Chicago Ill.: I enjoyed your column, and don't take this the wrong way, but you're sort of restating the obvious. The whole point about Lincoln is that he represents the triumph of good during a period of American history when things could have gone so wrong. Of course he was a "racist" as people in 2009 understand that word -- that's the whole point. Anyone who's ever read any of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, or anything else on the subject from before the war, sees that immediately. (And face it, pretty much everyone on the planet was a racist in 1860. Or 1960.)
Henry Louis Gates Jr.: It is the arc of the progress Lincoln made wrestling with the demons of anti-black racial attitudes, in addition to his commitment to abolishing slavery and preserving the union, which makes Abraham Lincoln our greatest president.
Politically, his actions were dependent on careful maneuvering, which often enough embittered both the Radical Republicans and abolitionists, but in the end Lincoln’s patience, his political insights and intuition for the right timing of political action were able to achieve the final abolition of slavery. He always, though, had sought proximity to the abolitionists. His long-time law partner William Herndon belonged to this group as well as several members of his cabinet and his first Vice President. In contrast to the abolitionists, especially Frederick Douglass, Lincoln had long distinguished between the fight against slavery and the one against racism. His political vision about the American nation and its territorial expansion into the West had always been accompanied by the notion of a predominately white society. While the Civil War developed its own dynamics, a political and mental alteration in Lincoln’s attitude occurred, so that he could only accept a united nation in freedom. In his Gettysburg Address of November 1863 he proclaimed a “new birth of freedom.”
Lincoln lived in a historic period of severe social transformations the United States experienced between 1800 and 1865, which had shaped Lincoln, but which Lincoln himself influenced decisively as well. The central question that finally tore the nation apart was the institution of slavery with its ramification in politics, economy and culture. The private person and the political Lincoln went through changes regarding the position towards the question of slavery and race, a development that might seem difficult to dismantle at times. What can be accounted for as sheer political maneuvers and what would be his personal opinions; and where do these intersect? Privately, Lincoln felt deeply connected to some African Americans—already in Springfield to his long-time hairdresser William Florville whom he kept in touch with. In Washington, it was the closest intimate of his wife Mary, her black seamstress Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave, whom Lincoln called “Madam Elizabeth.”
Shortly before his death, Lincoln was explicitly of the opinion that black veterans of the Union army and the particularly intelligent and educated African Americans should be allowed to vote, and thus gain political participation within the post-war society. By publicly announcing this opinion shortly after the surrender of the South in his last speech on April 11, 1865, he had spoken his own death warrant. Among the audience was his assassin, the fanatic Southerner and racist John Wilkes Booth, who commented on Lincoln’s words with fury: “That means nigger citizenship. Now by God I’ll put him through!” Only a few days later, on April 14, 1865, Good Friday, the actor Booth successfully carried out the first presidential assassination in American history by murdering Lincoln in a theater in Washington.
Brooklyn: Why is it necessarily assumed because Lincoln freed the slaves, that he saw black people as equals with whites? I would think in that day that even those who thought slavery was wrong, probably still believed blacks were inferior humans to whites. And besides, freeing the slave wasn't not done on moral grounds, but practical ones in order to win a war. FDR led this country in its defeat of Nazism, yet reports of anti-Semitic comments by him abound. People are complex and inconsistent animals. That's what we are. It only becomes an issue when we as a society decide to defy a human like we do with Lincoln.
Herndon, Va.: Mr. Gates: This is a great, and never-ending subject for discussion. I note for the record I am white, and am the first to agree that, by today's standards, Lincoln would be considered a racist. He was ahead of many who lived at that time. His first priority HAD to be winning the war. Everything else, including ending slavery, was secondary. If, somehow, the Union had not won the war, then Lincoln's actions in regard to slavery would have made no difference to the slaves in the Confederacy.
Henry Louis Gates Jr.: The black abolitionists were fond of saying that the only thing their white abolitionist brothers and sisters hated more than slavery was the slave. No doubt this was meant as a joke to critique the residues of racism, but you are absolutely correct that being opposed to slavery as an economic institution is most certainly not the same as being in favor of racial equality between blacks and whites.
Bethesda, Md.: I realize that your goal is to shed light on the evolution of Lincoln's views on slavery and on the dichotomy of holding conflicting viewpoints. But why frame the discussion with the sensational title "Was Lincoln a Racist?"
Henry Louis Gates Jr.: President Obama published an essay on Lincoln in Time Magazine in 2005 in which he revealed that he fully understands the complexity of Lincoln's attitudes about slavery and race.
It was after the Civil War and it involved Pres. Grant’s plan to annex San Domingo in 1870. Douglass gave his support for this in defiance of Charles Sumner, “who argued fervently that black citizens should be protected and encouraged to succeed right at home, not shipped off to the Caribbean. It would have been entirely consistent for Douglass to feel precisely the same way, but the attraction of a presidential appointment, even to a secondary post as secretary to the commission, was so alluring that he simply looked past Sumner’s objection, choosing to see the presidential assignment as an honor.” It cost Sumner his chairmanship of the Foreign Relations Committee, but he had already drummed up enough opposition to defeat it.
I believe a hero to be anyone who possesses the qualities of a hero: courageous, perseverant and compassionate – all of which Abraham Lincoln perfectly demonstrates....
Minneapolis, Minn.: What is it in us that seeks absolute perfection in human beings, people we put on pedestals? In that, I mean why do we think that people who rise to do great things: Abraham Lincoln, Lyndon Johnson, Martin Luther King, for example, were not flawed and complex human beings? Why are we shocked that Lyndon Johnson regularly used the word "n*gger" in private conversations, or that Martin Luther King was a womanizer (supposedly), or that Abraham Lincoln may not particularly have liked black people?