Lincoln deserves statues but the Emancipation Memorial misleads on him and Black history

A statue of Abraham Lincoln — yes, Lincoln — is under siege in Washington, D.C., and if you learned about it by watching Fox News, you would think that was the totality of the story: another sacred American hero degraded by a rash attempt to cleanse history. But God is in the details, here, and in more ways than one. The statue at issue is the Emancipation Memorial in Lincoln Square and it shows the 16th president standing over a kneeling slave, his shackles broken. “A race set free and the country at peace,” reads the inscription. “Lincoln rests from his labors.”

Those who want to remove the edifice feel that the image of a slave on bended knee, the very picture of humble gratitude, is demeaning. It reinforces the myth of the patient Negro, waiting for the heroic white man’s deliverance and suggests that having assumed the power to enslave, the white man alone then had the power to free.

It also appears to suggest that Lincoln freed the slaves all by himself, diminishing the contribution of the slaves themselves and thousands of abolitionist crusaders — Black and white, political and religious — not to mention the soldiers, including the roughly 200,000 Black soldiers, two-thirds of them former slaves, who donned blue Union uniforms and joined the fight. Then, too, it inflates Lincoln’s own sense of purpose. For while he stood firmly against slavery, he did not believe in equality, and his efforts to end the South’s “peculiar institution” were hesitant at best.

Ambivalent on emancipation

As late as the summer of 1862, when he began writing the proclamation, Lincoln remained ambivalent about its legality — the proclamation was, in essence, an executive order — its constitutionality, the slaves were recognized as “property” and freeing them could be seen as an illegal seizure, and, perhaps most of all, its practicality. What if it led to a scorched earth wholesale slaughter?

When, in September of that year, shortly after the battle of Antietam, Lincoln finally issued what is known as the “preliminary” Emancipation Proclamation (the final proclamation was not signed until Jan. 1, 1863), it is more threat than act, one which would have required only that the rebel states put down their arms, rejoin the Union and adopt a gradual plan to abolish slavery, with no mandated timetable.

The Emancipation Memorial in Washington, D.C.
The Emancipation Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Indeed, three months later, when, in his December 1862 annual address to Congress, Lincoln finally sets a date for a compensated end to slavery in the rebel states, that date, 1900, is 38 years off and he follows on with an offer of federal funding for a plan to ship the newly freed “colored persons” to Haiti or Liberia.

All of this is not to suggest that Lincoln deserves no credit for emancipation. But I believe that he would have bristled at the statue, even at his long-established honorific as “The Great Emancipator.” That notion first came in the decades after the war’s conclusion and was informed both by the circumstances of his death — assassinated on Good Friday, he came to be seen as a martyr to the cause, with all manner of Christian symbolism transferred to his memory — and the need to make sense of the war, to give all the suffering and death some shred of moral purpose that the “preservation of the Union” appeared to lack.

A divine conviction over slavery

Early in September 1862, just days before that “preliminary” proclamation would be issued, a group of Chicago clergymen visited Lincoln at the White House. They had come to press him on emancipation, believing that the Union army campaign’s recent failures were signs of “divine displeasure” from the God of the weak and downtrodden, who was furious because of Lincoln’s failure to act now on the moral sin of slavery. Lincoln mocks their pleas by declaring all the ways in which freeing the slaves would be dangerous, illegal and ultimately pointless.

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But as the disappointed ministers prepared to depart, Lincoln became more defensive and philosophical. Acknowledging that “slavery is at the root of the rebellion, or at least its sin qua non…” he urged them to not “misunderstand me” and suggested that they first consider the merits of his stated war goal of the preservation of the Union.

Perhaps recognizing that to be an insufficient cause to these men of the pulpit, Lincoln added that he had “not decided against a proclamation of liberty to the slaves,” but merely held it “under advisement” — and all of this while his draft of the very proclamation the clergymen desired lay in the president’s desk drawer. Finally, Lincoln asked for forgiveness if he had injured his visitors’ feelings and, cryptically, for a man many consider having been an agnostic, offered that “whatever shall appear to be God’s will, I will do.”

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It was not the expression of a religious awakening on Lincoln’s part, but more a recognition of his failures to assert his will over the nation’s circumstances. After all, his election had triggered a war of incalculable suffering, one which in 1862 appeared to be far from over. Given that, it would be understandable to conclude that human agency must ultimately accede to some eternal, unknowable, plan.

Was God on the side of emancipation? When, on Jan. 1, 1863, Lincoln signed the final draft of his proclamation, the nation would find out. “The Great Emancipator”? No. Lincoln would have referenced a favorite line from Hamlet. “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.”

Todd Brewster is the author of “Lincoln’s Gamble: The Tumultuous Six Months that Gave America the Emancipation Proclamation and Changed the Course of the Civil War.” Follow him on Twitter: @ToddBrewster

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Even Lincoln would have objected to statue and 'Great Emancipator' title