Every day at President Lincoln’s Cottage we engage with visitors in conversation on difficult topics, from grief to slavery to American identity. And occasionally, we get asked a question on a tour that stops us in our tracks – one we wish we could spend a half hour answering. Some of these questions, on their face, were innocent or simple, but on a second look they contain a level of complexity that leaves us wanting to know more.
Thanks to generous donations from our supporters, we created “Q & Abe” – a podcast that investigates real questions from visitors to the Cottage. Come on down the rabbit hole with us as we seek the answers – we always start with Lincoln and the Cottage, but we often end up in unexpected places.
In this episode, we’re talking through a question we’ve gotten from older visitors, documentarians, and teen students alike. Along the way we pass through the Lincoln-Douglas debates, monumental controversies, the power of anger, and lost historical perspectives. Come along with us!
In addition to the embedded media player below, you can find the podcast on Apple Podcasts / Spotify / Stitcher / Google Podcasts or wherever you get podcasts. You also can read below for a transcript of the episode (coming soon!)
Joan Cummins: Every day at President Lincoln’s Cottage we engage with visitors in conversation on difficult topics, from grief to slavery to American identity. Visitors, young and old alike, connect with us from next door and from around the globe.
Callie Hawkins: And occasionally, we get asked a question on a tour that stops us in our tracks, one we wish we could spend a half hour answering. Some of these questions, on their face, seem innocent or simple, but on a second look they contain a level of complexity that leaves us wanting to know more. Each episode, we’ll investigate a single real question a visitor asked us here.
JC: At President Lincoln’s Cottage, we’re storytellers, historians, and truth seekers, so we called on people whose expertise could speak to all the facets of these questions.
CH: I’m Callie Hawkins
JC: And I’m Joan Cummins. This is Q&Abe. Come on down the rabbit hole with us!
CH: Let’s take that half hour now. For this episode, we’re working on the question: “Was Lincoln a racist?”
JC: The first time I got this question, we were about halfway through the tour, and an older visitor asked me just as we were about to go upstairs. We had been discussing Lincoln’s hesitancy, as president, to take immediate action on ending slavery. But I’ve since gotten it from others as well, teen students and teachers alike.
Callie: Yeah, I get this question quite a bit and, very recently actually, a documentarian wanted to spend a lot of time in our conversation talking about this one thing. He had really been trying to reconcile the Lincoln that he had learned about as a young boy in school with a more complicated version that he sort of got to know through his work in this documentary.
Joan: To get started, we spoke with Dr. Richard Blackett, a professor emeritus at Vanderbilt University, who studies the Civil War and abolition.
Richard Blackett: I think it’s an unfortunate place to start because it, it forecloses the discussion. Uh, you have one of two options. If we start at that point, it’s the either: yes, he was, or no, he wasn’t, uh, and that has been the historical uh, debate that has gone on for decades. Once you call somebody a racist, it forecloses discussion. It is the worst thing to accuse somebody of, because what do they say? They either admit that they are, or they say, no, I’m not – which is the first thing that a racist would do. What else can you say? Yes, I am? So, so I think we need to look at some of the things that he did, uh, some of the positions that he took in light of the fact that he ultimately signs the piece of paper that declares people free.
CH: We also spoke with Dr. Brian Dirck, author of the book Lincoln and White America, who framed it this way:
Brian Dirck: My approach is normally to sort of respectfully say, “Look, you might wanna to rethink how you’re asking the question,” because when you say, was he a racist or was he not, that’s almost automatically a binary – either he is, or, or he is not. What I normally tell people is, think of it as a continuum, and at one end of the continuum you have, you know, extraordinarily hostile white people to black people who demonize them or exploit the, you know, racism for political gain at the extreme end of you know, racial bigotry. At the other extreme, you’ve got people that are almost modern in our sense of wanting full social, political, and racial equality between all the races. Most people don’t function on those extremes. Most people are in that mushy middle ground, and Lincoln’s no exception. So I usually start by saying, you got to think, not in binary terms, but along a continuum.
JC: So, if we are to take this excellent advice and approach this as a range of possibilities, what did Lincoln do that might help us position him on the continuum? How do we evaluate him?
CH: Brian and Richard both gave us a classic historian answer: Let’s back up.
JC: Brian took us back to the things Lincoln encountered in his early life:
BD: Since this is, you know, statistically, ideologically, I think it has always been a majority white country, since whiteness is everywhere, it is nowhere. In other words, you, especially in Lincoln’s time, it’s not that common for people to talk about being white – they do sometimes, but not that often and they don’t do it systematically. It’s more of, you know, subtle assumptions, things embedded in the culture, you know, ways we use language. One of the things I got into in the book was I looked at the things Lincoln read, like uh Parson Weems’ Life of George Washington, which, if you go back and you read that, there’s all of these passages: goofy African-American stereotypes, and black dialect, and some just unspoken racist assumptions about whites being better than blacks, but they don’t just say, “Hey, we’re better than blacks,” it’s embedded in there an you’ve got to kind of go looking for it. It’s not easy, but it’s there. It’s there. That was the, the push of my book, which is, Lincoln grows up in a, a white supremacist culture. I mean, hardly anybody argues with that. You can’t argue that he swam in the white supremacist ocean and didn’t get wet, okay? I mean, he’s going to have things that pop up. He has, you know, some racist humor, he goes to blackface minstrel shows, whatever. But, the man changes over time.
CH: And Richard backed up to get some societal and political context, including things like the Kansas Nebraska Act, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, and other stumbling blocks in the lead up to the Civil War. He highlighted Lincoln’s political roots in the Whig Party, and what they can tell us about Lincoln’s ideas about race in America.
RB: And I think this is where we might start to enter the discussion of Lincoln and his ideas about race and slavery. And one of the, one of the pillars, one of the significant pillars of the Whig Party, or of sections of the Whig Party, is the notion that the future of the country would rely, to some extent, on the voluntary removal of blacks out of the United States, to a place as far away as possible. Because they argued that, “Look, uh, we admit this is a racist society. There’s no way these people are going to prosper. So what we need to do is to give them an opportunity to fully develop their own talents and skills and express somewhere outside of the United States.” And that has been a feature of Lincoln’s policy throughout most of his life and it is a feature of the early years of his administration. So his Whig sentiments, and this idea of removing blacks from the United States was always part of his view of the best way to deal with this problem, this racial problem. And he continues with that even after he, he sets the Emancipation Proclamation in motion, uh, he even has within his administration, a colonization office. An office that the purpose of which is to persuade black Americans to leave.
JC: Listening to Richard describe the Whig position, it really struck me that those advocating for colonization – including Lincoln – were able to recognize a racist society, and essentially had decided, “well, there’s nothing we can do to fix that, so we should just separate people from the racism they’re experiencing by sending them as far from us as we can manage. We’ll send them “back to” a place they’ve never been but at least they won’t be here.” It would allow them to say they’d solved the problem while changing as little about themselves as possible.
CH: You know that really reminds me of that letter from Patrick Henry, where he said, essentially, “you know, I don’t think slavery is right, but it would be too inconvenient to let them go.”
JC: Richard and Brian also both brought up statements Lincoln made during his famous debates with Stephen Douglas during their Senate campaigns in Illinois in 1858. Visitors often ask us about how closely these statements align with Lincoln’s true feelings, so we were excited to talk about them.
CH: The debates are fertile ground for this conversation because Douglas repeatedly race-baited Lincoln in an attempt to win over racist white voters, accusing Lincoln of favoring black people over white people. We’ll link to the full text of these speeches in the transcript for the episode if you want to review them for yourself after listening.
RB: You know, he had that wonderful statement that he made in one of his debates with, with the little man Doug, Stephen Douglas, it was – I’ve always seen this as a sort of Mutt and Jeff moment. Uh, you know, Lincoln towering over this little man, and they’re screaming to be heard by hundreds of thousands of people who are assembled. But, you know, you said he didn’t want to deny the rights of any black person, but he did, he didn’t want one for a wife. Does that make him a racist? I think it, it, it tells you some of his personal feelings about relationships, and that is always the most delicate part of this problem. Is, is relation- sexual relationship across racial lines, create, send people into an absolute tizz. Uh, that I have never understood. But that is, that is one of the, one of the features of the problem.
BD: And, and there’s this sentence and you know, “I am not now in favor of, uh, equality between the white and the black races, insofar is there must be a difference, I want the white race to be on top.” You know, over the years, people have explained that away in a variety of ways. Well, he couldn’t say that he believed in racial equality in front of a lily-white audience who were voting for him. There’s not one black voter in the audience… I’m a little less sympathetic to that than most because I have – my experience with Lincoln is, he’s not given to just out and out deception when he speaks. I mean, there’s a reason he was called Honest Abe. So why is it, we think he’s honest about everything else, but dishonest about this? And I, I really don’t agree with those who argue that he’s got this hidden racial egalitarian agenda in 1858, but oh, I can’t say it out loud, you know? I don’t buy that.
CH: Right, right…
BD: On the other hand, what I usually say when people bring this up is, I say, read the whole thing. If you read the entire passage though, he, if you go past that, he says “on the other hand, in his rights to enjoy the fruits of his labor under the Declaration of Independence, black people are the equal of Judge Douglas, myself and every other man.” Put the whole thing together, and that kind of tells you where Lincoln was at in 1858. And on that continuum, it’s far more egalitarian, certainly than Douglas, and it’s far, much further than most white people were willing to go in 1858. And there’s a big difference between the Abraham Lincoln of an 1858 political debate with Douglas and a president who has – you can see the growth. If you, if you look at the things he was saying and doing in 1861, as opposed to 1865, one of the things I argue is that by the time he gets around 1865, he is far more willing to confront white supremacists.
JC: In my experience, when visitors have encountered what seem like contradictory statements from Lincoln on race or the rights of Black Americans, it’s because they’re from different years, and represent a change in his position.
CH: Yea, and you know, one of the things I admire most about Lincoln was that he wasn’t afraid to evolve.
JC: So, we’re gathering a sense of Lincoln as enmeshed in whiteness, and we’ve had a chance to examine some of his words and actions with regard to Black Americans. But what about others? Just like this isn’t a binary yes or no question, there are more than two types of people in the United States.
CH: Brian asked us if we were going to talk about the Dakota and their experience with President Lincoln, and that was definitely already on our list of things to explore for this episode. To gain some insight, we reached out to Dr. Gwen Westerman.
Gwen Westerman: Haƞ mitakuyapi. Gwen Westerman emakiyapi ye. Sisituƞwaƞ Wahpetuƞwaƞ Dakota hemataƞhaƞ. My name is Gwen Westerman, I am Dakota, I live in Minnesota I teach at Minnesota State University where I am a professor in the English department and director of the humanities program, and I am the Poet Laureate of Minnesota.
CH: Gwen, like the other scholars we spoke to, encouraged us to hold space for multiplicity when considering this question.
GW: There’s a lot more to be known about this particular story. And I’m going to correct that and say there’s a lot more to be known about these stories, because this history is not represented by a single story, there are multiple players, there are multiple perspectives. It’s a very complex and – it’s a very complex and painful history.
JC: When people say “The Dakota 38,” they’re referring to the 38 Dakota men who were hanged on December 26, 1862, in what remains the largest mass execution in American history. It took place on Lincoln’s watch; he had an opportunity to review and either commute or carry out the sentences of these men.
CH: Gwen reminded us that the incident had a long foreground:
GW: At the end of the war when the Dakota surrendered, they thought they would be treated as prisoners of war. They were well aware of how to deal with the United States government, they had been doing that since 1812. So they’re not unfamiliar with the machinations of the federal system. But when the war between the United States and the Dakota in 1862 occurred, there was such vehement and violent reaction from the people in Minnesota. When the trials occurred there were exaggerations in newspapers that were reprinted and reprinted and reprinted… and yes, people died, a lot of people died, and that’s that’s the goal of war, it’s an undeniable aspect of war, but the missionary Stephen Riggs who had been working with the Dakota people since the mid 1830s was part of the process that occurred in the condemnation of 303 Dakota men. He wrote to President Lincoln and he said that the great majority should be executed to meet the demands of public justice. That all of these people should be killed. Governor Ramsey said on September 9th, 1862 that the Dakota will be driven forever beyond our borders or killed, exterminated. And after the military trials, which were a sham by almost every historian’s account, uh there were 303 who were condemned to hang, and that’s when President Lincoln intervened and ordered General Pope to send him the complete trial record. And it’s pretty astonishing in its lack of detail and its assumptions based on speculation. I don’t know how contemporary attorneys would look at those records, but President Lincoln asked two of his advisors to review that and pay particular attention to those who were convicted of rape or murdering innocent settlers, and um at the end of that there was a list of 40 which included um Godfrey who was married to a Dakota woman, um and his sentence was commuted by the tribunal, but the people in Minnesota and Governor Ramsey were just livid that the will of the people of Minnesota would prevail if not more were executed and that they would be subject to state law. Sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it? And this is a time when Lincoln is often described as being sick at heart because of all of the loss of the Civil War, the ongoing slaughter in the South, and he, he thought that a mass hanging would be a stain on the national character. And he was especially troubled by Bishop Whipple, who had also worked with the Dakota for almost 30 years at this time, he was troubled by the accounts that Bishop Whipple gave of all of the history of abuses that had led to the violence. So, it didn’t just spring up out of nowhere, or it wasn’t caused by a singular event, and there was a long lead in to this war between the United States and, between the United States and the Dakota. But the one of the quotes that, that I always am especially moved by from President Lincoln is, “If we get through this war and I live, this Indian system shall be reformed.”
CH: This struck both of us, because we often hear from visitors that they wonder what Lincoln would have done had he not been assassinated. We asked Gwen how she would describe what Lincoln’s legacy is.
JC: As a note, you’ll hear her say “39 would be executed” here – one man was given a last-minute reprieve, which is how the group has come down in history as “The Dakota 38.”
GW: He rejected the, the notion of exterminating the Dakota people in 1862 and when he announced his decision that um 39 would be executed and the remainder would be held, “taking care that they neither escape nor abs, are subjected to any unlawful violence,” and yet that was not enough for the people of Minnesota and there was still an outcry. The convicted men who were not executed were sent to prison, the women and children and families were sent west to Fort Randall, in a place that had been described as having “good soil good timber and plenty of water,” but it was a barren wasteland and they almost starved to death, until they were moved three years later to Nebraska. The, these attempts by the President to negotiate in such a divided time, to try to envision what’s best for the country, his distress over how things were going, that’s part of his legacy too, that we don’t often think about. We just put things into yes or no categories and make judgments or assessments, and then keep moving on and carry, carry that binary choice of, of what his legacy is… but he is, he is an imperfect man struggling in difficult times.
JC: If we are to say that, in 1862, we have these two groups of people fighting the US Army – one of which is the Dakota and the other of which is the Confederate Army – both of whom lost to the United States – what happens to those groups of people afterwards is a really striking difference. What are the ways in which we are treating these people after they have been defeated? What do we think should happen to them? What do we do with regard to their status, their participation in government, their access to land and property and lawmaking, and all of that? It made me think about a lot of what-ifs, and frankly, to notice again all the ways former Confederates regained power after the war.
CH: Richard brought this up as well.
RB: The people who were the traitors won the cultural war. They lost on the battlefield, but they won the cultural war. Because there’s always running through American history in the 19th century was this notion, that the southern, white southerners, southerners knew best how to deal with the black problem. So let them deal with the problem. So people, unlike in the Caribbean, where the freed population became, quickly became the majority, that is not there largely, with the exception of a couple of states in, in, in the South, they are, they are a minority without any kind of political power. So in, in addition, freedmen in places like Jamaica, could re remove themselves from the plantation and go up into the mountains and create an alternative life for themselves. That is – there’re few of those kinds of options in the South, as former slave holders and their henchpeople begin to use violence in order to force people back onto the plantation. It is not an option that was available to the planter class in Jamaica and other places in the Caribbean. Force would not have done it in that sense, because state power still resides, resided in the colonial state and not so much in the individual colony.
JC: And also, because, I think I heard you say, because of the demographic realities, like they’re just outnumbered in a way that folks are not in the American South.
RB: Indeed. So that is, that is a, that is a real problem that confronts us as we try to evaluate why it is this emancipation system didn’t work out as it was supposed to. We are still having this debate, and all we need to do is, is, is sort of tag onto the, the issue of what do you do with Confederate monuments and et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. What can you teach in schools? So race has always been this monster that has dominated American society.
CH: Strangely enough, during our conversation with Gwen, she told us about a monument controversy that’s been happening on her campus – but not over a statue of a Confederate leader, over a statue of Lincoln.
GW: On our campus at Minnesota State University Mankato there is a larger-than-life statue of President Lincoln. It was a gift to the Lincoln library by one of the graduating classes in the early 1900s. So when we moved up the hill to a bigger campus the statue came, and it’s been in the student union for quite a while. But over the years Native students, and Dakota students in particular, have expressed some concern about the presence of that statue in a prominent traffic way through the building. Some students were upset because of Lincoln’s actions to approve the execution of Dakota men at the culmination of the US Dakota War, and how could they walk through this place and see every day the man who ordered their ancestors executed? African-American students had concerns about Lincoln’s broader legacy in terms of emancipation and slavery, we heard from other groups of students, Chicano-Latino students, Asian American students, who were there to support the African-American and um American Indian students in their discussions about why that statue has such a prominent place on this campus. And so we put together a committee of faculty and students and staff to look at the history of how that statute came to be part of our campus legacy and made some recommendations to the president about what should be done with that. There’s been a lot of concern that we’re erasing history, but that was not the purpose of our committee. Our committee was to look at the history, to look at possible places that the statue could go where it could be better interpreted, and we made those recommendations to the president and he will be making the decision about where the statue goes. But again, a lot of reaction to, to the statue itself is impacted by an incomplete history of these events. And so it’s important for us, especially as educators, to fill out that history so people have a better understanding, so they can make a more informed opinion about it.
JC: One of the things I’ve often heard from visitors – and others in my life – in the conversation about what to do about monuments is this idea that there has been change over time in race relations in the United States, and that there are different standards between then and now. So, I wanted to know from Brian – did people think Lincoln was racist while he was alive?
BD: Oh, that’s a great question. I would say, pardon me for sounding like a history professor, it depends on who’s asking the question, okay. You know, there was a widespread perception among, uh, abolitionists that he was a, a racist. They looked at his Kentucky roots, they, he was referred to in abolitionist circles as “the slave hound from Kentucky.” Um, he was not at all well thought of prior to 1863 by the more radical wing of abolitionism, like the William Lloyd Garrisons. Frederick Douglass said some very harsh things about him in the early days and months of the war. So, if you’re looking at those guys (men and women) he was, I’d say ambivalent, there were some abolitionists who thought, “Hey, this guy’s better than we think he is,” okay. You don’t normally, I, I’ve never seen somebody who was bigoted who ever said, “Hey, I like me some Abe, he’s a bigot like me, boo yeah, bigotry,” I’ve never seen that. But it also means sometimes that by modern standards, going back to the original question, we look back at some of the stuff he says, and to us it’s unacceptably ambiguous.
CH: So, how do we respond to people who might say, well we can’t really evaluate, or make decisions about, things that were happening in the past because they were working with different standards?
RB: That has been the, the problem when we tried to evaluate, uh, these issues in the context of a broader history. There were always voices who said slavery was wrong, slavery need to be abolished, going back from the very beginning of the society, of the country, and yet other voices prevailed. And that becomes the issue. There were voices who were providing other options, people chose not to take it.
JC: Brian agreed.
BD: Yes, you have to consider the context of the times. On the other hand, there were people alive in Lincoln’s time, well-known people who had a more egalitarian view of racial relations, than he did, you know. Um, certainly William Lloyd, Garrison, Theodore Parker, uh, Weld, I mean the, the radical end of the abolitionist movement. And they’re all well-known and they’re making very, I mean, so in other words, that the context isn’t just, hey, everybody was a racist, therefore you get a pass because you’re a racist too. Yeah, but there were plenty of people that weren’t and you are making a decision by going one way or the other…. I got, I got to take him at his word, you know? And at his word is, I think he, before the Civil War was at best ambivalent about the possibility of a multiracial America, and I think he warmed to the idea during the war, but I think there’s plenty of evidence that suggests that he wasn’t sure you could have a multi-racial place.
JC: So let’s say we’ve gotten this far, we know it’s more complicated than a yes or no question, was Lincoln a racist – what other questions should we be asking next as we go on to learn more?
GW: What does racism mean to us in the 21st century? What does that word mean? Another question to ask is, from my modern perspective, what can I learn about what happened, especially in Minnesota in 1862 and afterward, what can I learn from that to help me make better choices, better decisions about how I learn about history? Is this a single story? What other stories can I learn about, so I have a better understanding of what President Lincoln’s legacy might be?
CH: To help us get started on that set of questions, we reached out Seth Levi, the Chief Strategy Officer at the Southern Poverty Law Center, whom we met a number of years ago when he participated in one of our Lincoln Ideas Fora. How do people who are working to combat racism in the 21st century define racism? Is there a difference between how we talk about an individual person being racist, a capital B “Bad Person,” and a larger systemic issue that’s racist?
Seth Levi: You know, the way I think about it is, uh, we are all racist to some degree, and, but I think it’s first maybe important to step back and sort of talk it out, you know, what is the definition of racism? Let me be upfront. I don’t think we can neatly define it, but generally speaking, you know, my definition or the way of viewing it is that it’s a system of beliefs and behavior that’s grounded in, you know, the belief of white superiority, and that it isn’t just about prejudice, it’s about some kind of action being taken to then deprive non-whites of power. And the reason why I say that I think we’re all racist to some degree is I think unconsciously, no matter what our best intentions are, that we probably are taking actions to preserve our own self-interest, our own power, our own wealth at the detriment of others. And to your point, that goes back to, I think we have an understanding of this is how we’re all hardwired, to act – that’s why, you know, necessarily being a racist doesn’t, you know, make you this sort of caricature, and I think that’s why we have to think about race, you know, in a more nuanced way, less in a boogeyman black and white way of this person, bad, this person, good. And sort of understanding how, again, even unconsciously, even with the best of intentions, we may be somehow contributing to this system that is helping to preserve power and capital for white people at the expense of, uh, communities of color.
JC: Any conversation about racism is emotionally charged for most Americans. It’s one of the things that can sometimes keep people from talking about it, or speaking up when they see racism happening. And, we were anticipating encountering an emotional reaction as we try to answer this question. We were wrestling with – how do you balance the intensity of this emotional charge with trying to do something about the underlying problem?
CH: I was especially curious about the place of emotions like anger. Can that be productive?
GW: It’s often easier and quicker to respond with anger when we’re in a situation or exposed to something that upsets us. And again, because the student population turns over and there hasn’t been any official story for what happened here it’s repeating every few years and it’s just this constant stream of anger. And I agree anger can be a motivator, it can create a need in us to make a change, to instigate something different, to react in a creative way and in a productive way. So not all anger Is counterproductive, but when there’s nothing but anger then, then I think it’s time to step back and think more about what change can be made instead of being in a constant turmoil of, of anger.
SL: You know I guess at the sort of moment in time, it seems like there’s really nothing that, you know, Americans agree on, that everything is super, polarized, but certainly it seems like being called a racist is still a third rail for everybody in our nation, and so applying that designation to some kind of action, nobody likes that. And it does help focus attention on the problem and can help activate lawmakers as well as grassroots activists and just everyday citizens.
JC: That’s interesting because one of the things that happens to us, or to me on conversations on tours about, about Lincoln is that approaching the third rail can make the conversation more difficult after that, that people are like, you know, what I heard you say was that Lincoln was racist and now I am very angry and I don’t want to listen to anything else that you say.
SL: Yeah. And I think that that speaks to how sensitive, you know, applying that designation remains and why I believe it actually will help spur people to action. Of course, as you just mentioned, yeah, it does make people defensive, but if we sort of got to a place where folks just kind of shrugged off somebody being called racist, then I would say, yeah, then the word has actually lost a lot of its power to help bring about change.
JC: I really appreciated Seth pointing out that the intense feelings the label “racist” evokes can be harnessed for good, instead of automatically being an obstacle to progress.
CH: What is it about our particular question, though? Why do people really care about the answer to whether Lincoln was a racist or not?
BD: Okay, for people that I think want to find evidence of racism in Lincoln, and again, I really don’t want to over-generalize, I don’t want to put thoughts in other people’s heads, but my impression has been it’s part of the general idea of suggesting that American society has been, always will be, racist to its very core. And you, you take the Great Emancipator and if you can tar him with thee brush of bigotry, then that’s just part of the general project of suggesting that the entire culture is irredeemably corrupt, you know. On the other hand, people that want to prove he has no faults or blemishes, I think are frankly, I strike me as being very defensive. If you have a tiny chink in the armor of Lincoln, then the whole thing falls apart, you know?
SL: If suddenly our discussion and understanding of Lincoln becomes a little more nuanced and complicated, I think that’s going to unravel I think some of what we view his legacy about, which is evidence of our nation’s ability to correct a historic wrong. And if it turns out well, you know, he’s a complicated person, then, you know, maybe that means we haven’t actually quite corrected a lot of the wrongs in the past.
JC: That’s played out in our experience here at the Cottage as well – that the reason people care about history is because it helps them understand themselves and their country. Changing your framework on the past can change your framework on the present, too.
CH: Seth told us that the public’s understanding of American history absolutely affects the work he and his colleagues do at the Southern Poverty Law Center. Sometimes people assume there is a well-studied rationale behind an existing policy when in fact its origins lie in racist motivations. I wanted to know from Seth – what is the goal of this work? Is the goal to end racism?
SL: Yeah. I, I believe the goal is to end racism and then that’s going to be what gets us to a more equitable and just nation. You know, that might seem like something that is just never going to happen, but, you know, I don’t see why. It’s certainly going to be, you know, difficult. It’s going to take a lot of self-sacrifice. One perspective I have on it is also just sort of looking at all of the things in the past that we never thought could change and have changed. One example that a colleague had, has given me in the past is, you know, you think about something like smoking and how like, how pervasive smoking indoors used to be and how everyone was like, that is never going to change. And how, when those smoking bans came out, everyone was like, oh, those are, you know, never going to happen. And there has kind of been a sea change there. That’s obviously a much smaller thing, but I guess for those who are as old as me, sort of remember that that was sort of something we just believed couldn’t change and it did. And you know, one of the ways I bring that back to Lincoln and maybe this whole question of why we even spend time studying, you know, presidents so intensely, you know, I view it, it’s not just about their, their moral character, good or bad. It’s also, I believe, an exploration of what people with power do. Once you are given power, how is it that you exercise it? And it’s also an understanding where, where Lincoln and others had that power and did come up short, that they could have done more, and could’ve changed the trajectory of the country even more, but they chose not to use that power. And then the question is why? Who benefited from the fact that they didn’t take a certain action? I think that, you know, just to reiterate, is something we should be asking ourselves in our everyday lives. When we are in a position of power and privilege, how are we using it?
CH: I don’t know that I had ever heard anybody say it quite like that – that yes, the goal is to end racism. I was like, ok, now I have that as my goal! I also appreciated the power thing because that’s something I think about all the time as a white woman. What is my personal power and what is it that I can do in my daily life?
JC: And for me, evaluating Lincoln’s record on race does come down to thinking about – like he was wrestling with here at the Cottage – what kind of power did he have, as an ordinary person and as a president, and how was he using it? I think, like most of us, his record comes up a bit mixed. We wanted to leave you with the words of someone from the past who was directly affected by Lincoln’s choices.
GW: I do want to share a letter that was written by one of the Dakota men who was imprisoned in Davenport Iowa after the US Dakota War. For the longest time the majority of these letters had been untranslated and we’ve been working on translating them. And so this letter was written by Moses Itewakanhdiota on April 17th, 1865, and he says: my relative, I’m writing to you – and he’s writing to the missionary Stephen Riggs – We just heard some news. They said that they killed the President, but it seems like nobody can tell us anything straight. So my relative, I give you this letter, and I want to hear a few things, so that’s why I’m writing to you. The President had compassion for us, and we are alive now because of him, but he has been killed, we heard, and we are really sad. However many of us who can think, we are sad. And I want you to tell me how or what the Americans think of us now, and that’s why I’m writing. Then I want to hear how the President was killed. Every Sunday I preach as well as I can, and that is all I will say. So that’s from one of those 300-plus condemned men who was sent to the prison in Davenport and held for a number of years after the war. But they knew they were alive because of the decisions that President Lincoln made, and that was something that had been lost for a long time. So when I read this letter to that group of students, they cried. The African-American students cried, the Native students cried, all of them cried. Because it was the first time they had heard that, that they had heard the words of someone who was directly affected by the decisions of President Lincoln. And the question was, like we’ve discussed already, what can we do now?
JC: This episode was produced by me, Joan Cummins, with Callie Hawkins and support from the President Lincoln’s Cottage team. Music for Q&Abe was written, performed, and is copyrighted by, Clancy Newman.
CH: Q&Abe is possible thanks to generous supporters of President Lincoln’s Cottage. To find out how you can support this podcast and other programming, visit www.lincolncottage.org.
JC: To the visitor who asked the question behind this episode, thanks for giving us a chance to dive back into the weeds.
CH: Comments? Questions? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
JC: President Lincoln’s Cottage is a home for brave ideas. Stay curious!