Few images in American history are as durable as Abraham Lincoln the Great Emancipator. But recently his reputation as an icon of racial equality has been called into question. In 2000 Lerone Bennett published Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream, a polemic that assaulted nearly every aspect of Lincoln’s Great Emancipator image. Three years later, Thomas DiLorenzo published The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War, in which he argued that Lincoln’s emancipation policies were a morally empty cover for the hidden purpose of vastly expanding the federal government’s size and power.
Few Civil War scholars take Bennett or DiLorenzo seriously, pointing to their narrow political agendas and faulty research. But their arguments do seem to have made inroads into the general public. While Lincoln’s good standing among most Americans as a defender of racial equality and freedom remains intact, it would be fair to suggest that, in some quarters at least, his reputation on that score is ambivalent—more so perhaps than at any time since his death.
But if there ever was a tide of opinion running against Lincoln the Great Emancipator, that may now be turning. Three new books have appeared that all, to some extent, defend Lincoln as a liberator of slaves. [End Page 382]
Of the three, Richard Striner’s Father Abraham is the most unabashedly sympathetic toward Lincoln. Providing a broad survey of Lincoln’s political career from the 1850s through the Civil War, Striner sees in his rhetoric and his policies an ongoing and palpable moral revulsion at the peculiar institution, and consistent efforts to end its existence as soon as possible. “Lincoln was a masterful antislavery leader,” Striner writes, and “a moral visionary . . . blessed with extraordinary talent in the orchestration of power” (1). Indeed, he believes, Lincoln wanted to become president precisely for the purpose of ending slavery: “He aspired to be America’s executive commander of the free in their greatest ordeal” (33).
Striner disdains many of the stock arguments often employed in Lincoln’s favor to explain perceived shortcomings and limitations in his record. For example, some scholars argue that Lincoln was a latecomer to the emancipation cause, developing a sense of moral duty to end slavery only in the last years of the war. Striner will have none of this. “He was quiet on the issue of slavery” in his early years, Striner admits. But “within him were tremendous reserves of audacity, and a powerful capacity for outrage. These qualities emerged full-blown after many years of reflection” (28).
Other historians draw a careful distinction between Lincoln’s private antislavery principles and the pressures of a public political career that limited what he could accomplish. But Striner sees little distinction between the private and public Lincoln. “The ethics and tricky maneuverings of Lincoln were essentially harmonious” in his quest to eradicate slavery, according to Striner; as “an ethicist, Lincoln was also an artist in the Machiavellian uses of power” (2). This included at times the employment of “clever ambiguities” and “qualifying language” to appear quiescent to the white supremacy of his day (61). But always, Striner suggests, Lincoln employed his various stratagems for the long-term moral goal of ending American slavery.
Where Striner highlights Lincoln’s personal moral fervor to free the slaves, Burrus Carnahan in Act of Justice addresses emancipation’s legal circumstances. Carnahan points out that freeing the slaves involved the president in legal and constitutional issues far more complex than his critics (then and now) seemed to have realized. There was, for example, the difficult matter of the possible monetary liability of Union officers who set slaves free. Conflicting state and...