Redeeming The Great Emancipator: The Harvard University Lecture, An Interview with Allen Guelzo

Redeeming The Great Emancipator the Harvard University Lecture

An Interview with Allen Guelzo by Sara Gabbard

Sara Gabbard: What were the circumstances surrounding your Lecture titled Redeeming the Great Emancipator.

Allen Guelzo: That requires a long answer. Redeeming the Great Emancipator really began in 2004, when I published Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America, because that was where I tackled directly the question of what made Lincoln an emancipator. Although the image of Lincoln as “the Great Emancipator” had been one of the principal ways of describing him, there has been an increasing amount of skepticism since the 1960s about whether African Americans (or anyone else) should regard Lincoln in that light any longer. Beginning with Lerone Bennett and Vincent Harding and then moving to Barbara Fields, an increasing number of African American historians and activists began questioning whether Lincoln was instead a very reluctant emancipator (who only resorted to emancipation as a shrewd tactical or political gesture), or whether he was actually a racist who would have been happy never to have emancipated anyone, or whether the slaves themselves performed their own emancipation by running away from their Confederate masters and pressuring Lincoln into issuing his Proclamation. Underlying these questions was, I think, a discomfort on the part of many African Americans with being made to feel that they “owed” their freedom to a white man, that they had somehow been incapable of seizing it with their own hands. As John McWhorter once put it: “I just can’t wrap my head around celebrating the fact that someone else freed my ancestors. It puts too much focus on a time when we were so starkly in the down position.”

Well, that’s a fair enough objection. There is something genuinely demeaning in having to think that freedom is a gift someone else gives you, rather than a natural right endowed by your Creator. Julius Lester put this about as plainly as anyone has when he said in 1968, “The black school-child…grows up feeling half-guilty for even thinking about cussing out a white man, because he’s been taught that it was a white man who gave us freedom.” It means having to remember, all the time, “that you’d still be down on Mr. Charlie’s plantation working from can to can’t if Mr. Lincoln hadn’t done your great-great-grandmother a favor.”

But does the objection square with the reality? Slaves could free themselves by running away, but that kind of freedom is only de facto freedom; it’s only a circumstance, and if circumstances went in other directions – say, if George McClellan had been elected president in 1864 instead of Lincoln – all that de facto freedom would have vanished.

And, yes, it’s true, Lincoln could sound strangely remote and aloof when talking about emancipation, as though his Proclamation was something he did out of compulsion. The key exhibits here are the letter he wrote to Horace Greeley in August, 1862, explaining that whatever he did about slavery was about the Union, not the slaves – that he’d free all the slaves, some of the slaves, or none of the slaves if any one of those promoted the restoration of the Union – and the legalese in which the proclamation is couched. But those exhibits actually point in the other direction: no previous president would ever have dared to suggest that he’d consider emancipating any slave at all, for any reason; and the language of the Proclamation is so legalistic because the Proclamation is a legal document. It has work to do, and the work it does is to invoke the “war powers” of the President to emancipate three million slaves – and that’s permanent, de jure emancipation, not just circumstantial de facto emancipation. And the proclamation is worded as carefully as it is because Lincoln understood that he had to keep this Proclamation free from challenges in federal court – where the last word would have been uttered by Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney, who was simply itching for a chance to strike emancipation out of Lincoln’s hands. So, my conclusion in Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was that Lincoln was indeed an emancipator – a Great Emancipator – and that the principal response we all can have is to admire the skill with which he dodges every possible opposition to make it happen.

That was part one. In 2008, Henry Louis Gates was creating a PBS documentary, Looking for Lincoln, and he came to Gettysburg to film a segment there. He contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in going on camera. We met at Tommy’s Pizza in Gettysburg for lunch, then headed out to the Soldiers National Cemetery to talk about Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address. That became the start of a great friendship. And in 2010, as the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard, Gates invited me to deliver the annual Nathan I. Huggins Lectures at Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. It’s a distinguished lecture series, and was all the more attractive for me since as an undergraduate I had written a paper on the Harlem Renaissance, using Huggins’ newly-published Harlem Renaissance (1971). And besides, I had been a Fellow at the Charles Warren Center at Harvard in 1994-95, and (so to speak) knew the Harvard territory; so, add Skip Gates to the equation, and it was an opportunity not to be missed. I delivered the Lectures as a series in 2012 under the title Redeeming the Great Emancipator as a way of reclaiming the legitimacy of describing Lincoln by that title, and they were then published by Harvard University Press in 2016.


SG: Please explain your interest in the topic Lincoln and the Doctrine of Necessity.

AG: Lincoln grew up in the Kentucky and Indiana backwoods as part of a family deeply entwined, in religious terms, around Calvinism – Calvinism being the doctrine that God ordains every event, every action, every thought, and has done so even before the world began. It can seem like a tremendously depressing doctrine, since you could assume that this means we don’t really make any decisions under our own power; on the other hand, it can be tremendously empowering, because it could also mean that nothing can touch you or harm you except by God’s personal decree. Lincoln grew up, putting a good deal of distance between himself and his family’s religion – he never joined a church, never embraced any formal religious creed – but he also never lost the impress of that fundamental sense that all human events were determined beforehand. He called this, in 1847, the “Doctrine of Necessity” – “that the human mind is impelled to action, or held in rest by some power, over which the mind itself has no control.” And he would refer to this repeatedly throughout his life. William Henry Herndon once said that Lincoln believed that an individual was “simply a simple tool, a cog, a part and parcel” of a Great Mechanism of necessity “that strikes and cuts, grinds and mashes, all things that resist it.” Even as President, Lincoln could point to “many instances when I have been controlled by some other power than my own will,” and he told Albert Hodges in 1864 that “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.”

Now, it may seem odd that a man who should be known as a Great Emancipator should believe that there is no human free will. On the other hand, it may have been precisely the conviction that God’s will overrules human wills which nerved him to take the step he did in emancipation.

I came to this subject because I had written my doctoral dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania on the problem of determinism in 18th-century moral philosophy. I knew that Lincoln had said things pertinent to that, and as I planned a second book on American theories of determinism in the early 1990s, I thought it would be clever to be able to include Lincoln among the voices in that book. That led to writing a paper for the Abraham Lincoln Association’s annual meeting in Springfield in 1995 on “Abraham Lincoln and the Doctrine of Necessity.” The success of that paper was so surprising that I never returned to my determinism project. Once my hand was in the Lincoln cookie-jar, it’s stayed there.


SG: In the lecture, you include a thoughtful quote by Alexis de Tocqueville about the perception of inequalities in America. Please comment.

AG: Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (which was the product of Tocqueville’s exploratory tour of American politics in the 1830s) is a book which still abounds in pertinent and surprising insights into democratic life. He made a comment which explained a great deal to me about our current troubled racial environment: “When inequality is the common law of a society, the strongest inequalities do not strike the eye.” But “when everything is nearly on a level, the least of them wound it,” so that “the desire for equality always becomes more insatiable as equality is greater.” Tocqueville was talking more about class than race, but it has application to race in America as well. In the long history of human societies, none has achieved greater and more prevailing environments of equality than the American one, or overcome more obstacles in its path. But that real equality is occluded by the remainders of inequality, which rise up to what seem to be intolerable and mountainous heights. The result, in the case of Lincoln, is the urge to cast him in shadow for what he failed to accomplish in terms of equality, while forgetting the extraordinary steps he made us take to cross the most unimaginable gulfs of inequality.

SG: I loved your statement that “Every reputation has a shelf life.” How does this concept apply to Abraham Lincoln?

AG: There’s never been a time when I can remember not regarding Lincoln as a great statesman and a Great Emancipator. But I also have to acknowledge that Lincoln’s reputation is not what it once was. Barry Schwartz has written two wonderful books on Lincoln’s historical standing, and locates the apex of Lincoln’s cultural appeal between the two World Wars; thereafter, polls and surveys show a definite slippage in popular adulation for Lincoln, while visitation to Lincoln-related sites has fallen by double-digit percentages. African American ratings of Lincoln likewise dropped (in Schwartz’s calculations, from 48% of African Americans evaluating Lincoln as one of the “three greatest presidents” in 1956 to just 28% in 1999). Maybe the hinge moment was 1968, when Congress – to my mind, absurdly – combined Lincoln’s and Washington’s birthdays into “Presidents’ Day.” Perhaps there is a certain inevitability in this: every generation crowds onto the stage of human history with its own set of heroes and villains, and shrinks the time and attention we can spare to give to other, earlier figures. But I think Schwartz was right when he put his finger on modern democratic society as a major culprit, for the way in which it “no longer requires great men and women to revere” and develops “cynicism toward cultural ideals.” Looked at that way, the deterioration of the Lincoln reputation is not simply an inevitability imposed by time but a pathology we absorb from our culture.


SG: What is a “world come of age?”

AG: It’s a slightly different, more theological way of making Schwartz’s point. The phrase was coined by the German Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was martyred by the Nazis in 1945. Bonhoeffer was trying to describe how the world of the 20th century had seemingly abandoned any need for God – and, as a result, deified monsters like Hitler. We live, Bonhoeffer explained, in a “world come of age” – a world in which we behave like newly grown-up adolescents who strike out on their own path in life, leaving the family home or even rejecting family direction and authority. When young people “come of age,” they imagine they have no debts to the past, or any other authority. I think this has application to the way we have treated, not only Lincoln, but American history as a whole. We are invited, for instance, by The 1619 Project to believe that the “old history” of America is nothing but a mess of deceptions, put over on us by earlier generations who simply wanted to control us. Boil it down to psychological terms, and it’s not much different from the adolescents who suddenly decide that their parents are fools and that they are the ones who truly understand the way the world works and what should be valued in it. It seemed to me that this was an apt parallel to how we, as a culture, have come to view Lincoln. Just as European civilization believed it had “come of age” – that it no longer required God or the Church but was capable of setting-up its own truth – we have arrived at the point of knowing how ragged and diminished Lincoln must be, especially when compared with ourselves.


SG: You report some conflicting feelings of freedmen about Northern “liberators.”

AG: How could they not? Very few of those who marched South to put down the Confederacy did so out of love for African Americans, or with a view to promoting African Americans to social and civil equality with themselves. Many Northern enthusiasts for the abolition of slavery saw the problem of slavery as its threat to white free labor, and didn’t imagine the War as some gesture of racial generosity.


Even as thorough-going an abolitionist as William Lloyd Garrison could not conceal his resentment at Frederick Douglass when it began to appear that Douglass was achieving greater prominence than Garrison. For the same reason, people who had been in slavery for generations because they were black, by masters who ruled them because they were white, had no particular reason to trust whites, even when they came as liberators in the form of the Union Army. George Henry Nichols, a staff officer for William Tecumseh Sherman on the March to the Sea in 1864, was stunned when an elderly African American displayed something less than enthusiasm for the arrival of Sherman’s troops. “I spose dat you’se true,” he replied when Sherman tried to assure him of the white soldiers’ good will. “But, massa, you’se ‘ll go way to-morrow, and anudder white man’ll come.” This mistrust was one reason why there was no general slave insurrection during the Civil War. Slave rebellion, after the pattern of Nat Turner’s uprising in 1831, had haunted the days and nights of white Southerners, and many northern whites fully expected that when the Civil War drained Southern whites away from home and into the Confederate Army, the slaves would seize the opportunity to rise up and strike them from behind. They didn’t. This was not because of some Uncle-Remus-like affection for the Ol’ Massa; it was a hard-headed calculation of risk, and there was no compelling reason why African Americans in bondage should risk themselves and their families for the sake of one collection of white people over another.


SG: Are there points in Lincoln’s life when you can see his views on race and emancipation change? Please explain your statement that his anti-slavery feelings and actions developed in a “bafflingly obtuse fashion.”

AG: Lincoln was not exaggerating when he said that he had always hated slavery, that if slavery wasn’t wrong, nothing was wrong. But he began as a politician in the 1830s with the very common assumption that slavery was a backwards-facing institution, a left-over of “injustice and bad policy” from British colonial days, and that if it was confined to the states where it was already legal, it would asphyxiate from want of land and room to grow. He was not entirely wrong to think that way, since Southern slaveholders agreed, only drawing an entirely different conclusion – that they must have room to expand. But the Missouri Compromise in 1820 sharply limited the available room for the growth of slavery, and even the Compromise of 1850 only gave it a possibility of growth, through the doctrine of popular sovereignty, and in places like New Mexico where hardly anyone expected it could flourish. So, the expectation of “ultimate extinction” persisted. Lincoln hoped, in his solitary term in Congress from 1847 to ’49, that he could sponsor legislation at least to exclude slavery from the District of Columbia. But at the same time, he represented Robert Matson in an Illinois case that involved re-possessing a fugitive slave. How could he do both? How could he be so, well, obtuse?

Partly, he could be that indifferent to slavery because so many other anti-slavery people thought exactly the same way about the future of slavery: don’t kick the dying lion. Partly, it was because the people who were outright abolitionists in the 1840s were Garrisonian absolutists, and Lincoln had seen enough of moral absolutism in his parents’ religion to want as little to do as possible with it (an attitude which is, by the way, amply reflected in Lincoln’s Washingtonian Temperance speech in 1842). And he could defend Robert Matson because Matson could stand behind at least some semblance of Illinois’ transit laws, or at least enough for Lincoln to see Matson, in a lawyer-like fashion, as having the letter of the law on his side. (Actually, Matson didn’t, but that would only emerge as a product of discovery). It’s not until 1854 and the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act that Lincoln awoke to realize that he – and the rest of the anti-slavery movement – had been fooling themselves about slavery’s soon-to-happen demise. Even then, though, Lincoln campaigned against the extension of slavery into the West, not its abolition in the South, and largely because he understood that there was no Constitutional warrant to intrude into Southern state legislation on slavery. On that point, he is not so much being obtuse any more, as he is playing within the rules of the game set out in the Constitution.


SG: Can you identify a specific time during Reconstruction when the ”long slide backwards” in race relations began?

AG: In some ways, I’m not sure that there is a slide backwards, as much as there had been a slide forward in Northern optimism about race relations after the War, a slide forward which was fairly quickly extinguished. The Emancipation Proclamation did not meet with anything like universal approval, as Lincoln acknowledged to Hannibal Hamlin; in fact, Republicans lost over thirty seats in the House of Representatives in the off-year Congressional elections only weeks after Lincoln issued the preliminary Proclamation. The 13th Amendment passed through Congress in January, 1865, but only after earlier failures, and only by a squeaker of a vote in the House of Representatives. The war was hardly over before several Northern states explicitly voted down equal voting rights for African Americans (an embarrassment which forced Congress to take action through the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the 14th and 15th Amendments). The Ulysses Grant administration was bolder in its defense of African American civil rights. But that was only until the Panic of 1873 put control of the House of Representatives back into Democratic hands. That, together with the Supreme Court’s decisions in Slaughterhouse Cases, U.S. v. Cruikshank, and ultimately Plessy v. Ferguson, wiped out whatever real gains had been made toward racial equality. The backwards slide was long only in the sense that it took two decades to erase many of the gains made by 1869 and the 15th Amendment; but it was not long in distance.


SG: Please comment on the “four causes which lie at the root of the failure of emancipation.”

AG: One of these – perhaps the principal one – was Lincoln’s murder. Lincoln played his political cards so close to the chest that it’s extremely difficult to guess at what Reconstruction might have looked like in his hands. But I think it’s fair to say that it would have at least involved voting rights, education funding, and very possibly some form of redistribution of land confiscated from Confederates convicted of treason. But under Andrew Johnson, none of that takes place except for the first, and that only because of Congressional determination. The second was the failure to exclude former Confederates from returning to power in the South, and using that power to clamp decisive restrictions on African American life. This may have been an overly open-handed application of Lincoln’s urging to show malice toward none, but it allowed too much of the South to be recaptured by the same people who had led it into a war to defend slavery. The third was Democratic politics in the North, which had always been opposed to emancipation and to its consequences. And the last was the Supreme Court, which in an effort to re-assert the prerogatives Lincoln had slipped away from it during the war, now boldly advanced to claim jurisdiction over federal oversight of racial politics in the South — and to make a perfect slop of them. By the time we get to U.S. v. Cruikshank in 1876, the promise of emancipation had been reduced to what one African American complained was “nothing but freedom.”


SG: What was the “contradictory position African Americans themselves were forced to occupy in Reconstruction?”

AG: The North’s victory in the Civil War was supposed to be the victory of free labor economics over the slave system – of capitalism over feudalism, if you will. African Americans would be liberated, not just from enslavement, but for participation in the smiling world of free labor. As Carl Schurz wrote, “The immense resources of the soil will, as by enchantment, spring to light under the magic touch of free labor, and her riches will be enjoyed by a free, happy, and—who doubts it? –loyal people.” But how were they to enter this free labor environment? The war did next to nothing to change the patterns of land ownership in the South – in many cases, the same property owners appear in the 1870 census owning the same property they’re described as owning in the 1860 census. Without access to land of their own (the legendary “forty acres and a mule”), African Americans had no path to independent ownership of production; they would have to sell their labor at whatever price white Southerners would pay for it, and there was no guarantee that white Southerners would not collude to suppress that price, even to the point of eliminating cash wages in favor of sharecropping. The victorious North might have solved that problem by confiscating and redistributing Confederate property, but confiscation and redistribution cut straight across the ethos of free labor capitalism, not to mention the Constitutional prohibitions on bills of attainder and arbitrary search and seizure. As a result, African Americans were expected to pull themselves up by their own emancipated strength – but without any rope to pull on.


SG: I was fascinated by your coverage of the story of Freedmen establishing their own churches, unions, and fraternal organizations. Please comment.

AG: One story of the post-war South is about segregation, with Southern whites gradually inventing separate spheres for whites and African Americans to inhabit, and the African American spheres being rendered intentionally inferior to those of the whites. But there is also a real sense in which postwar African Americans consciously self-segregated for their own protection. The South’s pre-war slave society was a curiously integrated one, but one in which the integration was structured always to remind African Americans of their inferiority to whites. Hence, Southern churches often contained both blacks and whites in their congregations (in fact, Southern whites preferred this rather than allow their slaves to create unsupervised congregations of their own), but the physical organization of such spaces gave the authoritative areas at the front or on the floor to whites and relegated African Americans to the rear or to galleries. This was integration, yes, but arranged to discourage any notions of equality rather than promoting them. The same patterns followed in other social spaces. Once emancipation had loosed the bands of slavery, African Americans withdrew from white organizations to create their own self-regulated autonomous ones. By 1870, the Methodist Annual Conference of Georgia reported that its African American membership had shrunk from 27,000 to just 1500; Georgia Presbyterians lost so many African American members that they stopped reporting African American membership statistics. African Americans instead organized their own associations (for instance: the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church in 1870) or else Southern branches of historically-black northern denominations (the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal—Zion Church). This should not be mistaken for co-operation with Southern white racism; it was instead a tactic for obtaining independence from Southern white dictatorship, even after emancipation.


SG: Please comment on the statement that slavery, for Abraham Lincoln, “was a political and economic problem before it was a racial one.”

AG: Lincoln’s primary aversion to slavery grew from the way it said “You toil, and work, and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.” This was a “tyrannical principle,” and as such it actually transcended race. Any king, as much as any slaveowner, was doing the same thing when he “seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor.” Lincoln even compared himself to a slave in the 1850s when John Roll heard him say “that we were all slaves one time or another,” even if “white men could make themselves free and the Negroes could not.” Slavery, then, described any relation of power in which one person exploited or extracted the product of someone else’s work without their consent. That certainly described the work Lincoln had been compelled to provide for his father; and it was for Lincoln a moment of emancipation when, as a youth, he had been able to earn money for himself by ferrying passengers out to midstream in the Ohio river to flag down passing steamboats. In the same way (Lincoln said) Roll “used to be a slave, but he has made himself free, and I used to be a slave, and now I am so free that they let me practice law.”

Any form of such subordination, whether it came from “crowned-kings, money-kings, and land-kings,” was politically and economically offensive to Lincoln. His notion of a free society was a network of independent small-producers, “deriving a comfortable subsistence from the smallest area of soil.” That the principal target of slavery was, in Lincoln’s America, African Americans was the least-important consideration in his mind; it was the fundamental existence of slavery itself in the American republic which he feared “is undermining the principles of progress, and fatally violating the noblest political system the world ever saw.”

This helps to explain his general indifference to racial questions in the 1850s, even to the point in 1854 of admitting that, even if slavery could be ended, he could not countenance making African Americans “politically and socially, our equals.” But on the other hand, it meant that he could also begin to see, in the striving of African Americans to control their own labor and transform themselves by its improvement, a striving identical to his own. Hence, Frederick Douglass’s comment years later that Lincoln “was the first great man that I talked with in the United States freely, who in no single instance reminded me of the difference between himself and myself, of the difference of color,” something which Douglass shrewdly guessed was “because of the similarity with which I had fought my way up, we both starting at the lowest round of the ladder.” He had been a slave; Lincoln had been a slave. After that, race faded as a consideration. Perhaps it may yet for all of us.

Allen Guelzo is Director of the Initiative on Politics and Statesmanship in the James Madison Program at Princeton University.