BIG ENOUGH TO BE INCONSISTENT: Abraham Lincoln Confronts Slavery and Race

George Fredrickson
Harvard University Press ($19.95)

by Spencer Dew

The cottage industry of books on Abraham Lincoln represents both a process of national hagiography and the impulse to deconstruct the myth of Honest Abe, the Great Emancipator. George Fredrickson, pioneer of the comparative method of historical study, aims in this slim book for a middle ground between those who hold to a vision of Lincoln as a saintly anti-slavery advocate (albeit one who bided his time, waiting for the perfect political moment to champion emancipation) and those who argue that Lincoln was, as many of his statements seem to indicate, a racist. Fredrickson, who died this February at the age of 73, offers a close reading not only of Lincoln’s speeches, letters, voting record, and personal, off-record moments, but also of the wider cultural contexts in which he lived, from poverty in the slave state of Kentucky (a poverty blamed on the economics of slavery, which Lincoln felt made small farming impossible for non-wealthy whites) to success as a lawyer in the “free” (but virtually black-free, due to various legal measures designed to keep free blacks out) state of Illinois and, ultimately, to leader of a fracturing Union in D.C. Fredrickson’s most useful skill for this study, however, is his nuanced understanding of “racism” itself, the subject to which he devoted his entire career, as represented in such pioneering works as White Supremacy (1981), which traced parallel ideologies and systems of legal discrimination in South Africa and the United States, and Racism: A Short Introduction (2002), which presented a richly textured view of racialist theory and racism via examination of Nazi practice, apartheid, and Jim Crow.

Racism, Fredrickson argues in Big Enough to be Inconsistent, is “an imprecise umbrella term.” Indeed, there are “a spectrum of attitudes that might legitimately be labeled ‘racist,’ ranging from genocidal hatred of ‘the other’ to mere conformity to the practices of a racially stratified society.” Locating Lincoln along this spectrum, Fredrickson argues that, prior to 1860 at least, he was at once “genuinely antislavery” and “a white supremacist. . . of a relatively passive or reactive kind,” though Fredrickson goes on to consider whether or not Lincoln’s views on race might have changed during the war years.

The perennial problem for historical study of individuals, especially such a consummate politician as Lincoln, is that the line between sincerity and strategic dissembling in speeches and letters can never be fully drawn. Lincoln surely pandered to the public in his words and, moreover, compromised certain personal beliefs and desires for the overriding priority of national stability in a time of crisis. The value of Fredrickson’s study, however, goes beyond that of adding nuance to understandings of Lincoln. This book, through its engagement with the complicated tensions around race at the time of the Civil War, also offers a valuable insight into the continuing history of racism and the racial divide in American today. The legacy of slavery and segregation still characterizes our society, occasionally dominating headlines but far more frequently remaining a ubiquitous subtext in private conversations and national discourse. The noble goal of Fredrickson’s career was bringing such tension, and its ugly, tangled history, to the surface, so that we, his readers, can continue to repair our divided house. Fredrick Douglas, as early as 1876, observed that there were two ways to view Lincoln when it came to issues of race, and Fredrickson evokes these words as if to apply them to the nation as a whole. On the one hand, we are “tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent,” too slow and too blind to the continuing cancerous of racism and all its subtle manifestations. Yet we are also, as a nation, “swift, zealous, radical, and determined,” and it is to this optimism for harmony and reconciliation that Fredrickson’s important body of work testifies.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008