After the celebration, WFU historian takes a clear-eyed look at Lincoln
February 13, 2009
Is the popular notion of Abraham Lincoln as the Great Emancipator—a civil rights champion 200 years ahead of his time—historically accurate, or was the real man inextricably a product of the culture, politics and realities of his day?
Historian Paul Escott, Reynolds Professor of American History at Wake Forest University, challenges romanticized, out-of-context views of Lincoln in his new book, “‘What Shall We Do with the Negro?’ Lincoln, White Racism, and Civil War America.” The book, which takes its title from a headline that appeared in The New York Times in 1862, is published by the University of Virginia Press.
“A more accurate portrait shows a president who placed a higher priority on reunion than emancipation, who showed an enduring respect for states’ rights, who assumed that the social status of African Americans would change very slowly, and who offered major incentives to white Southerners at the expense of blacks,” Escott says. “He was progressive in his day, but not a 21st century egalitarian. One of the things I try to show by analyzing his policies is that he was more concerned about preserving the Union and being conciliatory toward Southern whites than about improving the social status of black Americans.”
Escott has taught Civil War and Reconstruction history for 34 years and is the author or editor of 13 books, including the most recent, “North Carolina in the Era of the Civil War and Reconstruction,”published last September by the University of North Carolina Press.
He is available to discuss the ideas in his book, as well as the frequent references to Lincoln that have appeared in the popular media during Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and the run-up to the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birthday.