Friday, April 17, 2009

Just finished reading - Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln's White Dream by Lerone Bennett, Jr.

I wrote in an earlier post that if you don't read any other book in this, the bicentennial year of Lincoln's birth, that you should read House of Abraham: Lincoln and the Todds, A Family Divided by War by Stephen Berry. I must revise that statement, and add Forced Into Glory as well. But, be forewarned, this is not your typical "Lincoln the great American" book. Nor is it a critique of Lincoln's alleged responsibility for our modern big government and tax issues, and it really isn't a biography either, although it does look closely at different aspects of his life.

I had heard this book mentioned at the "Lincoln and the South" conference I had attended in Richmond back in March, and my friend Mr. Hari Jones of the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum in Washington, D.C. had recommended it as well when I visited there on Lincoln's birthday back in February.

Mr. Bennett uses this 600 + page book to critique Lincoln's stance on race and debunk the long held idea/myth that Lincoln was the "Great Emancipator." Now, I know what many people will say. "Of course Lincoln was racist, what white man wasn't in the mid-19th century?" Well, Bennett covers that excellent point and offers a number of examples of men who worked to see blacks gain citizenship and equality. His examples are not just your standard John Brown, Wendell Phillips (although Bennett does use him a lot), William Lloyd Garrison types. To make his point, Bennett moves closer to Lincoln's own region, Illinois, and uses the examples of Elijah P. and Owen Lovejoy and Lyman Trumbull to show that some politically ambitious men didn't follow the standard race line.

One part of the book that I found especially interesting was Lincoln's fondness of telling off-color stories and jokes (mainly racial), and his fondness of minstrel shows. Bennett relays a number of these incidents by quoting those who were around Lincoln and witnessed these events. Lincoln sought to relieve severe bouts of depression through humor and theater, but according to Bennett Lincoln didn't choose his topics with an air of sensitivity.

Although he brings up some good points, I think Bennett mainly beats a dead horse over the "Great Emancipator" issue. It is pretty clear from Lincoln's language in the Emancipation Proclamation he wanted to be fairly elusive in its intentions. Bennett examines this event from a number of different angles and adds a few different perspectives I hadn't considered. But, I think here, Bennett might be missing the bigger picture while focusing too closely on the details.

Another issue that Bennett makes clear is Lincoln's colonization plans. Lincoln, being follower of the great Whig Henry Clay, followed Clay's ideas that the best possible solution to the problem of race in America was to deport blacks to other countries or regions; Central American, the Caribbean, or Africa. Lincoln looked for opportunities to establish colonization as a reality according to Bennett right up until the time of his death.

Bennett seems to be quite thorough in his documentation, and backs up most of his allegations with solid evidence. I recommend this book mainly to see another side of Lincoln that is largely hid due to what his administration did accomplish. Some of Lincoln's historical warts often get left out in favor of a more pretty appearance in many historical examinations. I think it is important to know historical figures for the real men they were; the good with the bad. This work presents more of the bad than the good of Lincoln in effort to balance out the myths that have persisted since 1865. I encourage you to read Forced Into Glory and decide for yourself.

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