The Anatomy of Lincoln Day in Virginia

Lincoln's Civil War Class at Tredegar (2009)

I highly recommend heading over to Richard Williams’s Old Virginia Blog for a thoughtful commentary on the Lincoln Day resolution.  Richard points out what he sees as an inconsistency between how Governor Robert McDonnell’s Confederate History Day proclamation was received and Sen. Marsh’s Lincoln resolution.  Let’s be clear that this story has yet to hit the mainstream news so I must assume that Richard is responding to the debate over the past week on this blog.  From OVB:

But this proclamation also leaves out quite a bit of President Lincoln’s legacy. In light of all the negative hoopla last year over McDonnell’s Confederate History proclamation, I’m having difficulty reconciling all the celebration over this proclamation, with all the hysterical objections we heard over the Confederate History proclamation. It just doesn’t add up. Am I the only one who sees the inconsistencies here?

Richard goes on to suggest a number of things about Lincoln’s racial outlook that ought to be remembered to determine whether he, in fact, deserves such an honor.  They include references to colonization, the Emancipation Proclamation, the fugitive slave act, the Corwin Amendment, and a “fondness” for black minstrel shows and the “N” word.  Some of these points are more relevant than others, but that is up to each individual to decide.  Of course, I could come up with another short list that would tip the balance back in favor of Lincoln.  The bigger problem, however, is with the nature of these resolutions and their tendency to pluck out specific acts from any historical context.  In both Marsh’s resolution and Richard’s post we get no sense of Lincoln’s evolution in regard to his racial outlook nor do we understand his role at the time of the act.  The Lincoln of 1865 that is contemplating a limited suffrage for African Americans is not the Lincoln of 1850 or even 1862.

The bigger point for Richard is whether the resolution includes “the whole story.”

Personally, I don’t have a big problem with giving Lincoln his day – as long as the record includes the whole story, as was demanded for Confederate History month. We do want to be consistent and objective, don’t we?

This is a curious point given that no monument or commemoration includes the whole story; rather, it includes the story that an individual or community has a desire or need to remember.  In the case of Governor McDonnell’s Confederate History Month proclamation enough Virginians voiced their concerns that it had ignored a salient aspect of Confederate history.  This was enough to bring about a retraction and later a proclamation setting aside April as Civil War History in Virginia Month.  The other problem for Gov. McDonnell’s original proclamation was that it was framed as reflecting a “shared history” for all Virginians.  That was seen as problematic, especially among African Americans.

The verdict is still out on whether the Lincoln proclamation both includes the right historical references and whether it speaks to the preferred memory of the past and values of enough Virginians.  There is no objective answer to this question.  It depends entirely on who chooses to get involved and speak out through our democratic system.  As I’ve said before, I am just happy that we now live at a time when all Virginians can take part in these discussions.

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14 comments… add one
  • TF Smith Jan 29, 2012 @ 23:15

    Cripes, Eric Foner won the Bancroft, Lincoln, and Pulitzer for producing an eminently readable, easily followed, and short (400+ pages, including the index) study of Lincoln’s progression of thought and action regarding emancipation, including ample context, and with a chronology and pictures…

    I’d expect even Mr. Williams could follow it.


  • Dudley Bokoski Jan 29, 2012 @ 10:37

    I understand your point. Mr. Williams was drawing an equivalency in the two arguments you felt wasn’t there. It is the difference between omitting a big ticket item (slavery) in the Confederate History Month as opposed to whether there is a requirement to add a wide range of more nuanced information to the discussion of the Lincoln Day.

    It raises an interesting question-what should be included in the justification? I think it is just human nature when you’re proposing something like this you would want to accentuate the positive. The responsibility for bringing forward the negatives would attach to opponents of whatever form of recognition was involved.

    Here’s a hypothetical example, not intended as anything but that. Would you expect the Lincoln Day proponents to include a discussion of Union war tactics in Virginia, specifically the burning by Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley? Someone might argue full disclosure requires it, but my view is simply that advocates of the recognition should focus on the positives and leave the additional information they feel the public needs to the opponents.

    • Michael Lynch Jan 29, 2012 @ 17:22

      I think that’s right. It’s in the nature of commemorative pronouncements to be celebratory and superficial. The reason so many people were upset over the Confederate History Month proclamation is because slavery was so integral to the Confederacy’s reason for existence. For a CHM proclamation to gloss over it is a pretty big omission. For a Lincoln proclamation to ignore his racial views, not so much.

      It’s not a matter of one thing being excusable and one thing being inexcusable. It’s a matter of one thing being indispensable to a particular historical topic and less important to another. Can you understand the history of the Confederacy without slavery being an integral part of the story? Nope. Can you understand Lincoln’s importance to American history without minstrel-type humor being an integral part of the story? Yeah, I think so.


  • Michael Lynch Jan 29, 2012 @ 10:22

    Personally, I don’t see why VA needs a Lincoln Day. My reaction to history-related proclamations and declarations is usually something along the lines of, “Thanks for the sentiment, but this is no substitute for supporting museums, parks, archives, and all the other institutions that actually help foster public historical sensibility.”

    Having said that, I’m pretty much with Al on this one. Richard’s statement that the Emancipation Proclamation “really did nothing” is simply not true, and his statement that a desire to protect white jobs is what prompted Lincoln’s opposition to the spread of slavery is extremely difficult to square with the historical record.

    If he expects the “academics and history bloggers” who criticized the CHM proclamation to condemn the Lincoln Day idea because of Lincoln’s racial views, that indicates that he doesn’t really make a distinction between Lincoln’s racial attitudes and the centrality of slavery in instigating secession. And if he really doesn’t see that distinction. . .wow.

    To me, it seems to be reducing history to the level of “my dad can beat up your dad.” Or rather, “your dad is just as much a scoundrel as my dad.”


  • Dudley Bokoski Jan 29, 2012 @ 7:16

    I think you hit the key point, which is context. It is definitely a balancing act to evaluate statements from other periods of history. Some of them are spin your head bad in 2012, but probably were not uncommon at the time.

    Just to give one example, there is a letter in the O.R. from Union general Henry Halleck complaining his troops aren’t getting paid because Congress is spending all its time on questions related to African-Americans. Only, he did not use that terminology, sinking a good deal lower in his use of words.

    In the modern context, using the word Halleck used would be a career ender. At the time it was not remarked on and the War Department didn’t censure him for his comments or take any note of them, beyond trying to find the money to pay his troops.

    So what do you do with Halleck? You could banish him to some historical closet and vow never to speak his name again, despite his accomplishments. Or, you could ignore what he said and write it all off to the times he lived in. The third approach, which I think is more valid, is to use context to shine a light, accepting imperfections but still examining them and giving them some weight.

    Taking it a step forward to Lincoln, it argues that finding out he had less than enlightened attitudes shouldn’t result in some sort of historian’s version of capital punishment, banning him from being honored. But we shouldn’t evaluate figures on either side on a straight up or down vote. Better to use a scale where we can weigh and balance the historical record and see which direction it tilts.

    If we take that approach, though, we have should take it consistently in looking at leading figures on both sides of the conflict. I don’t think Richard’s questioning of whether that is happening is a bad thing, because these discussions are a way society calibrates historical memory. When it comes to debate, more is usually better (there may be a Gingrich exception to that rule, but that’s my own prejudice).

    • Kevin Levin Jan 29, 2012 @ 7:20

      I have no problem with Richard’s pointing out the selective nature of the resolution, but I do take issue with what he finds problematic in terms of what is not included. See Brooks Simpson’s post on this subject. The question is whether the general public will have a problem with what has been selected to justify setting aside a day. In the case of the governor’s Confederate History Month proclamation enough people expressed concern with commemorating the Confederacy and its army without a reference to slavery.

  • Al Mackey Jan 28, 2012 @ 18:22

    Sorry, but I find his post lacking in logic as well as historical literacy. That Lincoln had relations in Virginia who may have owned slaves has nothing to do with Abraham Lincoln himself. We are not our family, we are ourselves. Lincoln himself didn’t support Illinois’ black laws, but they were the law. He shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the Emancipation Proclamation and of the constitutional interpretation of the time regarding slavery. He shows a lack of understanding of the fundamental disagreement regarding slavery’s expansion and why the Corwin Amendment was insufficient as a compromise measure. Of course, his citation of Lerone Bennett’s discredited twisting of Lincoln as a historical figure explains a lot of this lack of knowledge. You’ve already pointed out his misunderstanding of the difference between the two proposals and his apparent unawareness of the evolution of Lincoln’s thinking. The story of Lincoln’s racial views is well told in David Donald’s biography, in Michael Burlingame’s biography, in the writings of Gabor Boritt, Henry Louis Gates, LaWanda Cox, Benjamin Quarles, and Allen Guelzo. That Mr. Williams believes the story isn’t told merely shows his unfamiliarity with the relevant literature. I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point. So the question I would have is why would you highly recommend reading that post? What am I missing about it?

    • Margaret D. Blough Jan 28, 2012 @ 22:20

      Excellent post, Al. I agree with everything you say. What I read in Mr. Williams’ post is a lot of the standard cherry picking. If he wants to truly understand Lincoln’s views, I suggest he read Lincoln’s private letter to his friend Joshua Speed Another piece that is relevant are his letters regarding proposals far more expansive than the Corwin amendment during the secession winter with the threat of war looming, including his December 11, 1860 letter to Rep. William Pitt Kellogg, “Entertain no proposition for a compromise in regard to the EXTENSION of slavery. The instant you do, they have us under again; all our labor is lost, and sooner or later must be done over. Douglas is sure to be again trying to bring in his “Pop. Sov.” Have none of it. The tug has to come & better now than later.”

      I was really disappointed to see the treatment of Lincoln’s support for colonization (a very popular proposition among Whigs, which Lincoln was for a long time) with the strong implication that Lincoln supported forced deportation of freed slaves abroad. There were many who did, but I have yet to see that Lincoln ever supported anything but voluntary colonization (a pretty common solution in the Western world to intractable social problems). His meeting with Black leaders in the White House in 1862 was extraordinary not only in his statement that much of the reason for colonization was the ill treatment that whites could be expected to direct to freed slaves but that the meeting occurred at all. A common thread among the white supporters of colonization was the blithe assumption that they knew what was best for the freed people. It never occurred to most of them that the freed slaves might have other ideas.

      Mr. Williams’ attempts to find a parallel with the controversy over Gov. McDonnell’s CWM proclamations is totally misplaced. To find an equivalency between Abraham Lincoln’s occasional use of the “n” word and the other items listed, on the one hand, and the issue of leaving the entire issue of slavery out of the Governor’s original CWM population reminds me uncomfortably of the sick one liner, “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?”

      Lincoln wasn’t perfect and didn’t pretend to be. But to put down the effects of his convictions and leadership on the issue of rights for blacks when all one needs to do is look at what his immediate successors, with the exception of U.S. Grant, did in that regard, is troubling.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 29, 2012 @ 3:05

      Thanks for the comment, Al. I think I was pretty clear as to where I disagree with Williams on this matter. I thought it was worth considering a different perspective to highlight my own position.

      • Al Mackey Jan 29, 2012 @ 9:49

        Thanks, Kevin. Yes, you were clear in your disagreement. My great concern would be choice of words, i.e., the use of “higly recommend.” I think that word choice implies reading the post would be very useful and educational. I would disagree that the post was either. I agree it can be used as a foil, but I would suggest “highly recommend” implies more than that.

  • Richard Williams Jan 28, 2012 @ 14:48

    Thanks for the link Kevin.

    “This is a curious point given that no monument or commemoration includes the whole story”

    Precisely. As we both know, that is not the purpose of these commemorations nor the purpose of monuments. I was simply pointing out what appears to me to be inconsistencies.

  • Lindsay Jan 28, 2012 @ 5:20

    I like Richard and his blog – he brings up some great points, some that I hadn’t considered. Adds for an interesting dimension to the discussion regarding this proposed bill.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 28, 2012 @ 5:24


      • Margaret D. Blough Jan 28, 2012 @ 9:33

        I’m not going to quote it again (I’ve done that often enough on this Blog) but I think that the best responses would be Frederick Douglass’s speech at the dedication of the Freedmen’s monument and John Wilkes Booth’s reported remarks after hearing Lincoln’s impromptu address from a White House window to a celebratory crowd that developed there on April 11, 1865. Lincoln indicated that he was considering LIMITED black suffrage and Booth is said to have responded with racist expletives and the declaration that it was the last speech Lincoln would ever made. Both got what made Lincoln exceptional for a white man of his generation (and all generations before and many afterwards) and what was relevant.

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