This past week Brooks Simpson posted an interesting item concerning a dispute between Allen Guelzo and the authors of a new book about Lincoln and colonization. Philip W. Magness and Sebastian N. Page argue that Lincoln continued to push for the colonization of African Americans after January 1, 1863. I’ve known about their book for some time, but have not had a chance to read it. I love books like this because they do have a tendency to unsettle us in ways that can be uncomfortable. They remind us that history is constantly being revised via competing interpretations and perspectives. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Magness and Page are onto something. My question is what does it mean for the broader Lincoln narrative?
I ask because I just started reading Martin Johnson’s new book, Writing the Gettysburg Address, which as many of you know was a finalist for this year’s Lincoln Prize. Consider the following:
Emancipation had been a middle ground, a military strategy with deliberately limited social and political implications. By 1863 and 1864, however, Lincoln was coming to see that the new nation born of the war would include blacks and whites coexisting in a single society, as affirmed by his silent retreat from advocacy of colonization. That society, in Lincoln’s emerging vision, would be founded upon equal rights in civic life and before the law for all. This may seem an inevitable progression, but in part that is because Lincoln helped make it seem inevitable, for these issues divided Americans for the next century. In new forms, they divide us still. (pp. 7-8)
It’s an interpretive point that I’ve made over and over in my classroom in one form or another. Given everything that Lincoln said and did during the second half of the war – including pushing new governments in formation in the occupied South to enfranchise men who served in the army – to what extent is the interpretation still warranted? Another way to put it is to what extent does Lincoln’s continued advocacy of colonization overshadow the rest of his public statements and policy decisions?