In de­fence of Lin­coln

BBC History Magazine - - Letters -

I en­joy Lucy Wors­ley’s pro­grammes – a re­fresh­ing blend of knowl­edge, in­for­mal­ity and a will­ing­ness to ‘ have a go’ at things. So I was sur­prised that she chose to ‘ have a go’ at Lin­coln ( Lin­coln and Slav­ery, Novem­ber), us­ing a ‘sound­bite’ cropped from a let­ter and thus not only mu­ti­lated but taken out of con­text.

I in­clude longer ex­cerpts from the let­ter, writ­ten by Lin­coln to Ho­race Gree­ley in 1862, here: “My para­mount ob­ject in this strug­gle is to save the Union, and is not ei­ther to save or to de­stroy slav­ery. If I could save the Union without free­ing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by free­ing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by free­ing some and leav­ing oth­ers alone I would also do that… I have here stated my pur­pose ac­cord­ing to my view of of­fi­cial duty; and I in­tend no mod­i­fi­ca­tion of my oft-ex­pressed per­sonal wish that all men ev­ery where could be free.”

I be­lieve that Lucy Wors­ley has mis­rep­re­sented this in­ten­tion in the piece. In­deed, so widely was this de­sire known that, upon Lin­coln’s elec­tion as pres­i­dent – be­fore he had even as­sumed of­fice – a se­ries of slave states rushed to

se­cede, ex­plain­ing their in­ten­tion to pro­tect slav­ery in their se­ces­sion procla­ma­tions.

Lin­coln ful­filled his de­sire through the Thir­teenth Amend­ment out­law­ing slav­ery, pi­loted by him through Se­nate and House by Jan­uary 1865. He was cer­tainly not the closet racist, care­less of slav­ery, that the ar­ti­cle ap­pears to sug­gest. Richard Sa­muels, East Sus­sex

Lucy Wors­ley replies: What in­trigues me about this re­sponse is Richard Sa­muels’ de­sire to be­lieve that Lin­coln was “cer­tainly not” a racist.

My point was that, though it would be eas­ier and neater and more sat­is­fy­ing for us to­day to be­lieve that racial equal­ity was at the top of Lin­coln’s agenda as a politi­cian, that was far from the truth – a point that the longer ex­tract proves even bet­ter.

I’m also in­trigued by the de­fen­sive re­sponse you get when­ever you ques­tion the mo­tives of the Great White Men of Amer­i­can his­tory. I be­lieve that the US is still caught up in a dan­ger­ous cult of hero-wor­ship for its Great White Men, from the Found­ing Fa­thers on. And if we’re not al­lowed to cri­tique them, then we’re not al­lowed to cri­tique their legacy.

Is the Amer­ica they cre­ated re­ally – as billed – a land where “all men are cre­ated equal”? Where ev­ery­one – black and white, women and men – gets treated with equal re­spect? Per­son­ally, I have my doubts.

War of words

Am I the only per­son up­set that the ti­tle of the new Peter Jack­son film, They Shall Not Grow Old, is an in­cor­rect quote from Lau­rence Binyon’s poem? It should read: “They shall grow not old.” The DVD has gone out to all schools and will have been seen by mil­lions on the BBC. Gen­er­a­tions will now know only the film ti­tle.

The film is un­be­liev­ably good, and a fit­ting trib­ute to all those in­volved in the First World War – but I can’t for­give the mis­quote. Chris­tine John­ston, Dundee

A ground pan­golin in South Africa. This is among the species threat­ened by hunt­ing to sup­ply the Chi­nese folk medicine mar­ket

US pres­i­dent Abra­ham Lin­coln vis­its Union troops in Mary­land in 1862. His aim in fight­ing the Amer­i­can Civil War was to save the Union, not to free slaves, says Lucy Wors­ley

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