Sea of Reads

Peripatetic, itinerant, eclectic musings about books, politics, history, language, culture, and anything else that interests me.

Arresting Paragraph

Here is a paragraph from Lincoln’s Virtues that stopped me in my tracks when I read it:

… It is not easy for a person in a later century, when slavery has long since been abolished and its essential evil universally taken for granted, to imagine a time when slavery was a big, actual, thriving institution in the United States, with vigorous defenders. Because it is so hard to recreate in our minds that situation, it may also be hard to take seriously Lincoln’s arguments against that obviously evil institution. The inclination in a later time is to skip over his treatment of slavery, about which there is no longer any issue, and so move immediately to his treatment of race, about which there still are many issues. [p. 274]

I never thought about it this way before, but this is why when people now look back at Lincoln’s opposition to slavery, sometimes they question, or don’t grasp, how profound and heartfelt and — for his time — radical, his views were, because at times Lincoln would speak about black people in ways that we now regard as stereotyped and offensive. For example, Lincoln used the word “Sambo” as a generic reference to slaves. That’s a term that no one but the most unreconstructed racist would use today. But the word did not have the meaning to him that it has to us, today. No one could use that word today and claim not to have “intended” it as a racist slur. That just won’t fly in 2009, nor should it. But in the mid-nineteenth century, when Lincoln used the term in a speech about the “monstrous injustice” of slavery, it said nothing about his larger racial attitudes.

Slavery was the great, central moral question of Lincoln’s time and place. Racism as we understand it today was not.

I think this is slightly different from the “he was a man of his time” argument, which I’ve always found disingenuous and intellectually dishonest. Of course, Lincoln existed as a real, physical person in a real, historical time and place — and it’s too much to expect that he would be completely unaffected by the assumptions and prejudices of his time. Nevertheless, in his ethical and moral development, he was not merely a man of his time. And historians to this day are stumped as to where Lincoln’s unqualified human goodness came from.

I wonder: What glaringly obvious ethical and moral issues are even our most enlightened thinkers unaware of today?


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This entry was posted on February 2, 2009 by in Currently Reading.
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