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Redeeming the Great Emancipator (The Nathan I. Huggins Lectures)
Redeeming the Great Emancipator (The Nathan I. Huggins Lectures)
Allen C. Guelzo
Harvard University Press, 2016
208 pp., 42.00

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Sarah Ruden

"Freedom's Car"

Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation.

In a book distilled from the 2012 Nathan I. Huggins Lectures at Harvard, the distinguished Lincoln scholar Allen C. Guelzo not only gives Lincoln's reputation its due; also, he gives the reader an informative vista outward, toward present-day American politics, from the revisionist scaffolding that is like a siege investment around the Lincoln Memorial.

As a middle-class, Midwestern white, educated in the Greek and Latin Classics at Harvard, I think I can address such politics only if I first point forthrightly into the empty chasm where my experience should be—the supreme irony being that in immediately post-apartheid South Africa I got to know black people easily and well. Some relationships were easier than others—they went all the way from mutual avowals of "God sent you to me" and goodwill that lasts to this day, to excited collaboration followed by resentful withdrawal—but they were real relationships.

I grew up in rural Ohio and never saw a black person in the flesh until I was nine—and she was an Aborigine girl walking in a public garden in Australia, at some distance from my vacationing family. I was face to face with an African American (a child my age) for the first time when I was eleven or twelve, at the Toledo Zoo; I marveled, as I shared with her some birdseed from one of those little machines, that her hands were dark only on their backs.

During my teens, when my mother was manager of the Wood County Historical Museum, she compared the numerous (and exuberantly racist) articles about blacks in archived 19th-century local newspapers to the utter blank in the early 20th century; there hadn't in fact been any blacks in the small towns since then either. A couple of dim reports of a Klan presence probably explained the change.

But there were two black kids in my high school, a tennis star and a cheerleader, children of a Bowling Green State University professor. I was far enough away from the popular crowd not to know at the time about all the smug, hey-you're-here-aren't-you? slights the two endured; how, for example, they couldn't contemplate dating. On the most immediate evidence available, my adolescent mind couldn't conceive what the big deal about race had ever been. Those guys were fine, doing better than I was. What was the problem?

If my background is typical, typical, the endurance of racial conflict in America isn't all that imponderable. My race and others seldom intersected and hardly knew a thing about each other. But in the cause of hope, it's been—and will remain—lucky that we're quite a religious nation, willing—at least in a crisis—to count on miracles from a loving God, who's done greater things than end an alienation like this one.

It's in this light particularly that I value Guelzo's defense of Lincoln. Guelzo, at first and throughout, invokes Dietrich Bonhoeffer's idea of "a world come of age," freeing itself of religious authority. It should go without saying that such authority is not narrowly metaphysical; it is social, economic, and political as well. This authority can impose the inexorable indebtedness Lincoln acknowledged in his Second Inaugural Address:

Yet, if God wills that [the war] continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether [Psalm 19:9]."

But debts can be paid—they can exist to start with—only within a community of some kind. Guelzo objects to certain activists' effective claim that slavery can't even be considered a debt, because this would threaten to make the creditors—that is, slaves' descendants—less than completely autonomous. Debts need to be paid, at least from the richer to the poorer; people's wellbeing hangs on payment. But that contingency can seem intolerable. It's almost a given to sympathize—no decent person could preen herself on fantasies of reacting more nobly to the same wrongs—but it's also unimaginable that the will to transcend any system of communal exchange could work out credibly.

If nothing else, the distortion of history necessary to maintain this mindset doesn't bode well for the new "conversation about race" being urged. How could it be an honest conversation? The assertion that Lincoln freed the slaves, Julius Lester said in 1968, is "[o]ne of the bigger lies that America has given the world," counter to the laudable "resistance" shown by the "hustler who gambles, runs numbers, pushes drugs, lives off women" rather than depend on " 'the man.' "

Nowadays the importance of the Emancipation Proclamation is routinely supposed to be found in its partiality, its failures. It is decried for having declared slaves free only in the rebel states but not in the slaveholding border states (Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri) remaining in the Union—no matter that the Proclamation, as it stood, was an act of constitutional derring-do and conceivable only as a function of Lincoln's war powers; a more sweeping decree would have been nullified forthwith, a victim of the same pro-slavery judiciary from which the Dred Scott decision had come.

The status of Great Emancipator—who was wildly celebrated by immediate beneficiaries of the Proclamation, and who was enduringly revered among the black mainstream—is now supposed to be negated by Lincoln's racism, however weaker than usual it was for his time, however measured its expression, and however difficult to locate in his most crucial deliberations. As it happened, he made his decision in a heightened state of mind: the ordinarily cerebral, skeptical president, not attached to any church, shocked his advisers by speaking of fulfilling his "promise" to God as well as to himself. (I can add that a song, "Clear the Tracks," recognized the singularly unsullied turn of events by picturing all the usual political and economic operators scattering in front of the triumphant, unstoppable "Freedom's Car, Emancipation.")

The pretexts for debunking such a man have always been rather weird. W. E. B. Du Bois caused an outcry from the NAACP when he not only reviled Lincoln's inconsistency—"despising Negroes and letting them fight and vote; protecting slavery and freeing slaves"—but also snubbed him as "a Southern poor white, of illegitimate birth, poorly educated, and unusually ugly, awkward, ill-dressed."

Even a thinker as establishmentarian, as deferent (not to say over-deferent) to whites, and as eager (not to say over-eager) for rapprochement as Booker T. Washington could still miss the heart of giving the president his due. Guelzo persuasively locates the blind spot Washington shared with a campaigner as different from himself as W.E.B. Du Bois: it was religion.

A believer in natural law as well as an adept political horse-trader, Lincoln seems to have been an inviting roost for a late, crisis-driven religious sensibility: what all three dispositions critically share is a sense of something beyond the self, forcefully modulating it and directing its energies toward lasting solidarity. I was particularly heartened at Guelzo's pointing out, in connection to Lincoln, that the African American activist who achieved the greatest advances in justice and reconciliation was the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

Guelzo concludes:

For in a world come of age, a world which has become conscious of itself and grown self-confident to the point where we may all get along perfectly well in all questions of importance without fathers and mothers, without communities, without people whom we do not like or do not wish to acknowledge, we balk at the notion that we owe anything to others, or that we should become as little children … . For of such is the kingdom of Heaven [author's emphasis].

Sarah Ruden is a visiting scholar in Classics at Brown University. She recently finished translating the Oresteia of Aeschylus for a Modern Library tragedy collection with funding from the Guggenheim Foundation. The Face of the Water: A Translator on Beauty and Meaning in the Bible is forthcoming from Knopf.

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