Americans usually think of Abraham Lincoln as an antiracist “Great Emancipator,” but the truth is much more complicated. Like Jefferson, he was “antislavery and not antiracist.” After losing a Senate race to a pro-slavery politician named Stephen Douglas, he came up with a clever idea. He argued that the U.S. should abolish slavery because free slave labor was preventing poor white people from getting jobs. This idea attracted abolitionists and poor white people. When he ran for president, he also appealed to racists by arguing that Black people were inferior and shouldn’t be allowed to vote.
Like Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, and pretty much all the other historical figures in this book, Abraham Lincoln is way more complicated than many Americans have been led to believe. He also shows why the abolitionist movement wasn’t necessarily antiracist. But why do Kendi and Reynolds focus on showing why historical heroes were actually flawed—and also show the positive side effects of some racism, like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s assimilationist ideas in Uncle Tom’s Cabin? Their point is that too many students learn a black-and-white, one-sided view of history, in which major figures acted alone and were completely good or completely evil. But the reality is always more complex. There were usually large social movements behind those individual leaders, shaping those leaders, and nobody is perfect: even the best antiracists and abolitionists usually started out as racists. Again, Kendi and Reynolds think that young people today shouldn’t be focused on condemning racists (although sometimes that is necessary). Instead, they should focus on trying to turn racists into antiracists. And they have to start with themselves.
Lincoln even promised to let the South keep slavery. But when he won the election, Southern slaveholders were up in arms anyway. They seceded from the Union, formed the Confederacy, and started the Civil War. Enslaved people started escaping North to join the Union Army, and Lincoln famously declared that all slaves were now free. But since the Union didn’t control the South, he was really just telling Black people to free themselves by escaping. Later, after the Union won the war, Lincoln made his boldest move of all—he argued that Black people should get to vote. Three days later, John Wilkes Booth assassinated him.
The biggest misconceptions about Lincoln are that he always opposed slavery and that he singlehandedly freed all enslaved people. But neither is true, and reducing emancipation to Lincoln means overlooking the contributions of millions of activists and enslaved people who seized their own freedom. Lincoln tried to change policy by appealing to racist white people—and like the other assimilationists throughout American history, he failed. While assimilationists like Harriet Beecher Stowe often convinced white Northerners to oppose slavery, getting Southern enslavers to do so was much harder, because it meant getting them to sacrifice their own profits.