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Forced into Glory

“Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream”

by Lerone Bennett Jr.           Johnson Publishing, Chicago. 2000

 

I have maintained an interest in the Civil War period of American history since I first borrowed from the local library, Catton’s three-volume centennial history back in the late 1960’s. I purchased “Forced into Glory” on the strength of a cable interview with Lerone Bennett Jr. conducted by Brian Lamb, American journalist and the founder, executive chairman, and now retired CEO of C-SPAN. Bennett came across as passionate, measured, and convinced me that what he was saying about the mythology surrounding the 16th president was worth investigating.

In the 600+ pages which are scrupulously footnoted with references from Lincoln’s speeches and contemporary sources, Bennett lays out four major themes.

1] the Emancipation Proclamation did not free black people. And it’s doubtful, because of the exclusion causes contained therein relating to territories actually under Union control, if it ever freed anybody anywhere, and that “Abraham Lincoln was not the Great Emancipator or the small emancipator or even the medium-sized emancipator. ”

2] Lincoln was a racist. “He used the N-word habitually, loved darky jokes and black-face shows, and said repeatedly in Illinois and elsewhere that he was opposed to black people voting, sitting on juries, intermarrying with white people and holding office.” ie: blacks were undeserving of citizenship.

3] Lincoln’s deepest desire was to deport all black people and create an all-white nation by instigating a programme of colonisation. In the State of the Union message on December 1st, 1862, he asked Congress to pass three constitutional amendments: one, to buy the slaves; second, to declare free all people who’d actually escaped; and the third one, his proposed 15th Amendment, asked Congress to allocate money to deport black people abroad, to Africa, Central America or Haiti.This measure was borne of a deep ‘miscegenation anxiety’. Biological mixing of the races filled Lincoln with a profound disgust.

4]Lincoln was an equivocating, vacillating leader who prolonged the war, delayed emancipation and increased the number of casualties. If Lincoln had not spent two years appeasing Kentucky [a border slave state teetering on the verge of seccession], if he had had the moral courage to mobilize 400,000 black soldiers by issuing an emancipation order giving the soldiers freedom,” I think the Civil War would have been over two years, three years at most ….Until the capture of Atlanta and the nomination by the Democrats of General McClellan on a proslavery peace ticket late in 1864, almost all members of Lincoln’s party thought he was a disaster as a president. And most of them were looking for some alternative candidate. Almost all members of the Washington power structure at that time said he lacked will, he lacked the resolution, he lacked vision and that he was prolonging the war by his inadequacies. ”

These are the historical arguments of the book. Evidence from the contemporary sources provides a sturdy superstructure to support these theses. If history was simply the weighing of evidence, perhaps this book would be merely commendable. However,across the work looms the shadow of what Bennett calls “the Lincoln Industry”;   formed of academics, politicians of all parties and a media eager to feed a population with a positive image of America through the image of a “Great Emancipator”. On page 114, Bennett writes, “Lincoln transcends the rules of logic and evidence, even in the academy. Barbara Burns Petrick said in the New York times on February 9th 1986 that Lincoln is such a god that the rules of evidence do not apply to him.” There is much actual evidence for this view. Take the example of the [in]famous “Charleston speech”.

“I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race..”

Lincoln while debating Douglas in the fourth debate, Charleston, Illinois: September 18, 1858

These views expressed publicly are always seen as a stumbling block for Lincoln apologists.They argue that it was simply a political gambit to secure purchase from a racist audience in a border state. In doing so,

a] they knowingly surrender any notion of moral principles to political expediency, and

b] they ignore the fact that Lincoln was quite happy to quote these words subsequently and repeatedly to other audiences of a different temperament, in different locations.

They thereby sidestep the obvious because it is too painful and damaging to contemplate; that the words uttered at Charleston are only a stumbling block if one is arguing that Lincoln had an enlightened attitude to the black race. The speech is utterly logical if supremacist views are ascribed to his character. The evidence for such racism is there if one wishes to reveal it:

Lincoln voted for Jim Crow legislation and the Black Laws in the Illinois Legislature.

Lincoln said there was a natural disgust in the minds of nearly all white people about black and white sex.

Lincoln supported the Fugitive Slave act which sent runaway blacks to their masters to continued servitude, if not corporal [and occasional capital] punishment..

“Lincoln transcends the rules of logic and evidence”. Indeed.

Does any of this matter? If Lincoln has been distorted by history for the higher purposes of symbolism for a great cause, is that not for a greater social good? As Brian Lamb in his interview phrases it: “You hear White Americans both Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives putting their arms around Abraham Lincoln. If they think he did a good thing and they are supporting him because they think he freed the slaves, what advantage is it to this discussion if, in the end, you’re successful in pulling the rug out from under them?”

The author’s first response is unequivocal, and rightly so.

“The truth is its own defense and is absolutely necessary.” This is the creed of the historian.

His second response reveals another major thread running through the text. This is not a work skewed to express ‘Black Power’ objectives. Bennett is very clear on this point. The consensus view is that Lincoln expressed racist views because all white people in the 19th century were racist. “I disagree with that and I defend white people in 19th century. I think it’s absurd to say that everybody white in the 19th century was a racist.” He recommends that schools and colleges place Lincoln in the actual context of his more enlightened contemporaries and that it is they whose lives should be studied: Phillips, Thaddeus Stephens, Charles Sumner, Lyman Trumbull. “All white men. They tell me everybody was a racist then. These men were 100 years ahead of Abraham Lincoln in terms of their understanding of democracy and racial equality in this country.”…. “We ought to teach young white children Wendell Phillips’ name, who said, -and 94 years before King, 133 years before Mandela, that he wanted to create a rainbow nation composed of the learned and the ignorant, the old and the young, the black and the white, pagan, Christian, Jew–all in one great procession marching toward a rainbow land.” If the education system revised their curriculum,at the very least, the gullible movie-going public would not accept the retrogressive old syruppy hokum dished up by Spielberg in his lamentable “Lincoln”, and passed off as ‘history’.

The establishment’s reaction to ‘Forced into Glory’ indicates just how significant this book may be. The Washington Post or The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal  all failed to review the book. Apparently it was unavailable for sale in certain bookstores and copies could not even be obtained through direct contact with distributors. Neither the Abraham Lincoln Association, which meets in Springfield, or the Lincoln Forum, which meets up in Gettysburg every year, have ever invited Bennett to speak. “There ought to be a dialogue between academic people, the Lincoln establishment, as I say, and other people who have a different vision of Lincoln.”

 

If you are even remotely interested in obtaining ‘a different vision’ of the Civil War president, “Forced into Glory” is the book to read. It is a significant achievement against which all future monographs on Lincoln, written by both white and black historians will be measured. I urge anyone with even a passing interest in American history to seek out a copy of this book.

 

“Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream”

by Lerone Bennett Jr.           Johnson Publishing, Chicago. 2000

 

Brian Lamb’s CSPAN Booknotes interview with the author can be viewed at                                         http://www.c-span.org/video/?158187-1/book-discussion-forced-glory

 

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