Lincoln on Race and Slavery (review)
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Lincoln on Race and Slavery. Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009. Pp. x, 343. $25.95 cloth)

"One of the most striking conclusions that a close reading of Lincoln's speeches and writings yielded to me was that 'slavery,' 'race' and 'colonization,' were quite often three separate issues for him" (p. xx). Henry Louis Gates Jr. first noticed this counterintuitive division of ostensibly interconnected subjects while assembling this short collection of Lincoln documents on slavery. While the reader [End Page 408] will appreciate the resultant single-volume reference that Lincoln on Race & Slavery provides, its true scholarly contribution is found in its provocative introductory essay. Here Gates attempts to make sense of Abraham Lincoln's lifelong antislavery convictions amidst the troublesome evidence of racial beliefs and policies that, at times, fell short of his reputation in popular memory.

Lincoln "shared the prejudices of his white fellow-countrymen," to quote Frederick Douglass, and much evidence bears this out. The modern reader justly cringes at Lincoln's famous 1858 Senate debates in which he disavowed "the social and political equality of the white and black races." The colonization of freed slaves abroad proves even thornier as it carries this faulty premise of racial separation into action, a scheme Lincoln entertained at several points in his presidency. Yet, as Douglass continued, in Lincoln's "heart of hearts he loathed and hated slavery"; this was a singular, recurring, and unwavering conviction from his earliest-known writings on the subject in 1837 until his final act of emancipation in 1863 and murder two years later.

Seeking to disentangle these three intertwined dimensions of Lincoln's thought, Gates offers a gentle nudge to historians: we do not need a perfectly consistent Lincoln, reinvented "as a race-relations patron saint, outside of his time and place," because the brilliant and endearing, yet complicated, flawed, and even contradictory Lincoln, revealed in his words and actions, is a far more interesting subject (p. xxxvi). Gates approaches this subject judiciously, revealing in Lincoln's drive toward emancipation, done pragmatically and even ploddingly by abolitionist standards, a deeply felt personal conviction that slavery violated nature itself. He also recognizes genuine personal growth in Lincoln's racial views, particularly toward black soldiers on the battlefield, while remaining cognizant of its limitations. Nor should we reasonably expect a perfect egalitarian to emerge from Lincoln's unfinished presidency, ironically cut short for the very reason of his tepid yet transformative endorsement of suffrage for black soldiers, "as Booth himself confessed" (p. xlix). [End Page 409]

Gates's treatment of colonization merits additional mention, as both the recurring focus of his attention and for the controversy it invites. Indeed, it has already become a point of detraction for the essay in some quarters, with Sean Wilentz (2009) recently chiding what he deems "a wild goose chase" for colonization in the final two years of Lincoln's presidency. Lincoln's hypothesized rejection of colonization following the Emancipation Proclamation evokes a sense of consistency with his antislavery legacy, but did such a shift actually happen? The evidence is far less certain than Gates's critics admit.

It is true that Lincoln ceased to promote colonization in his public speeches after January 1, 1863, yet most historians have missed the mark by reading its demise into emancipation. Rather, Lincoln turned his energy to diplomatic backchannels, likely seeking to escape the political controversy—and unscrupulous speculators—the schemes seemed to attract. He pitched colonization to Lord Lyons, the British minister, only three weeks after the Proclamation. For at least another year he actively pursued resettlement projects—not only Haiti but also British Honduras, Guiana, and Suriname. This alone suggests a need to revisit conventional wisdoms on colonization.

Gates avoids a final assessment on the status of colonization at Lincoln's death and duly weighs the pros and cons of later evidence, including Benjamin Butler's controversial report of a meeting on the subject at the White House in 1865. That he ultimately leaves the matter in speculative territory is hardly a fault though as Lincoln's bout with colonization remains underexplored, if not even politely overlooked. What political...