- Lincoln’s Dilemma: Blair, Sumner, and the Republican Struggle over Racism and Equality in the Civil War Era by Paul D. Escott
With the publication of Lincoln’s Dilemma: Blair, Sumner, and the Republican Struggle over Racism and Equality in the Civil War Era, Paul D. Escott enhances his reputation as a leading authority on the racial worldviews of mid-nineteenth-century Americans as they sought to give meaning to the revolutionary changes occasioned by civil war. In particular, Escott offers a valuable contribution to the massive literature on Abraham Lincoln’s complicated attitudes toward race and slavery, posing fresh interpretations to a well-trod scholarly landscape. Although his previous book, “What Shall We Do with the Negro?” Lincoln, White Racism, and Civil War America (2009), painted the [End Page 95] so-called Great Emancipator as a blunt racist, Lincoln’s Dilemma offers a deeply nuanced portrait of the sixteenth president’s effort to grasp the stark implications of black emancipation in a white republic.
Escott places Lincoln within the context of two of his foremost contemporary influences, Montgomery Blair and Charles Sumner, who tugged the president in conflicting directions on emancipation and its uncertain aftermath. Escott not only tells a story about the Republican Party’s internecine battles over transformative policies, but he also deems the Civil War era a failure in definitively reconciling the United States’ longstanding aversion to racial equality. Thus, Escott engages a recurring theme: in a period marked by swift, turbulent change, American racism remained a guiding constant in national thought and act. The war presented an opportunity, Escott suggests, for white Americans, from Lincoln to the common citizen, to conquer the national—not merely southern—tradition of racial discrimination. Although the war shattered slavery, the notion that “the challenge of equality defeated white Americans in the Civil War era” was embodied most vividly in the transition from war to reunion (xi).
Escott is at his strongest when unpacking the Republican Party’s tangled coalitions and competing ideas about race and slavery. Although he accepts the premise that Republicans stood united on preserving the nation, Escott also reveals a party divided on what the aftermath of a war-torn Union, saved in large part through emancipation, would resemble. Escott positions Blair and Sumner as representative figures in this debate because “their differences on race reflected both the spectrum of opinion and the basic disagreement within the Republican Party” (ix). Both men harbored committed antislavery principles, yet conservative Republicans echoed Blair’s preference for colonization and a white republic, while Sumner personified liberal Republicans’ quest for a biracial democracy. Lincoln rested in the middle, often sympathizing with Blair and proposing conservative wartime initiatives that failed to link emancipation with equality. Escott, however, takes seriously the transformative power of military events, arguing that the war inspired the kind of change that nudged Lincoln closer to Sumner’s views. By the end of the conflict, Lincoln began linking the idea of Union with limited notions of racial egalitarianism, the fruition of which was terminated by an assassin’s bullet.
Lincoln’s murder forms a central element in Escott’s analysis. While he uses Blair and Sumner as representatives of the white North’s range of racial opinions, he paints John Wilkes Booth as the embodiment of American violence and racial hatred, a reactionary who associated moderate antislavery politics with rabid moves toward racial equality. Booth imagined that Lincoln endorsed both elements, posing a fundamental threat to a white man’s nation. But Booth, according to Escott, was not an exception to racist thought, instead representing the mainstream of American racism. Escott suggests that Booth embodied the South’s vicious defense of slavery, [End Page 96] while also violently resisting any change to the racial status quo in the North. Booth symbolized the Civil War era’s strain of racial hatred, which spawned varying episodes of violence—including violence against the enslaved, violence against Charles Sumner, the...