Great America

Erasing Abraham Lincoln

Without understanding the past, we cannot preserve our hard-won freedoms. I hope that Americans are still brave enough to oppose eradicating history, and that the extraordinary story of Abraham Lincoln will live on.

Abraham Lincoln is in the news again. A statue of Lincoln that has stood for over 100 years in Park Square in Boston is the latest target for historic obliteration.

The statue shows Lincoln standing above a crouching half-dressed black man in broken chains. The man is looking up with strength and determination, as if ready to rise.

With American cities in flames, and an all-out propaganda effort underway to depict America as systemically racist, the time seems ripe to destroy symbols of American history that were once deemed to celebrate freedom and its inseparable companion, courage.

Statues of Christopher Columbus and Thomas Jefferson have come under attack. A Black Lives Matters rioter was in a coma after he brought a Confederate monument down on his head in Portsmouth, Virginia. Even the monument honoring the black 54th Massachusetts Regiment in the Civil War, not far from the Lincoln statue, was defaced by rioters.

Among some extremists, a mindless rage to destroy has replaced any sort of attempt to understand the past and America’s long struggle to become the most free and just society in human history, however imperfect it remains.

The Lincoln statue offends some because a black man is seen as subservient to a white man.

“I’ve been watching this man on his knees since I was a kid. It’s supposed to represent freedom, but instead represents us still beneath someone else,” read a petition calling for its removal. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh has reportedly said he is open to removing the statue.

I am glad, at least, that a peaceful process is underway to reconsider the monument, rather than the brute destruction of a feral mob.

The petitioner raises an interesting point. The statue is an artifact of history, a depiction of the past. It does portray a black man as (momentarily) on a lower level than a white man.

But that is what the crime of slavery was. Lincoln is celebrated in the statue as the man who emancipated 4 million black Americans after 250 years of toil and bondage. That is the point of the piece. It freezes in time the horror of slavery and the role of Lincoln in ending it.

As I read the iconography, the black figure is not cowering before, or less than, Lincoln, but staring resolutely at the Emancipation Proclamation in Lincoln’s hand, poised to rise up from his long nightmare, in part through the efforts of that white man. Lincoln freed the slaves—a great moment in history—through the agency of hundreds of thousands of Americans who gave their lives in the terrible Civil War.

The statue’s pedestal reads: “A race set free and the country at peace. Lincoln rests from his labors.”

Consider the history of the statue. It is a replica of the Freedman’s or Emancipation Memorial in Washington, D.C., which was dedicated on April 14, 1876 and funded with money solely donated by former slaves. It defies logic that those who had little, and gave much, to create this statue did so to demean themselves.

The great black leader Frederick Douglass delivered the deeply moving—if not spine-tingling—oration at the statue’s unveiling in Washington. I urge the opponents of the statue to read it. I quote from it in my new book, Every Drop of Blood.

In it, Douglass views the statue from his perspective as a black man. He is characteristically brutally honest in discussing Lincoln—amazingly so, by the standards of the time, when Lincoln was regarded as a martyr and a near saint to African Americans.

“He was preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men. He was ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people to promote the welfare of the white people of this country. … To protect, defend, and perpetuate slavery in the states where it existed Abraham Lincoln was not less ready than any other President to draw the sword of the nation,” Douglass argued.

Nevertheless, he explained, Lincoln despised slavery, and “it was enough for us [black Americans] that Abraham Lincoln was at the head of a great movement, and was in living and earnest sympathy with that movement, which, in the nature of things, must go on until slavery should be utterly and forever abolished in the United States.”

As Douglass put it, “under his wise and beneficent rule, and by measures approved and vigorously pressed by him, we saw that the handwriting of ages, in the form of prejudice and proscription, was rapidly fading away from the face of our whole country.”

Douglass urged white Americans to build far greater monuments to Lincoln. But at the same time, he urged them “to despise not” this statue in Lincoln’s honor, funded by former slaves—“the humble offering we this day unveil to view; for while Abraham Lincoln saved for you a country, he delivered us from a bondage, according to Jefferson, one hour of which was worse than ages of the oppression your fathers rose in rebellion to oppose.”

He noted that 20 years earlier, an effort by black Americans to celebrate such a man would have opened “all the flood-gates of wrath and violence” by those infused with “the spirit of slavery and barbarism.”

“That we are here in peace today is a compliment and a credit to American civilization, and a prophecy of still greater national enlightenment and progress in the future.”

I pray that today’s rising spirit of intolerance and barbarism will not wipe out America’s legacy of enlightenment and progress. Certainly, some of those pushing identity politics seem bent on stoking racial hatreds, destruction and division, rather than moving forward together as brothers and sisters, the approach of Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr.

Will the people determined to remove black Americans’ monument to Lincoln consider the provenance of the statue or Douglass’s speech? Have they been taught who Frederick Douglass was?

Without understanding the past, we cannot preserve our hard-won freedoms. I hope that Americans are still brave enough to oppose eradicating history, and that the extraordinary story of Abraham Lincoln will live on.

(Read Edward Achorn’s books about American history.)