At Friday night’s Salon at the Providence Athenaeum, local historian Thom Bassett presented “The Flawed Emancipator: Lincoln, Race, and Narratives of Freedom.”
Bassett, who teaches at Bryant University and writes for the New York Times’ “Disunion” series on the Civil War, challenged what he views as overly-admiring depictions of Lincoln, such as that in Steven Spielberg’s 2012 movie. According to Bassett, the film reinforced a popular (but highly misleading) image of Lincoln as committed to full legal and civic equality (in its 21st-century meaning) for African-Americans.
In his talk, Bassett described three incidents showing a morally complex Lincoln, who, even while promoting the end of slavery, opposed full integration of free blacks into American society.
First, Bassett described Lincoln’s active promotion of “colonization,” a movement to resettle freed slaves outside the United States. In mid-1862, even as he prepared the Emancipation Proclamation, he negotiated with European powers for resettlement of blacks in their colonies, and signed resettlement contracts with private companies. Lincoln’s correspondence indicates, to Bassett, that he had difficulty envisioning blacks having a full and equal role in post-slavery America.
Bassett’s second example related to negotiations during 1863-64 on readmitting Louisiana to the Union. Echoing sentiments from the 1858 Lincoln-Douglass debates, Lincoln argued that the state should offer voting rights only to those black men who were “very intelligent” or who had served in the U.S. Colored Troops. Lincoln actively worked to block Congress from mandating full voting rights and jury service in readmitted states.
Finally, Bassett noted that, contrary to the suggestions of some historians, Lincoln’s final speech in April 1865 shows that he maintained these positions to the end of his life. For Lincoln, preserving and rebuilding the Union – and regaining the trust of Southern whites – took precedence over rights for freed blacks. Despite this moral flaw, however, Bassett called Lincoln “our greatest President.”