Getting Right With Lincoln or Getting Lincoln Right

It’s comforting to be looking at an entire week off from school.  Of course, I’ve got plenty to do, such as writing three entries for Encyclopedia Virginia as well as a bit of work on my Crater manuscript.  As I mentioned last week, I will also be leading a discussion for around 25 teachers at the ACW Museum’s “Lincoln and the South” conference this coming weekend in Richmond.

This is not a formal presentation.  I simply need to come up with a theme or set of questions to get the ball rolling and, hopefully, the participants will steer it from there.  So, here’s what I got.  In my last post I suggested that we might look at the biases that our students bring to the classroom as well as the intellectual/cultural baggage that we as teachers bring to the study of Lincoln.  I’ve decided to concentrate on the latter.  I am proceeding on the assumption that we can’t address the former question until we better understand how we as teachers approach Lincoln. One of the things I noticed during my recent TAH sessions was the difficulty that some of the teachers had with the subject of the Civil War and memory.  At times, I actually thought they were projecting their own biases and anxieties onto their students.

With this in mind, my plan is to concentrate specifically on how we teach Lincoln and race/slavery.  We will begin the session with a very short handout that includes four brief excerpts from Lincoln on the subject. Two will reveal Lincoln’s harsh views on race and colonization while the other two will highlight his consistent views on the immorality of slavery and its incompatibility with this nation’s founding ideals.

Just as historians do, teachers make choices of what to teach and emphasize in their courses.  I suspect that when it comes to some of the more controversial moments in American history that those choices are influenced by factors that extend beyond the desire for balance and “historical truth.”  In the case of Lincoln we might be talking about having grown up with ideas of the “Great Emancipator” or an image that emphasized his belief in the inequality of the races.  Either way it is likely that such a background will shape the way we present Lincoln in class.  What I am ultimately hoping for is that we can have a frank discussion about the difficulties and challenges involved in discussing the issue of Lincoln and race in the classroom beginning with our own anxieties.  How can we identify our own biases and are there strategies that can be employed that can help us move beyond them?

Please feel free to add your own ideas.  Perhaps this plan makes no sense at all.

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7 comments… add one
  • The Abraham Lincoln Observer Mar 9, 2009 @ 16:04

    Actually, if you read all the way to the end of Donald’s article linked above (written in 1956), he quotes U.S. Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois as saying that the first task of a politician is “to get right with … Lincoln.”

    Though an instinctively conservative Republican, Dirksen worked closely with President Lyndon Johnson on some of the groundbreaking civil rights legislation of the 1960s, so perhaps it’s fair to say Ev got right with Abe on a philosophical, as well as political, level. But at any rate, it does seem clear that Dirksen, not Donald, deserves credit for coining the basic phrase “getting right with Lincoln.”

    As a newbie to cwmemory and related sites, I’m learning a lot from the discussions here. So it’s a privilege to find a subject where I feel qualified to comment, even if it is just a mildly off-topic quibble. Thanks for the education.

  • rhapsodyinbooks Mar 9, 2009 @ 5:41

    One early experience most people have had is going to museums (like the Civil War Museum in Richmond which manages to obliterate Lincoln pretty well). I don’t know if you have read Roger Bromley’s book, “Lost Narratives: Popular Fictions, Politics and Recent History” (Routledge: 1988), but he has some great discussions about museums – what they include and what they don’t; how the displays are structured and labeled (cf recent article in Washington Post about the label under W’s portrait in the National Portrait Gallery and of course the flap about labeling an Enola Gay exhibit at the Air & Space Museum); etc. Relatedly, I was absolutely amazed at the role played by women, as described by David Blight in “Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory” regarding their efforts to influence memory via statuary and celebrations/rites. These are also cultural memes that get embedded early. I think it would be of great interest to hear about all the early memories of your students and how it affected their later attitudes.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 9, 2009 @ 6:01


      I love the idea of opening up with our earliest memories as a starting point to say the extent to which they continue to shape our understanding. Thanks for the comment. 🙂

  • Harry Mar 9, 2009 @ 4:53


    Lest anyone think I’m laying claim to “Getting Right with Lincoln”, I’m not: the link in my post is to David Donald’s article from the ’50’s.

  • Harry Mar 9, 2009 @ 4:33


    Maybe you can find some guidance in the article that coined the phrase. See the link in the first sentence of my post here:

    Bias is human nature and historians are, for better or worse, human. Therefore, if one tends to “like” FDR (or “hate” Hitler), it affects how one assesses some of the things he did. I’ve heard this referred to as “situational constitutionality” by a talking head historian who very lamely defended his own “ends justify the means” analysis.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 9, 2009 @ 4:41

      Thanks for the link, Harry. You reminded me that I didn’t get back to revising the title of my post.

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