Was on Facebook the other day (months ago, actually) after having just watched the movie Lincoln (now available streaming from Amazon! lol) and stumbled across an image posted on the wall of Free Talk Live a libertarian syndicated radio show / podcast that I’ve always considered a bit of a train wreck, unfortunately I don’t have time to sit around listening to train wrecks these days.
Someone had taken one of Lincoln’s quotes out of context and edited it. It ran like this;
I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which, in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality, and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a difference, I am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position.
But that quote was a part of a larger speech; and even the partial quote is internally edited. I won’t reprint it all here, but it’s available at the National Parks Service website; Lincoln-Douglas Ottawa Debate. The paragraph the partial quote comes from runs like this;
Now, gentlemen, I don’t want to read at any greater length, but this is the true complexion of all I have ever said in regard to the institution of slavery and the black race. This is the whole of it, and anything that argues me into his idea of perfect social and political equality with the negro, is but a specious and fantastic arrangement of words, by which a man can prove a horse-chestnut to be a chestnut horse. [Laughter.] I will say here, while upon this subject, that I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so. I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which, in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality, and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a difference, I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position. I have never said anything to the contrary, but I hold that, notwithstanding all this, there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. [Loud cheers.] I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man. I agree with Judge Douglas he is not my equal in many respects-certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment. But in the right to eat the bread, without the leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man. [Great applause.]
As is shown in the pasted complete paragraph, the contextual relationship of offered quote changes the meaning of the quote, completely. The anti-Lincoln types (and most critics of historical figures) rely on the average person’s lack of context for the words, so that the people they are trying to convert to their negative views will be outraged by the statements alone, and never look to see the bigger picture, let alone read a book or several of them on the subject, just to get a feel for the perspective in which this debate was held.
Yes, he said those things; that blacks and whites were too different, that he had no intention of ending slavery in the South; and yet he worked to make these things so. Could it be that he was disseminating in order to put at ease those who would never have allowed negro equality before the law had they believed that it would lead to full equality? Maybe the naysayers, and those who would be persuaded by them, should study history with an eye for the real truths rather than parse it for statements that can be used to indict men whose actions have proven to be just in spite of their words.
The truth is, it was not Lincoln’s war. The South started the war because they could not abide the presence of Northern force on their territory. Had they not been ready and willing to exert force themselves, the tally would have come up differently. Had the abolitionists admitted at the time that they were for black suffrage (let alone the ad absurdum of women’s suffrage) or any other form of political equality no progress towards ending slavery would have been achieved, and we would probably still have legally enforced ownership of people today. Libertarians often talk about how “Lincoln ended black slavery, only to enslave all of us”. The enslavement that libertarians like that suffer under is ideological in nature. They are enslaved to their own ideology more than they are enslaved to some external force. It forces them to denounce actions that conflict with their espoused beliefs, even when those actions can be shown to benefit all of us. The ending of legal slavery set up the possibility for average people to make a living being employed by another. The question we should be asking today is not whether the actions of the first Republican President were just; but exactly how the last involuntary servitude, prison labor, is different from what was abolished in 1865? How are free men to compete with this, when the full cost of ‘maintaining’ this workforce is not present in the purchase price of the goods made with their labor? How are we to compete, as a labor force, against entire national populations that are kept almost as prisoners in their own countries? Why do we as a people not rise up and demand that the laws be changed? Will we spend precious time fighting over past ills, rather than prevent our own demise in the near future?
When you object and say we are all slaves, you offer the unstated observation that we should return to the preferable state of owning other people in order to save ourselves. When you trumpet the virtue of JW Booth, you place back-shooting conspiracy as a higher value than diplomacy and negotiation.JW Booth did a disservice to the South with his bullet. Reconstruction under Lincoln would have looked nothing like it did at the hands of his inheritors.
I consider it the height of hubris to hold historical figures to modern standards as if they could be anything other than a product of their times. Such is human nature and the human condition. As goes Lincoln, so go we all, in a nutshell. Either we choose to participate in the world around us, or we withdraw and demand the world meet us on our terms. I don’t consider the latter to be much of a life.