Abraham Lincoln and White America (review)
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Abraham Lincoln and White America. By Brian R. Dirck. (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2012. Pp. xiii, 213. $29.95 cloth)

At the beginning of this book, the author lays out his mission— to investigate Abraham Lincoln's views concerning whiteness and white racial identity—and summarizes his broad conclusion that, while Lincoln might have done more to confront his own bigotry and that of other whites, his approach to such matters was nevertheless more enlightened than that displayed by most whites of his day. Confronted by the relative novelty of the field of whiteness studies, the paucity and dubiousness of many of the sources pertaining to the young Lincoln, and the insidious colorblindness inherent in the ethnic and racial identity of the majority group, Dirck sets himself no small challenge—but succeeds therein with aplomb.

Tracing Lincoln's intellectual development—through his few recorded encounters with African Americans, wherever such an opportunity presents itself—Dirck treats several early episodes more as vignettes for a discussion of notions of whiteness in the nineteenth-century United States and particularly in the lower Midwest. In the process, he strikes a rare balance between not putting too many words in Lincoln's mouth and yet making some very sound generalizations, always holding the reader's interest with an utterly compelling narrative style. Having set the scene, Dirck covers Lincoln's return to politics during the 1850s with the crucial observation that his sense of black otherness tended to the side of humorous disparagement rather than depiction of African Americans as monsters, in the manner of Stephen Douglas, and that, in private, the future president [End Page 599] denied that lighter skin, superior intellect, or economic interest could justify one man's enslavement of another, thus challenging some of the foundations of antebellum whiteness—at least, at an abstract level. Moving into the war years, Dirck's Lincoln is essentially, but also rather necessarily, deferential to the limitations of what white opinion—or what he understands white opinion to be—will accept, framing emancipation and black recruitment in such terms, but also evincing a burgeoning and rather eloquent impatience with the most lurid white racial fears from mid-1864.

Although the first half of the book establishes Dirck's firm grasp of broader notions of whiteness, it is his treatment of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War years that really stands out. The author's main contribution is to posit Lincoln's "progression on racial matters as a kind of two-track approach—one track being his attitudes toward African-Americans, the other toward his fellow whites" (p. 164). This is a fruitful distinction: however much we all agree in principle that we should place Abraham Lincoln squarely in the context of the attitudes of his age, our apparent need to treat his thoughts, words, and deeds toward slavery and African Americans as a singular trajectory, of personal moral growth or stagnation over time, proves a vexingly recurrent one, easier identified in others' work than eliminated in our own. Dirck's willingness to separate Lincoln's attitudes toward whiteness and blackness—though tempered by a wise, countervailing exposition of those instances where they came closer to constituting two halves of the same walnut—means that Lincoln and White America is bracingly devoid of false dichotomies and glibly presumed connections. The author's Lincoln keeps a close eye on white opinion but is also inextricably a part of it; sometimes seeks to change white sentiment, but hardly makes that his personal mission; probably treats most African Americans courteously and compassionately to their face throughout his life, without that somehow influencing his understanding of wider racial questions; and continues to quietly entertain colonization after the Emancipation Proclamation, on account of both personal misgivings and an uncertainty about other [End Page 600] whites' behavior toward African Americans.

By way of conclusion, Dirck suggests that despite Lincoln's growing harshness towards the most extreme expressions of white racism by the end of the war—as he defended emancipation and black recruitment, as well as coming out for full abolition—he had nonetheless progressed further in his attitudes toward African Americans, however tentative his...