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Book Review by Edward Steers, Jr.Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln's White Dream
By Lerone Bennett, Jr.
Chicago: Johnson Publishing Company, 2000
Pp. 652, $35.00, ISBN 0-87485-085-1
This review, which appears here by permission, was published June 25, 2000 by the Sunday State-Journal Register of Springfield, Illinois. Author Ed Steers, who has written about Lincoln topics for many years, examines Lerone Bennett's controversial new book.
Great Emancipator or Grand Wizard?Lerone Bennett, Jr.'s recent book, Forced Into Glory, reminds me of a line by the Latin poet Ovid: "Well skilled in cunning wiles, he could make white of black and black of white." In his latest book, Mr. Bennett has worked hard at making "white of black and black of white." He has made the "Great Emancipator" into the "Great Enslaver" while accusing him of "ethnic cleansing." According to Bennett, "If Lincoln had had his way, there would be no Blacks in America. None." Lincoln's real purpose as president was not to free the slaves, but to prolong slavery until he could put a plan in place to deport all Blacks to a foreign shore. Bennett's writes: "[Lincoln] did everything he could to deport Blacks and to make America a Great White Place."
Sound strange? It is. But, to his credit, Mr. Bennett does not claim his book as history. He does not even claim it is historical biography. He describes it as a "political" history, and indeed it is -- a "politically correct" history. By selecting Lincoln's words carefully and placing his own interpretation on their meaning, Mr. Bennett is able to weave an ugly view of Abraham Lincoln that turns history on its ear and furthers the latest revisionist theory that the slaves freed themselves.
Bennett begins his book with the notion that Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation did not free a single slave and that Lincoln deliberately exempted slaves in those areas under Union control to keep slavery alive as long as possible. According to Bennett, Lincoln used his proclamation to forestall the liberating effects of the First and Second Confiscation Acts which Bennett believes would have freed the slaves before Lincoln interfered by issuing his ineffective proclamation. Behind this deliberate delay, is Lincoln's insidious scheme to deport Blacks.
Bennett is correct in concluding that the Emancipation Proclamation freed few if any slaves. But Bennett misses the point. The Declaration of Independence didn't free a single American. It took a war to do that. But the Declaration of Independence established the principle under which a war would be fought and freedom would be won. In a similar vein, the Emancipation Proclamation did not end slavery, but it established the principle under which the civil war would be fought and freedom would be won. The rows upon rows of white headstones throughout our National Cemeteries attest to this idea.
Bennett writes as if Abraham Lincoln held the power to abolish slavery at any time he chose. Bennett is wrong. Neither the President nor the Congress of the United States had the power to abolish slavery by executive order or by legislation. Slavery was protected by the Constitution and the only way to abolish the peculiar institution legally was by amending the Constitution. That, of course, happened in December 1865, and it happened because of Lincoln's political will.
As a prelude to amending the Constitution to abolish slavery, Lincoln decided to issue a proclamation declaring those slaves held within Confederate (enemy) territory "thenceforward and forever free." How could he do this if the Constitution protected slavery? He did it by turning to the war powers granted the President under the Constitution. These powers allow the Commander-in-Chief to take certain steps to hurt the enemy and lessen his ability to wage war.
Lincoln's proclamation did not free slaves in those areas under Union control because Lincoln had no Constitutional authority as president to free them. The Emancipation Proclamation's justification was as a military order designed to hurt the enemy, plain and simple. A careful reading of the Constitution as well as Lincoln's lengthy explanation of his action would have helped Mr. Bennett to understand this important point.
Lincoln's proclamation also called for the enlistment of Black men into the Union army, an enormous step toward lowering the bar on the road to equality. Bennett would have us believe that Lincoln did all of this against his will because he was "forced" to do so by idealistic abolitionists who came to control Lincoln. Thus Abraham Lincoln was "Forced Into Glory." Among such people were Thaddeus Stevens, Wendell Phillips and Charles Sumner.
These men, according to Bennett, had a greater ideal and higher moral force than Abraham Lincoln did when it came to ending slavery. Even if true, none of them were president and none of them stood the slightest chance of becoming president. Any one of the three could have issued a proclamation or declared slavery abolished and it wouldn't have amounted to a tinker's damn. Their political power was limited to whistling into the wind.
As to the Confiscation Act of 1862, like the Emancipation Proclamation, it didn't free many slaves and it wasn't likely to. This Act declared that the slaves of any citizen who actively supported the rebellion could be confiscated and set free. The catch, however, required such "liberation" to be adjudicated in the Federal courts, case by case. Because private property is protected under the Constitution, "confiscating" slaves had to be sanctioned by a court after a hearing. There were over 380,000 slave owners in the South and if each had his or her day in court we would still be trying cases while all other court business stood still. The courts would be clogged until sometime into the next century.
Slavery would end only through force: political and physical force, and Lincoln commanded both. When the United States House of Representatives failed to pass the Thirteenth Amendment in the summer of 1864, Lincoln rolled up his sleeves and began twisting a few arms. He instructed the chairman of the Republican Party to make sure the amendment was part of the party's platform. The Democratic platform was silent on the issue.
The fall elections would produce a new House that would guarantee passage in the next Congress. Lincoln didn't wait. He used his persuasive powers to convince thirteen Democrats who had voted against the amendment to change their votes. They did and the amendment passed in the lame duck House, gaining the necessary two-thirds majority. This was not the action of a president who sought to delay emancipation until he could arrange to deport all Blacks.
Bennett correctly points out that Lincoln was a supporter of colonization. But supporting colonization is not the same as preferring it. Lincoln believed it was one small answer to the larger problem confronting Blacks in a racist society. What the readers of Forced Into Glory should know is that Lincoln advocated voluntary colonization. No Black was forced to leave the country against his or her free will. Only those who wanted to leave were offered the opportunity. The great majority declined, a few did not.
In one instance, Lincoln had approved a contract with an unscrupulous contractor to set up a colony on the Ile de Vache off the coast of Haiti. When Lincoln learned that several hundred Blacks had been abandoned without proper support, he ordered the United States Navy to bring the Blacks back to the United States. If Lincoln's plan was to rid the country of Blacks by deportation, he showed poor judgement in returning those Blacks who had already been deported.
Whatever Lincoln believed in his heart regarding social equality, he believed slavery was morally wrong, and he said so on numerous occasions: "If slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong." His views were well known to southern leaders, which is why they rejected his presidency. When Confederate peace commissioners met at Hampton Roads in 1865, Lincoln was willing to entertain terms of peace and reunion, but only on the condition that slavery was not a negotiating point. Lincoln insisted that any peace proposal include ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery.
To help facilitate acceptance of peace with abolition, Lincoln proposed compensating southern slaveholders to the tune of 400 million dollars to free their slaves. Lincoln had earlier expressed these same views in a letter to Horace Greeley concerning "The Niagara Peace Conference" held in 1864. Lincoln wrote that any peace agreement must embrace "the abandonment of slavery." This position belies Bennett's claim that Lincoln was a white supremacist whose every effort was to prolong slavery until such time as all Blacks could be deported leaving a "lily-White America" -- Bennett's words.
Mr. Bennett's distortion of Lincoln's "racial" policy is not restricted to Blacks. An excellent example of Bennett's style of making "white of black and black of white" is his account of Lincoln's actions regarding the Sioux Indian uprising in Minnesota. In August 1862, hostilities broke out between the Sioux nation in Minnesota and settlers of that state. When the fighting ended, over 400 white settlers were dead. The army captured over 1,500 Indian prisoners, including 1,000 women and children. A military commission was set up to try those Indians accused of atrocities. In the end, 303 Indians were sentenced to hang. Lincoln objected to what he viewed as wholesale slaughter. He wired the commanding officer to stay the executions and forward the "full and complete record of each conviction." He also ordered that any material which would discriminate the most guilty from the least guilty be included with the trial transcripts.
Lincoln then sat down with his Justice Department lawyers and reviewed every case. Lincoln was under tremendous pressure to approve the executions both to intimidate the Indians and to satisfy the white settlers' thirst for revenge. Both the military leaders and the politicians in Minnesota warned Lincoln that anything less than large-scale hangings would result in outrage and more violence against the Indians. Lincoln held firm and pardoned 265 of the 303 condemned Indians, approving a total of 38 cases.
Mr. Bennett focuses only on the 38 and refers to Lincoln's decision as "hard-hearted," and as an example of Lincoln's "double standard" when it came to questions of race. Bennett writes that Lincoln "approved one of the largest mass executions in military history," suggesting that he was motivated to kill Indians because he never forgot that an Indian "sneaked up behind his grandfather and killed him while he was working in a field." Bennett stops short of calling Lincoln's act "ethnic cleansing." He saves that offensive term to describe Lincoln's colonization policy.
Mr. Bennett's revisionist approach to history is not new. What makes his latest work so sensational is not his revisionist approach, but his subject. Abraham Lincoln has become a universal symbol of human ideals. Toppling such an icon is not an easy task. Anyone who seeks to bring down Lincoln will have to do more than cry fraud. Putting dreams in Lincoln's head ("Lincoln dreamed of an all-White nation") or putting someone else's words in his mouth ("the n----- question") will not do the job. While it may titillate the few, it will not convince the many.
Throughout his 627 pages of text, Mr. Bennett does not seem to understand what Lincoln knew so well: Union victory meant the end to slavery. Lincoln didn't stop with abolition, however. In his speech from the White House balcony on April 11, 1865, Lincoln began moving the country forward in the only way that would insure success -- he advocated Negro suffrage in small, sure steps. No amount of drum beating by Mr. Bennett can diminish the revolutionary significance of this act.
While it is important to focus on what Abraham Lincoln did as opposed to what he said, it would do Mr. Bennett and the rest of us well to heed Lincoln's words to his young law partner, Billy Herndon: "History is not history unless it is the truth."
Copyright 2000 by Edward Steers, Jr.
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