven Spielberg’s movie Lincoln has unchained the legend of Abraham Lincoln to new mythic heights, without due challenge. Just as organizations like the NAACP denounced conservative-revisionist textbooks in Texas in 2010, they should denounce liberal-bent historical accounts that either ignorantly or deliberately fail to concede that “Abraham Lincoln did the right thing for the wrong reasons.”
Or, as Lerone Bennett aptly conveyed in the title of his book, Lincoln was, in effect, Forced Into Glory. Nevertheless, the fictions of Lincoln enrich the commercial and moral value of Americana more than the facts of Lincoln. As Bennett writes, Lincoln “is a national industry involving hundreds of millions of dollars a year . . . and the thousands of people who profit materially and the millions who profit psychologically and culturally are not going to stop.”
So what really happened with Lincoln and the Civil War? Considering the racism that abounds today, it’s inconceivable that three million Whites would fight gung-ho and 600,000 would unselfishly die for a “black cause” way back 150 years ago. And if Lincoln factually wrote the Emancipation Proclamation to genuinely “free Africans” after two and a half centuries, its contents would seemingly be more etched into African-American minds. But if you ask around it would be a near miracle to find anyone — black academics and leaders included — who can even paraphrase any portion of it, much less clarify its contents. Isn’t that strange?
An unlikely but well-accredited vetting source of the Legend of Lincoln is President Barack Obama himself, who, as an Illinois senator, remarked in a 2005 Time interview, “I cannot swallow whole the view of Lincoln as ‘The Great Emancipator’ . . . I am fully aware of his limited views on race. Anyone who actually reads the Emancipation Proclamation knows it was more a ‘military document’ than a clarion call for justice. Scholars tell us, too, that Lincoln wasn’t immune from political considerations and that his temperament could be indecisive and morose.”
Neither due justice nor the ambiguousness of the real Lincoln can be condensed here but his “racism” or “limited views on race,” as Obama diplomatically put it, is evidenced in a 1858 speech in which he candidly said he was not “in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races . . . and I just as much as any other man am in favor of the superior position assigned to the white race.”
Examples of his “crudity” or not being “immune from political considerations,” as Obama intimated, is found in his letter to New York Tribune editor Horace Greely in August 1862, stating, “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union.”
The following month, the real Lincoln proposed a shrewd Preliminary Proclamation to emancipate Africans in Confederate areas. The caveat, though, was that Confederate states could retain slavery, providing they committed to return to the Union by Jan. 1, 1863. However, should the war end beforehand, the deal would be rescinded and Confederates would lose both the war and slavery.
In terms of the Emancipation Proclamation being a “military document,” Obama was corroborating Lincoln’s strategy to employ the document as a war measure to disrupt the South’s stability and slave economy — $4 billion in human capital alone in 1860 dollars — and offset the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 which federally mandated that fugitive Africans be returned or abettors faced treason. It only “theoretically” freed Africans in Confederate states where he lacked enforcement.
Lastly, the moral notion that Lincoln waged the Civil War “to end slavery” is negated by his swift removal of Gen. John Fremont for “freeing Africans” in Missouri in 1861, saying, “We didn’t go into the war to put down slavery but to put the flag back . . . for I never should have had votes enough to send me here if the people had supposed I should try to use my power to upset slavery.”
In this microwave society with 10-second attention spans, fictional characters like Django are short-lived. But here to stay is the Legend of Lincoln, who, like many of his predecessors, was gigantic in ambition but miniature in morality.
Obama was being diplomatic but the open masquerading of Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation that he insinuates reflects a need for concerned black people and institutions to converge and confront such distortions and profiteering that are unchained at our historical and ancestral expense.
Ezrah Aharone is an adjunct associate professor at Delaware State University and author of two books, Sovereign Evolution: Manifest Destiny from Civil Rights to Sovereign Rights (2009) and Pawned Sovereignty: Sharpened Black Perspectives on Americanization, Africa, War and Reparations (2003). He may be reached at Ezrah@EzrahSpeaks.com