Special Report

Lincoln’s Contested Legacy

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

The Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C. (© Natural Selection Chris Pinchbeck / Design Pics / Corbis)
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In the decades since, the Lincoln Memorial has been the scene of many dramatic moments in history. A photograph of President Franklin D. Roosevelt taken at the memorial on February 12, 1938, shows him leaning against a military attaché, his hand on his heart. "I do not know which party Lincoln would belong to if he were alive," Roosevelt said two years later. "His sympathies and his motives of championship of humanity itself have made him for all centuries to come the legitimate property of all parties—of every man and woman and child in every part of our land." On April 9, 1939, after being denied the use of Constitution Hall in Washington because of her race, the great contralto Marian Anderson was invited to sing at the Lincoln Memorial. Seventy-five thousand people, black and white, gathered at the monument for an emotional concert that further linked Lincoln's memory to racial progress. Three years later, during the bleak days of World War II, when it seemed that the Allies might lose the war, Lincoln's memory served as a potent force of national encouragement. In July 1942, on an outdoor stage within view of the Lincoln Memorial, a powerful performance of Aaron Copland's "Lincoln Portrait" took place, with Carl Sandburg reading Lincoln's words, including "we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain."

In 1957, a 28-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. came to the Lincoln Memorial to help lead a protest for black voting rights. "The spirit of Lincoln still lives," he had proclaimed before the protest. Six years later, in 1963, he returned for the March on Washington. The August day was bright and sunny, and more than 200,000 people, black and white, converged on the Mall in front of the Lincoln Memorial. King's speech called Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation "a beacon of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been scarred in the flame of withering injustice." But it was not enough, he went on, simply to glorify the past. "One hundred years later we must face the tragic fact the Negro is still not free....is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chain of discrimination." And then he told the enraptured crowd, "I have a dream." Author and New York Times book critic Richard Bernstein later called King's words "the single most important piece of American oratory since Lincoln's Gettysburg Address."

Just three months after the speech, President John F. Kennedy would be assassinated, ushering in a period of national grief not unlike that after Lincoln's murder. Also echoing the previous century, Kennedy's efforts to advance civil rights had prompted some to mourn him as the "second emancipator." A. Philip Randolph, who had organized the March on Washington, declared that the time had come to complete "this unfinished business of American democracy for which two presidents have died."

To address a profound need for national healing and unity, JFK's widow, Jacqueline Kennedy—in consultation with other family members and official planners—decided to model her slain husband's funeral upon Lincoln's. The president's casket was laid in state inside the White House East Room, and was later taken to the Great Rotunda of the Capitol and rested upon the catafalque used at Lincoln's funeral. On their final procession to Arlington National Cemetery, the funeral cars passed reverently by the Lincoln Memorial. One of the most poignant images from that era was a political cartoon drawn by Bill Mauldin, depicting the statue of Lincoln bent over in grief.

In the nearly half century since, Lincoln's reputation has been under assault from various quarters. Malcolm X broke with the long tradition of African-American admiration for Lincoln, saying in 1964 that he had done "more to trick Negroes than any other man in history." In 1968, pointing to clear examples of Lincoln's racial prejudice, Lerone Bennett Jr. asked in Ebony magazine, "Was Abe Lincoln a White Supremacist?" (His answer: yes.) The 1960s and '70s were a period in which icons of all kinds—especially great leaders of the past—were being smashed, and Lincoln was no exception. Old arguments surfaced that he had never really cared about emancipation, that he was at heart a political opportunist. States' rights libertarians criticized his aggressive handling of the Civil War, his assaults on civil liberties and his aggrandizing of federal government.

In particular, the Nixon administration's perceived abuse of executive power during the Vietnam War prompted unflattering comparisons with Lincoln's wartime measures. Some scholars, however, rejected such comparisons, noting that Lincoln reluctantly did what he thought necessary to preserve the Constitution and the nation. Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., for one, wrote in 1973 that since the Vietnam War didn't rise to the same level of national crisis, Nixon "has sought to establish as a normal Presidential power what previous Presidents had regarded as power justified only by extreme emergencies. . . . He does not, like Lincoln, confess to doubt about the legality of his course."

Decades later, another war would again bring Lincoln's legacy to the fore. Shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush addressed Congress with words evocative of Lincoln's comments at the outset of the Civil War: "The course of this conflict is not known," Bush said, "yet its outcome is certain. Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them." As in the Vietnam era, subsequent controversies over the White House's conduct of the war on terror—such as the use of secret wiretapping and the detention of "enemy combatants" without trial—provoked another round of debates over presidential powers and the precedents created by Lincoln.

Despite such lingering controversies, Lincoln has consistently polled as one of the three greatest U.S. presidents, along with George Washington and Franklin D. Roosevelt. And though many African-Americans lost their veneration for him over the decades, recent statements by President Barack Obama and others suggest renewed appreciation. It was black Americans, after all, who refused to give up on Lincoln's emancipationist legacy even when American whites wanted to forget it. And if Lincoln shared in the racial prejudice of his day, it is also true that his outlook grew significantly over the years of his presidency. He was "the first great man that I talked with in the United States freely," Frederick Douglass wrote, "who in no single instance reminded me of the difference between himself and myself, of the difference of color."


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