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The Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C. (© Natural Selection Chris Pinchbeck / Design Pics / Corbis)

Lincoln's Contested Legacy

Great Emancipator or unreconstructed racist? Each generation evokes a different Lincoln. But who was our sixteenth president?

From the time of his death in 1865 to the 200th anniversary of his birth, February 12, 2009, there has never been a decade in which Abraham Lincoln's influence has not been felt. Yet it has not been a smooth, unfolding history, but a jagged narrative filled with contention and revisionism. Lincoln's legacy has shifted again and again as different groups have interpreted him. Northerners and Southerners, blacks and whites, East Coast elites and prairie Westerners, liberals and conservatives, the religious and secular, scholars and popularizers—all have recalled a sometimes startlingly different Lincoln. He has been lifted up by both sides of the Temperance Movement; invoked for and against federal intervention in the economy; heralded by anti-communists, such as Senator Joseph McCarthy, and by American communists, such as those who joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the fight against the fascist Spanish government in the 1930s. Lincoln has been used to justify support for and against incursions on civil liberties, and has been proclaimed both a true and a false friend to African-Americans. Was he at heart a "progressive man" whose death was an "unspeakable calamity" for African-Americans, as Frederick Douglass insisted in 1865? Or was he "the embodiment...of the American Tradition of racism," as African-American writer Lerone Bennett Jr. sought to document in a 2000 book?

It is often argued that Lincoln's abiding reputation is the result of his martyrdom. And certainly the assassination, occurring as it did on Good Friday, propelled him into reverential heights. Speaking at a commemoration at the Athenaeum Club in New York City on April 18, 1865, three days after Lincoln died, Parke Godwin, editor of the Evening Post, summed up the prevailing mood. "No loss has been comparable to his," Godwin said. "Never in human history has there been so universal, so spontaneous, so profound an expression of a nation's bereavement." He was the first American president to be assassinated, and waves of grief touched every type of neighborhood and every class—at least in the North. But the shock at the murder explains only part of the tidal wave of mourning. It is hard to imagine that the assassination of James Buchanan or Franklin Pierce would have had the same impact on the national psyche. The level of grief reflected who Lincoln was and what he had come to represent. "Through all his public function," Godwin said, "there shone the fact that he was a wise and good man.... [He was] our supremest leader—our safest counsellor—our wisest friend—our dear father."

Not everyone agreed. Northern Democrats had been deeply opposed to Lincoln's wartime suspension of habeas corpus, which led to the imprisonment without trial of thousands of suspected traitors and war protesters. Though Lincoln had taken care to proceed constitutionally and with restraint, his opponents decried his "tyrannical" rule. But in the wake of the assassination even his critics were silent.

Across much of the South, of course, Lincoln was hated, even in death. Though Robert E. Lee and many Southerners expressed regret over the murder, others saw it as an act of Providence, and cast John Wilkes Booth as the bold slayer of an American tyrant. "All honor to J. Wilkes Booth," wrote Southern diarist Kate Stone (referring as well to the simultaneous, though not fatal, attack on Secretary of State William Seward): "What torrents of blood Lincoln has caused to flow, and how Seward has aided him in his bloody work. I cannot be sorry for their fate. They deserve it. They have reaped their just reward."

Four years after Lincoln's death, Massachusetts journalist Russell Conwell found widespread, lingering bitterness toward Lincoln in the ten former Confederate states that Conwell visited. "Portraits of Jeff Davis and Lee hang in all their parlors, decorated with Confederate flags," he wrote. "Photographs of Wilkes Booth, with the last words of great martyrs printed upon its borders; effigies of Abraham Lincoln hanging by the neck...adorn their drawing rooms." The Rebellion here "seems not to be dead yet," Conwell concluded.

For their part, African-Americans' pangs of loss were tinged with fear for their future. Few promoted Lincoln's legacy more passionately than critic-turned-admirer Frederick Douglass, whose frustration at the presidency of Andrew Johnson kept growing. Lincoln was "a progressive man, a human man, an honorable man, and at heart an antislavery man," Douglass wrote in December 1865. "I assume...had Abraham Lincoln been spared to see this day, the negro of the South would have had more hope of enfranchisement." Ten years later, at the dedication of the Freedmen's Memorial in Washington, D.C., Douglass seemed to recant these words, calling Lincoln "preeminently the white man's President" and American blacks "at best only his step-children." But Douglass' purpose that day was to puncture the sentimentality of the occasion and to criticize the government's abandonment of Reconstruction. And in the final decades of his long life Douglass repeatedly invoked Lincoln as having embodied the spirit of racial progress.

Douglass' worries about America proved prophetic. By the 1890s, with the failure of Reconstruction and the advent of Jim Crow, Lincoln's legacy of emancipation lay in ruins. Regional reconciliation—the healing of the rift between North and South—had supplanted the nation's commitment to civil rights. In 1895, at a gathering of Union and Confederate soldiers in Chicago, the topics of slavery and race were set aside in favor of a focus on North-South reconciliation. As the 1909 centennial of Lincoln's birth approached, race relations in the country were reaching a nadir.

In August 1908, riots broke out in Lincoln's hometown of Springfield, Illinois, after a white woman, Mabel Hallam, claimed she had been raped by a local black man, George Richardson. (She later admitted to making up the story.) On Friday, August 14, two thousand white men and boys began to attack African-Americans and set fire to black businesses. "Lincoln freed you," rioters were heard to yell. "We'll show you where you belong." The next night, the mob approached the shop of William Donnegan, a 79-year-old African-American shoemaker who had made boots for Lincoln and at whose brother's barbershop Lincoln used to mingle with African-Americans. Setting fire to Donnegan's shop, the mob dragged the old man outside and pelted him with bricks, then slashed his throat. Still alive, he was dragged across the street into a school courtyard. There, not far from a statue of Abraham Lincoln, he was hoisted up a tree and left to die.

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