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"Evolution" of the Great Emancipator?

A couple of days before Christmas, the January/February issue of History Channel Magazine arrived in the mail. It contained one of the sorriest examples of "scholarship" that these old eyes have ever had the misfortune to have encountered. Ever.

The article, entitled "Evolution of the Great Emancipator," was written by Edna Greene Medford, PhD, professor and chairperson of the Department of History at Howard University. If this article is Ms. Medford's idea of what should be taught as history, one must wonder how the lady got the position. It is a prime example of exactly what is wrong with our educational system.

Ms. Medford thinks that the image of Abraham Lincoln is somehow "diminished by the realities of his life." She makes her case, however, by commiting the cardinal sin, anathema to the professional historian. While the writer does not profess to be a professional historian, he at least knows that Mr. Lincoln, who lived in the 19th century, cannot be magically transported into the 21st century. His values and perspectives were of his time, and only through their prism can Mr. Lincoln be fairly estimated.

It isn't Ms. Medford's job to bring Mr. Lincoln into her time, to superimpose the values and perspectives of the 21st century upon him, but rather the reverse. She is supposed to put herself in Mr. Lincoln's shoes, to see what he saw, understand how he felt about it and why he acted as he did. Instead, she only proves that hindsight is something less than 20-20. A lot less in her case.

What's Ms. Medford's beef? Why does she contend that, "A century and a half later, regard for Lincoln among African Americans is less effusive and certain?"

The answer is that Mr. Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation "reluctantly." Well, duuhhhh!

Of course he was reluctant. Mr. Lincoln's stated aim, from a to z, was to preserve the union. He'd said so repeatedly. After an editorial entitled "The Prayer of Twenty Millions" was published in the New York Tribune, Mr. Lincoln wrote a letter to Tribune editor, Horace Greeley, who thought that the administration lacked "direction and resolve."

"I would save the union," Lincoln wrote. He went on to call saving the union his "paramount object," and declared that he was not out to either save or destroy slavery. "If I could save the union without freeing any slave, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that."

The man had sworn an oath to "preserve, protect, and defend" the United States Constitution - meaning all of it. Unlike Eric Holder, Mr. Lincoln didn't believe in selective enforcement. At that time, the Constitution recognized the validity of the institution of slavery, and so too did he. It mattered not that Mr. Lincoln was a Republican or that his party had been formed in opposition to slavery.

But eleven states concluded that Mr. Lincoln's election meant the end of slavery and their way of life. To make a long story short, they seceded from the union and formed the Confederate States of America in response to Mr. Lincoln's election. Lincoln's inital call for 75,000 volunteers was issued for the purpose of putting down that "rebellion," i.e. to return those states to the union. The result, as most of us know, was America's Civil War.

To issue an executive order which abolished the "peculiar institution," was an unprecedented act not to be taken lightly. To begin with, the war was going badly. People wanted it over with. Casualty rates were catastrophic. Union forces had surrendered at Ft. Sumter, been defeated not once, but twice in major battles at Bull Run, and in minor ones like Ball's Bluff. General George McClellan's Peninsular Campaign had failed and his Army of the Potomac driven out of Virginia with its tail between its legs. The recent disaster at Fredericksburg was still in the headlines.

Only at Antietam had the Confederate forces been turned back, and the result of that battle was a technical draw. Yet, Mr. Lincoln siezed the opportunity to transform the war from an argument over state's rights into a battle for freedom. It may indeed be said that Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation marked the political turning point in the war, as did Gettysburg on the battlefield. Costly Union defeats like Chancellorsville and Chickamauga were months in the future. Victory was an elusive dream. Mr. Lincoln was risking all on one throw of the dice.

If the Confederates had won, Abraham Lincoln might well have ended his days swinging at the end of a rope for inciting slave insurrection. That thought might have kept him awake on many a night.

Ms. Medford glosses over the 13th Amendment which outlawed slavery, the 1866 Civil Rights Law, and the 14th Amendment which granted citizenship and the elective franchise to former slaves - all Republican initiatives which drew lukewarm support at best from pro-slavery Democrats. She says that blacks' loyalty to the Republican party "did not decline substantially until the 1930s, when Republicans began courting the South with its commitment to segregation and white supremacy." Huh?

Does she mean to imply that 1930s Republicans wooed the South in order to keep Jim Crow on his throne? Were they trying to set up concession stands at Ku Klux Klan rallies? Stuff and nonsense. They were after the necessary votes needed to change the staus quo throughout the South. Republicans, in point of fact, fought against Jim Crow and the KKK. The Democrats, on the other hand, elected them to Congress where many of them voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Ms. Medford is certainly entitled to her opinion, but it is her opinion and she has no right to teach it as dogma etched in stone. If that's what is going on at our institutions of higher learning, and there is little doubt that it is, it has to stop. History is fact. It's what happened. Speculation is fine, as long as it's recognized not as history, but what might have happened if x had taken place a few minutes earlier.

The lesson that history teaches is that those who do not read it and pay attention to the facts that it presents are doomed to repeat its mistakes. Ms. Medford may have researched the life of Abraham Lincoln and the process that led to the Emancipation Proclamation. She unquestionably knows about prejudice, Jim Crow, and the KKK. The first was, and remains, beyond the power of Mr. Lincoln or any single human being to abolish. The last two came into existence long after Mr. Lincoln was cold in his grave.

How can Abraham Lincoln's image ever be "diminished?" He was a man who opposed the injustice of slavery all his life and had the courage to say so. Not only did he say that slavery was evil, he actually did something about it, "reluctantly" or not. In the end, it cost him his life.

The Emancipation Proclamation was but the first baby step in a long process. It put freed slaves on the road to freedom. Without Mr. Lincoln's executive order, which in fact freed not one slave in the Confederate states, Ms. Medford might not be where she is today. Nor, for that matter, would the other ingrate who currently occupies the White House. One would think that an academic would extol the memory of Abraham Lincoln and be grateful for his concrete action rather than suspect his motive.

One would think...


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