Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Abraham Lincoln @ 200 Years: Looking for the man behind the myths

At a time when memories of the inauguration of President Barack Obama in Washington D.C. remain fresh in the minds of many people, the mental image of a former U.S. president stands out above all others___ Abraham Lincoln, America’s 16th president. This month marks the commemoration of Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday with special events and programs taking place all across America.

For people here in Europe who have had the opportunity to learn about American history the name Abraham Lincoln is well known. People generally associate President Lincoln with the freeing of black slaves in the United States of America through the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. Others remember that he was successful in helping to save the union of northern and southern states at the end of the American Civil War (1861-1865). Like all great heroes and important figures in world history the knowledge and visions many of us have about Abraham Lincoln are not exactly accurate.

Thanks to the work of some outstanding people with a special interest and deep knowledge of American history the U.S.A. is well prepared this year to share with the world the legacy of this great American figure on his 200th birthday. Among the many historians who have produced recent work on the life of Lincoln, the name of one of my favorite US historians stands out___ Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research (Harvard University).

In the current issue of TIME magazine ( there is a special feature on Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. where readers had the opportunity to ask a question of this prominent historian. On Monday this week I was delighted to learn that out of 77 questions posed to Dr. Gates from people around the globe, my question about the complex relationship Abraham Lincoln had with prominent American blacks and black slaves was one of the ten questions selected by the editors for the interview. To be honest I am overjoyed that both Gilbert Cruz of and Dr. Gates decided to field my question. Here is the exact text of the question I submitted to editors and Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr.: - 10 Questions - Ask Henry Louis Gates Jr.

My question submitted to on January 28, 2009

Dear Dr. Gates,

First I would like to say that I am big fan of your work in American history and that I closely follow your writings and documentary/educational multi-media productions online from Germany. I also am a regular visitor to your new online publication

My Question:
In your recent op-ed ‘A Pragmatic Precedent’ at The New York Times (co-authored with John Stauffer) you explain the complex feelings and views President Abraham Lincoln held toward black people. Could you please expand on that topic in your upcoming interview with
Why did Lincoln view the great abolitionist Frederick Douglas as an (almost) intellectual equal but at the same time fail to understand that many African Americans in the mid-19th century had the same potential for achievement and success if only given education and opportunity to show what they could do? Surely President Lincoln was aware of other great black intellectuals that had emerged on the public scene in Europe from the 17th century up to his time (i.e. Professor Anton Wilhelm Amo in Germany et al.). Thank you for your consideration of this question.

Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. responds to questions posed by TIME Magazine readers in the article and online video interview below: 10 Questions for Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Photo Essay: Henry Louis Gates Jr.: A Life in Letters - 10 Questions - TIME video: 10 Questions Interview with Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Ask Henry Louis Gates Jr.: 10 Questions - (list of 77 questions submitted)

So you see, it’s all in how you ask the question when you want to get the attention of a great US historian AND get a ‘Hat Tip’ from to boot. Of course my introduction with high praise for Gates’ previous work on historical subjects didn’t hurt my chances of receiving a reply to my question.

Here are excerpts from a New York Times op-ed written by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and John Stauffer* just two days before the inauguration of the 44th US president:

January 19, 2009
Op-Ed Contributors
A Pragmatic Precedent

UNTIL a martyred John F. Kennedy replaced him, Abraham Lincoln was one of the two white men whose image most frequently graced even the most modest black home, second in popularity only to Jesus. Perhaps none of his heirs in the Oval Office has been as directly compared to Lincoln as will Barack Obama, in part because Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation began freeing the slaves descended from the continent on which Mr. Obama’s father was born, and in part because of Mr. Obama’s own fascination with Lincoln himself.

Much has been written about what Mr. Obama thinks about Lincoln; but not much has been said about what Lincoln would think of Barack Hussein Obama. If his marble statue at the Lincoln Memorial could become flesh and speak, like Galatea, what would the man who is remembered for freeing the slaves say about his first black successor?

It is difficult to say for sure, of course, but one thing we can be fairly certain about is that Lincoln would have been, um, surprised. Lincoln was thoroughly a man of his times, and while he staunchly opposed slavery — on moral grounds and because it made competition in the marketplace unfair for poor white men — for most of his life he harbored fixed and unfortunate ideas about race.

Lincoln had a very complex relationship with blacks. Abolition was a fundamental part of Lincoln’s moral compass, but equality was not. While he was an early, consistent and formidable foe of slavery, Lincoln had much more ambivalent feelings about blacks themselves, especially about whether they were, or could ever be, truly equal with whites.

For example, on Aug. 14, 1862, he invited five black men to the White House to convince them to become the founders of a new nation in Panama consisting of those slaves he was about to free. A month before emancipation became law, he proposed a constitutional amendment guaranteeing financing for blacks who wished to emigrate to Liberia or Haiti.

Degrading words, deplored by most white abolitionists, like “Sambo” and “Cuffee,” found their way into Lincoln’s descriptions of blacks; he even used “nigger” several times in speeches. He also liked to tell “darkie” jokes and had a penchant for black-faced minstrel shows. The Lincoln of pre-White House days was a long way from the Great Emancipator; “recovering racist” would be closer to the truth.

…The truth is that successful blacks were almost total strangers to Lincoln, born as he was on the frontier and raised in a state settled by white Southerners. From this perspective, then, Lincoln most probably would have been shocked, perhaps horrified, by Mr. Obama’s election. Like the majority of Northern whites, Lincoln had a vision of America that was largely a white one.

End excerpts_____ Read the complete article ‘A Pragmatic Precedent’ at the New York Times.

Note*: John Stauffer is one of the world’s leading scholars of antislavery, protest movements, and interracial relations. He is currently the Chair of the History of American Civilization Program and Professor of English and African American Studies at Harvard University. Visit his personal website at

PBS Lincoln Bicentennial TV program special ‘Looking for Lincoln’
Scheduled broadcast: February 11, 2009 @ 21:00 EST in the U.S. and Canada

A very interesting and educational TV program will be airing in the U.S. during the bicentennial celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. The documentary film ‘Looking for Lincoln’ will be showing on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). ‘Looking for Lincoln’ was written and is presented by Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. (see profile above). Dr. Gates had help from other outstanding US historians and Lincoln scholars, US political figures, editors and writers. Here is how PBS describes some of the key contributors to ‘Looking for Lincoln’:

In the film, Gates shows how the Lincoln legend grew out of controversy, greed, love, clashing political perspectives, power struggles, and considerable disagreement over how our 16th president should be remembered. His quest to piece together Lincoln’s complex life takes him from Illinois to Gettysburg to Washington, D.C., and face-to-face with people who live with Lincoln every day – relic hunters, re-enactors, and others for whom the study of Lincoln is a passion.

Among those weighing in: Pulitzer Prize winners Doris Kearns Goodwin and Tony Kushner; presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush; and Lincoln scholars including Harold Holzer, vice chair of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission; Harvard University’s president Drew Faust and history professor David Hebert Donald; Yale University history professor David Blight; and Allen Guelzo of Gettysburg College. Former Ebony magazine editor Lerone Bennett challenges Lincoln’s record on race; writer Joshua Shenk talks about Lincoln’s depression; and New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik illuminates how Lincoln’s words changed the course of history.

So don’t miss it! ‘Looking for Lincoln’ will be airing at 8:00 PM EST starting on Wednesday, February 11, 2009 on your local PBS channel (check local listings). And for the rest of us living outside of the United States (foreigners, American ex-pats, and aliens) the 2-hour program is available online indefinitely at the Looking for Lincoln website at PBS (see PBS links listed below).

Note**: The Land of Lincoln (the State of Illinois) and President Abraham Lincoln’s legacy figure prominently in the history of my own family. Illinois was the American frontier (Illinois country) where one of my ancestors settled in the late 18th century as a free man. He was a former black slave who won his hard-fought freedom shortly after the end of the American Revolutionary War against the British. He arrived in this beautiful, unspoiled frontier land in the year 1790 and settled not far from the Mississippi River. According to family and official records he built a home, married and founded a family, raised horses and cows and did a bit of farming on his small plot of land.

This all took place nineteen years before Abraham Lincoln was born at Knob Creek Farm (Kentucky) and thirteen years before President Thomas Jefferson launched the Lewis & Clark Expedition (1803-1806) to explore the vast land mass west of the Mississippi River to the Pacific coast (incl. the Louisiana Purchase). Imagine that. This is perhaps a great story that deserves much more attention___ someday in the not so distant future.

Related articles and other resources on Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln Bicentennial Commission (1809-2009) - Live the Legacy
(U.S. Government official website)

The New York Times
Op-Ed Contributors - A Pragmatic Precedent by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and John Stauffer, 01/18/09

The Huffington Post
John Stauffer: What Obama Can Learn from Lincoln's Inaugural

PBS (Public Broadcasting Service)
Looking for Lincoln PBS
About the documentary ‘Looking for Lincoln’
Looking for Lincoln (press release November 20, 2008)
African American Lives 2 (press release July 2007)

The New York Times
Television Review - 'Looking for Lincoln' - Henry Louis Gates Jr. Examines a Hero and Is Surprised to Find a 19th-Century Man

The Los Angeles Times – review of the PBS special ‘Looking for Lincoln’
In search of the flesh-and-blood Abraham Lincoln - Los Angeles Times

Companion books to the PBS broadcast 'Looking for Lincoln' Looking for Lincoln: The Making of an American Icon: Philip B. Kunhardt III, Peter W. Kunhardt, Peter W. Kunhardt Jr.

The Christian Science Monitor (CSM)
Looking for Lincoln book review by Alfredo Sosa, Dec 8, 2008

Princeton University Press
Gates, H.L., Jr. and Yacovone, D., eds.: Lincoln on Race and Slavery. March 2009
Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln by John Stauffer
John Stuaffer’s personal website (
Finding Lincoln Smart and Funny
Note: formerly titled ‘The Man Who Knows Lincoln’

Colbert Nation with host Stephen Colbert (Comedy Central)
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., February 3rd, on
US comedian Stephan Colbert interviews Henry Louis Gates Jr. about President Abraham Lincoln and the new book “Lincoln on Race and Slavery”

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E-Nyce said...

Congratulations on such a prominent appearance!

Sorry they sliced your question down so much. Maybe they were trying to save space for the printed magazine version?

And thanks for continuing to aid the myth-debunking movement, not just on the Lincoln legacy. It's interesting that when we were kids, the Lincoln mythos continued, but today's kids are taught a fuller story.

Gates, who I've followed for many years, loves bringing the FACTS to people who thought they knew History. And he's never been afraid to attack issues semi-sacred to even his fellow African-Americans. He always slam-dunks the issues but in such a charming way, he never gets a bad rep for doing so.

BRE said...

Thanks E-Nyce for your comment and your regular visits to Jewels. I too am very fond of Dr. Gates' approach to educating people about history. Gates tries to make complex subject matter interesting and understandable for just about everyone without 'dumbing down' the material. He is quite an accomplished historian and educator that all Americans can be very proud of, especially folks from the rolling hills and mountains of West Virgina (his birthplace).

I plan to view online the 2-hour PBS special 'Looking for Lincoln' this weekend. Unfortunately many of the excellent PBS and WNET-TV programs you can watch in the States are not available to viewers outside of the USA and Canada. It was a very smart move on part of the public network a few years ago to offer select TV programs and associated multimedia and text resources to worldwide audiences via the Internet.

I have more interesting stuff on Lincoln that I will post to the blog ASAP. Also, I must correct some of the outrageous grammatical errors in my post above. Stay tuned and again thank you for stopping by Jewels in the Jungle.

P.S. The editor(s) at did paraphrase my original question as you say, and Gates did not elaborate beyond what he and John Stauffer had written in the New York Times op-ed 'A Pragmatic Precedent'. The online version of the magazine should not operate under the same time and space constraints as the printed version___ but old habits are hard to break I guess.

The video of the interview with Dr. Gates is more informative than the text article. People are still submitting questions and special requests to the professor via the original '10 Questions for Henry Louis Gates Jr.' article.

It just goes to show you, there are lots of folks around the world who are very interested in history and literature and culture. History Matters, damn it!

E-Nyce said...

A very interesting interview w/ Gates about the Lincoln history can be listened to - and MP3 downloaded - here.

BRE said...

Thanks E-Nyce for the tip. I'll have a listen to the interview ASAP. We've got some very interesting news about black history scholarship cooking over here on this side of the Atlantic. I will update readers as soon as I have the information from members of our Black History in Europe Workgroup.

At the moment I am zeroing in on Sudan's president Omar Hassan al-Bashir and the ICC arrest warrant and the consequences for the country of Sudan. It is an exhausting amount of work to finally bring this sucker down, I'll tell you.

Again, thank you for the tip on 'Old Abe and Henry'.