In Search of The Real Lincoln

Posted February 4, 2009 at 4:57pm

Once again, myth has hidden the reality of a historical figure considered important to the American identity. In the midst of celebrating Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. will show Americans that the Lincoln they know and love was, to say the least, far more complex than many realize.

Gates hosts a two-hour PBS documentary, “Looking for Lincoln,” which will air Wednesday, on the eve of Lincoln’s birthday. In the documentary, Gates discovers that the Lincoln whom he and the African-American community idolized as the Great Emancipator did not truly earn that title.

Scholars, historians and Gates’ own research on Lincoln’s speeches show a man who was uncertain about race and its place in society. While he supported abolition, it was primarily for economic reasons. Lincoln argued it was unfair that a rich white man had slaves to tend to his fields and a poor white man had only his two hands. Lincoln also said slavery was against human nature because man was to gather the fruits of his own labor.

Gates also learns that the Emancipation Proclamation resulted from a war effort, not from Lincoln’s feelings that slaves should be freed. Lincoln knew that slavery was the largest economic advantage the South had. By setting the slaves free, he would not only destroy the South’s economy, but also strengthen the North’s army, which allowed slaves to join.

In his book, “Lincoln on Race & Slavery,” Gates writes that the concepts of slavery, race and the colonization of freed slaves in Africa were often three separate issues for Lincoln. While Lincoln did have some of the humanitarian qualities that he is credited for, he was concerned that blacks and whites couldn’t live in social harmony.

In a private screening for Members of Congress last month at the Motion Picture Association of America theater, Gates further explained Lincoln’s politics. Gates said that for much of his life, Lincoln didn’t really believe in immediate emancipation — he saw the process of ending slavery as one that would be much more gradual, perhaps over a century. And he believed the best solution for freed blacks was to deport them to Liberia or Haiti.

“He didn’t think American society would absorb them, particularly in the South,” Gates said. “And hello — he was right.”

This new view of Lincoln contrasts sharply with his title as the Emancipator. The Emancipation Memorial in Lincoln Park on Capitol Hill portrays Lincoln as the Emancipator, and that title caused much controversy. Designed in 1876 and paid for by freed slaves, the statue shows Archer Alexander, the last slave captured under the Fugitive Slave Act, kneeling and holding his shackled arms toward Lincoln, who stands above him with the Emancipation Proclamation in his hand. Alexander’s degraded position causes some uneasiness to viewers. As one man said in the documentary, he would have Alexander and Lincoln standing at an equal level to show they are equals.

While Lincoln was not the man Americans were taught he was, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin tells Gates in the documentary that Lincoln was still a man who was ahead of the times. Goodwin explains that equality was a radical theme in Lincoln’s day, yet he hinted at it in debates. He also often met with Frederick Douglass, who was one of his greatest supporters and critics. While Lincoln didn’t reach out as much as he could toward the black community, he did considerably more than any president before him.

At the screening, Gates said he agreed with Kearns and explained what made Lincoln extraordinary. The fact that Lincoln did free the slaves — and by the end of his life even advocated to let some blacks vote — shows one of Lincoln’s best traits: his ability to undergo personal growth, Gates said.

In his book, Gates quotes American political activist W.E.B. DuBois: “As sinners, we like to imagine righteousness in our heroes. As a result, when a great man dies, we begin to whitewash him. We seek to forget all that was small and mean and unpleasant, and remember only the fine and brave and good. We slur over and explain away his inconsistencies until there appears before us, not the real man but the myth — immense, perfect, cold, and dead.”

“Looking for Lincoln” will air at 9 p.m. EST Wednesday on PBS.

Elizabeth Brotherton contributed to this report.