Abraham Lincoln: Saint or Sinner?

Sometimes I wonder if people are aware that there is a historical profession that has been engaged over the past few decades in the critical analysis of every aspect of Abraham Lincoln’s life.  Consider the following description of an upcoming BBC documentary on Lincoln:

To most Americans Abraham Lincoln is the nation’s greatest president – a political genius who won the Civil War and ended slavery. Today the cult of Lincoln has become a multi-million dollar industry, with millions of Americans visiting his memorials and thousands of books published that present him as a saint more than a politician.

But does Lincoln really deserve all this adulation? 150 years after the war his reputation is being re-assessed, as historians begin to uncover the dark side of his life and politics. They have revealed that the president who ended slavery secretly planned to deport the freed black people out of America. Others are asking if Lincoln should be remembered as a war hero who saved the nation or as a war criminal who launched attacks on innocent southern civilians.

His “reputation is being re-assessed?”  Historians haven’t just “begun to uncover” anything. You couldn’t even think about doing this documentary without the fact that historians have been working on more critical and balanced interpretations of Lincoln for years. How many books on Lincoln came out during his bicentennial alone?  Give me a break.

By the way, Henry Louis Gates did this very same video a few years ago and in my view he did a much better job.

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15 comments… add one
  • London John Feb 14, 2011 @ 8:46

    BTW, no reason you should be interested in viewership of British TV channels, but I would guess you and people who linked thru your article make up a majority of those who ever saw this programme.

  • Andy Hall Feb 14, 2011 @ 7:50

    The BBC program — part 3, at least — is hideously overwrought. There are top-level historians being interviewed — Blight, Berlin, Foner, Painter — but their segments are strung together with ominous voice-overs and dark insinuations. I suspect those folks are not happy with the end result.

    Double Godwin points for the British historian, who’s clearly the driving force behind the interpretation offered, for referring to colonization (or “deportation,” as he calls it, as being Lincoln’s “final solution” for the “Negro problem.” What an ass.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 14, 2011 @ 8:48

      That’s got to me a historians worst nightmare: thoughtful commentary strung together with an overly-simplistic narrative.

  • London John Feb 14, 2011 @ 1:33

    I wonder why the BBC is going into this sort of detail on Lincoln. I’m confident that almost all BBC programme-makers and executives have never heard of “Free Soil” or Lincoln’s insight into the economics of slavery, for example.
    Did whoever wrote the blurb you quote not realise that “political genius” and “saint” are mutually exclusive? I never liked saints.

  • Arleigh Birchler Feb 13, 2011 @ 5:49

    Good points, Sherree. Change involves reassessing how we think (and subsequently feel) about the past. I did not see the other BBC video. I did finish watching Dr Gates video about Looking for Lincoln. It seems to me that I first saw it before Barack Obama was elected, but my memory is faulty. Certainly it was after the Sons of Confederate Veterans annual convention in Charlotte in which Wary Clyburn’s family was honored. I am wondering if the final segment showing Obama’s speech was added later. I do not recall seeing that before, but I admit to a faulty memory.

    Just read something I think you wrote awhile back:

    “Slavery never broke the spirit of the black man. Never. To call these men ‘soldiers’ or ‘slaves’ is equally offensive. They were neither. They were men. That does not mean, of course, that the black men whom some white men believed they ‘owned’ fought for the ‘country’ that enslaved them (if they ever did, indeed, fight) or for the men who enslaved them. They fought for their own lives, instead, as they were shot at from the North and the South–and even if they carried a pail of water most days, or were called ‘boy’ by some very foolish men, who were themselves ‘boys’.”

    Still looking for some more information about Earl J. Ijames, curator for the N.C. Museum of History. I recall reading Kevin’s remarks about him back when Wary Clyburn was fresh on folk’s minds. Not sure if Ijames is still at the Museum of History. Perhaps I should make a point to meet him. I dedicate most of my time to Carolina Native Plants these days, but a break from the usual might be useful.

    • Sherree Feb 14, 2011 @ 6:59

      Thanks for your kind words, Arleigh. I appreciate that.

      I haven’t watched Dr. Gates’s video in quite some time. When I did watch it, I was under the impression that Dr. Gates neither condoned nor condemned any view about the Civil War or Lincoln, but just presented different views, showing how varied interpretations of the past can be.

      Tending plants provides insight and knowledge all of its own. I am glad that you enjoy it.

      • Arleigh Birchler Feb 14, 2011 @ 7:55


        Just photographed my first Crocus of 2011 in my Holland Circle. Daffodils and Tulips coming up. My native plants are starting to send up interesting shoots.

        Yes, Dr Gates tends to present information, not preach. That is part of the reason I enjoy his videos. There is no doubt that African-Americans “served” with the Confederate Army. Their motivation could be fear of being beaten (or worse), a life-time of conditioning on top of centuries of the same for their people, desire for security with what they knew as familiar, devotion to a person they were raised with, or love of their country. I strongly believe that the percentage of each group rapidly descends in the order I listed them.

  • Sherree Feb 13, 2011 @ 2:15


    I just listened to another broadcast from the BBC entitled “Lincoln and The World”. It is much more insightful than the video you referenced. The write up on the documentary does end with the following curious quote, however, begging for it to be placed within the political context of today: “He (the narrator of the documentary) also explores how Barack Obama’s championship of him (Lincoln) has given Lincoln higher visibility, and whether there is hubris in Obama’s conscious parallelism.”

    This is a very interesting observation for a person who lives in a nation whose Prime Minister just announced that “multiculturalism” is not working . So much of the conversation about history has so little to do with history.

  • Mike Tubridy Feb 12, 2011 @ 23:40

    The BBC is being preposterous in writing that Lincoln “secretly planned” to deport blacks–he discussed his colonization scheme in some depth in his annual message to Congress in 1862. That particular course of action was mistaken, but his reasoning–that freed blacks would have no chance of acceptance in the postwar world–was, given the virulent racism of the time, borne out by events for the next century. The fact was that he was an extraordinary politician who knew how to react to–and, in turn, shape–events. Virtually every American President, with the exception of James Madison, has felt obliged to step into the breech by assuming additional extra-constitutional powers during wartime. At least Lincoln tried to give some of his more notable wartime measures–such as emancipation–some form of legality (in this case, the Thirteenth Amendment).

  • Allen Gathman Feb 12, 2011 @ 18:51

    He “secretly” planned to colonize freed slaves? I guess he was lousy at keeping a secret.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 13, 2011 @ 2:17

      A bizarre statement that reflects no appreciation for the general acceptance of slavery throughout much of the nineteenth century.

  • Arleigh Birchler Feb 12, 2011 @ 15:12

    Yes, Dr Gates videos are always excellent. I watched the one you posted here. Apparently it is only the first part of the new video. I did not see anything terribly objectionable about what I saw. I also watched about half of Dr Gates video. I plan to watch the rest later.

    This sort of pro & con presentation of Lincoln is nothing new. In the little two room school I attended we got both sides. It amazes me when people say “you won’t hear about this in schools.” We did.

    Lincoln can be viewed as a defender of freedom or as a tyrant. There is ample evidence for either side. I suspect he was somewhere in between. Another human being, just like the rest of us. I am often told that I am wrong about this, but I believe that US Presidents have far less power than we give them credit for. They are at the center of great opposing forces. Those forces do more to control what happens then the person in the position does.

    • John Feb 13, 2011 @ 17:52


      I was struck by your comment that US Presidents are at the center of great opposing forces and that those forces do more to control what happens than the person in the position does. This was the subject of my final AP History paper many decades ago. My position then and remains to this day is that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Great leaders like Lincoln are indeed buffeted by great opposing forces, but they are able to find a way to shape events when it is in their power. Lincoln could not have prevented the civil war, despite all his statements attempting to do so. On the other hand, he could and did issue the Emancipation Proclomation at a point in time when it would be advantageous to the Union. Mediocre leaders, on the other hand, are buffeted by those same forces and yet seem to have no idea how to deal with them. James Buchanan, Lincoln’s predecessor, would be an example. Just my opinion but obviously a strongly held one.

      • Arleigh Birchler Feb 14, 2011 @ 6:36


        Actually, I agree with you. I do not feel, however, that any president (Abe Lincoln and Jeff Davis included) should be blamed for everything that happens.

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