April 12, 2005

Prof Speaks on 'Complex' Legacy of Abraham Lincoln

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President Lincoln was a “complex man,” Prof. Margaret Washington, history, said yesterday in her lecture, Abraham Lincoln, Sojourner Truth and Race. Complex indeed, for the quest to arrive at an ultimate understanding of Lincoln and his attitude toward African-Americans seems to be one of which historians never tire.

In Washington’s lecture, she sought not to deliver a final ultimatum on Lincoln’s personal views towards African-Americans; rather, Washington illustrated the complexities involved in coming to such an understanding. To do this, Washington focused on the relationship between Lincoln and Sojourner Truth, a freed African-American slave and abolition and women’s rights activist. Washington said that she hoped to demonstrate the “broader implications of their personal actions that provide a prism of racial relations.”

The first section of Washington’s lecture included a brief biography of Lincoln, as well as an attempt on Washington’s part to delve briefly into the complexities of Lincoln’s racial and political attitudes.

Lincoln, who spent the majority of his youth in the “pro-slave state,” Indiana, had only “minimal contact” with African-Americans growing up, said Washington.

She said that they were, accordingly, more of an “abstraction” for him than a reality. Although Lincoln always professed to be against slavery, he only fully developed his anti-slavery attitudes upon becoming a congressman.

Washington said that as a congressman, Lincoln supported his anti-slavery stance with “legal not racial arguments.”

Washington added that Lincoln believed that the “founding fathers considered slavery a cancer,” and, therefore, saw no reason why it should continue. Furthermore, Lincoln believed that “slavery must be viewed in international terms.” In such terms, Lincoln was afraid that the world would label America as “hypocrites” for allowing slavery to exist in the “land of the free.”

Although Washington discussed Lincoln’s anti-slavery views, she made no attempts to glorify Lincoln as a man wholly free of bias and in support of integration.

“Lincoln considered slavery wrong, but so was racial equality,” she said, giving Lincoln’s political stance against interracial marriage as an example of this philosophy. Furthermore, Lincoln’s political idol, Henry Clay, was a slave holder who proposed that America should ship all African-Americans back to Africa.

In the next part of Washington’s lecture, she discussed Sojourner Truth’s life. Truth, born Isabella, was a slave until 1827 when New York abolished slavery in the state. Truth later moved to New York, and at 26, she moved to an abolitionist commune in which she lived with what Washington said was a “who’s who of abolitionists” including Lydia Maria Child, William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass.

Truth became not only an activist for African-Americans, but for women as well, and it is the latter role for which she is most well-known.

After falling dangerously sick and then recovering, Truth began to more ardently campaign for the rights of African-Americans. Truth supported President Lincoln and described him as “the only president who has done anything for our people.”

When Washington was through describing both Lincoln and Truth’s lives, she discussed an encounter between the two of them that she had first mentioned at the beginning of her lecture. The encounter is significant not only for the implications of the president meeting with an African-American activist, but also for the historical controversies that later surrounded it as well.

At the encounter, Lincoln signed Truth’s book and addressed her in it as “Auntie.” Although seemingly a small word, it was enough to drum up controversy among historians. Washington discussed a debate that exists as to whether this word was meant to be “derogatory” or, if it was merely Lincoln’s “awkward attempt to convey friendship.”

Washington said that even those who witnessed the meeting first-hand were unable to come to a conclusive interpretation of the event. Lucy Coleman, a white abolitionist who saw the event take place, originally wrote a positive review of the President’s reception of Truth, but she later “changed her story” and said that “Lincoln brushed her off.”

The controversies that surround this relatively small encounter seem to be a telling microcosm of the larger controversies that surround Lincoln and of history’s inability to arrive at an ultimate interpretation of the man who unquestionably changed American history.

Natasha Levy grad who attended the lecture said that Washington left her “pondering the issues and complexities of racism.”

Archived article by Lauren Hirsch
Sun Contributor