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Happy Birthday Abe Lincoln (oh and also Chas Darwin)

February 12, 2016


Yes, Abe Lincoln has a birthday today.  In a few week’s time, we’ll note the sorry anniversary of his removal from this sphere by means of a shabby piece of melodrama.

Abe’s most astonishing achievement, in many ways, was to define a version of “doable” idealism.

Like most politicians of his age,  Abe was a trimmer and a compromiser.  He was not the most anti-racist or the most anti-slavery elected politician of his age.  (That was Charles Sumner.)  The difference between Abe and the other mid-century politicos trying to thrash out a compromise was that Abe recognised that “middle ground” was a mobile concept.  Unlike Buchanan and Pierce and Douglas etc. etc.  – Abe could see that public opinion needs a gentle push – or rather a push of exactly the correct measure of force.  He never wanted to get too far ahead of “public opinion”, but (in hockey parlance) he had the ability to skate to where the puck was going to be rather than where it already seemed to be.

Abe got on surprisingly well with Sumner – the utterly humourless repository of anti-slavery virtue whose most important rhetorical achievement was to get beaten up.  Because for Abe, Sumner was putting down a marker – was showing the future trajectory of civil rights, against which he could measure his own more “practical” settlement.

And Abe always hated slavery.  This is not disputed.  What was always disputed was Abe’s practical and legal sense of what he thought a federal government could do about slavery.  Until well into the civil war, he insisted that his government had no intention of abolishing slavery where it was already well established.  As a Free Soil republican, he did however assert that the Federal government had the power and the democratic mandate to check the advancement of slavery and prevent its being established in new territories.  He had supported the Fugitive Slave Act (an Act which did more to galvanise anti-slavery opinion in the North than anything else) and at one point tried to initiate a Liberian re-settlement scheme based on the depressing conviction that racism was too ingrained in within North American culture for dark skinned people ever to achieve any worthwhile freedom there.

Nobody ever used language more carefully than old Abe.  He was always precise when he had to be precise and vague when he had to be vague.  He was prepared to allow a range of incompatible people to believe that they had him onside.

Had Lincoln lived through his second term, the trials and compromises of Reconstruction would have tarnished his image, but the USA would have been better for it, assuming his efforts had served to establish a civil rights agenda on a more sustainable footing.  His martyrdom enabled various incompatible interests to claim that they had owned him.  He even appears as a benevolent patriarch, a loving father to the wounded South, in Griffith’s racist epic Birth of a Nation.

Lincoln has been described by Henry Louis Gates as, at best, a recovering racist.

(There’s an instructive Q & A session to be found here…

What he certainly was, was a work in process.  He was someone who refused to articulate liberating hopes that he believed beyond the scope of what was possible.  When events changed what was possible, he started to articulate them.  He was anti-Utopian without being complacent or cynical.   He did not think (out loud) the unthinkable but he appreciated it when other people did because when a critical mass of people started thinking the unthinkable the unthinkable became thinkable and then he would do more than just think it.  He got stuff done.

Addendum.  I’ve just remembered that Abe Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born on the same day in 1809.  They are both exactly the same age.  Oddly enough, Lincoln’s racist enemies used to highlight Abe’s somewhat simian appearance and described him as a kind of “missing link” – a gorilla in a suit.


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