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The Conflicted Lincoln: "Forever Free," June 14 through July 24 at the Moline Public Library PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Feature Stories
Wednesday, 11 June 2008 02:32

Reader issue #688 The truth of history usually takes decades to emerge from the overload of the present, but in 1876 Frederick Douglass made an assessment of Abraham Lincoln that remains succinct, elegant, and accurate: "From a genuine abolition point of view, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent, but measuring him by the sentiment of his country - a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to discuss - he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined."

That, in a nutshell, is the thesis of Forever Free: Abraham Lincoln's Journey to Emancipation - opening on June 14 at the Moline Public Library. The traveling exhibit is visiting 63 libraries throughout the United States through May 2010. On the eve of the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth (, the exhibit puts Lincoln's views and actions on slavery firmly in their era, in the process both flattering him and revealing some ugly realities.

Forever Free is hardly comprehensive, but it serves as a concise primer working toward a nuanced understanding of the person behind the "Great Emancipator" Lincoln legend.

As Lisa Powell Williams, adult services coordinator for the Moline Public Library, said: "It's a launching point. It's a starting point. ... I think it'll be a good catalyst" for further learning.

Forever Free is a collection of documents, quotes, drawings, cartoons, facts, photographs, and explanatory text putting Lincoln into historical context. Most of the materials are drawn from the collections of the Huntington Library (in San Marino, California) and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History (in New York City).

"It helps set a mood and a tone, and it just seems really approachable," said Neil Dahlstrom, the Quad Cities-based co-author of Lincoln's Wrath: Fierce Mobs, Brilliant Scoundrels, & a President's Mission to Destroy the Press. "It's not an exhibit where you have to start at the beginning and work your way to the end."

Dahlstrom was instrumental in bringing the exhibit to the Quad Cities, Williams said. The author, who works at Augustana College, said his goal was to "have the Quad Cities included in some of those [bicentennial] celebrations."

(If you wonder about Lincoln's relevance today, consider Dahlstrom's book, which concerns wartime censorship that, the author admits, sounds "eerily familiar" in the context of current U.S. entanglements.)

As its subtitle suggests, Forever Free traces Lincoln's views on slavery from his upbringing through his presidency.

The exhibit is "trying to show that Lincoln's arrival [at the Emancipation Proclamation] ... was not easy," said Susan Brandehoff, program director for traveling exhibits for the American Library Association, which is presenting Forever Free. "It was a lifetime path. He had a lot of things to weigh."

"I think it's important to talk about Lincoln's process in the context of his own time, instead of looking at it from a modern context," Dahlstrom said. "People don't just come to random conclusions. There are aspects of their life that bring them to those conclusions."

Lincoln's feelings about slavery were conflicted long before he was in any position to effect change at the national level. The first Lincoln quotation in the exhibit comes from 1837 and shows the tension between his ideals and their application: "I believe that the institution of slavery is founded on both injustice and bad policy; but that the promulgation of abolition doctrines tends rather to increase than to abate its evils."

While Lincoln was morally opposed to slavery, he approached the topic as a pragmatist. The exhibit text notes: "The colonization movement proposed removing blacks from America as a condition for the abolition of slavery. ... Eminent statesmen like Thomas Jefferson and Henry Clay supported colonization. So did Abraham Lincoln - right up to the time he issued the Emancipation Proclamation."

Lincoln expressed that perspective in his first debate with Stephen A. Douglas, in the 1858 campaign for the U.S. Senate: "My first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia - to their own native land."

He immediately rejected the idea because "its sudden execution is impossible." But that left him with the question of what to do with freed slaves, and here Lincoln balked at making them equals of whites: "What next? Free them, and make them politically and socially our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not. ... We cannot, then, make them equals."

The exhibit also notes that Lincoln considered the abolition of slavery dangerous from a war perspective: "When the Civil War broke out in 1861, President Lincoln quickly declared that the North was fighting only to restore the Union, and not to free the slaves. Lincoln moved cautiously, struggling to hold together a fragile coalition. He feared that moving against slavery would push the border states of Maryland and Kentucky into the arms of the Confederacy. Lincoln also recognized that white racism was powerful and widespread in the North. The president thought that the Northern war effort could be fatally damaged if he appeared to be a champion of black freedom."

Lincoln was wise to delay any actions on slavery, Dahlstrom noted: "At the end of the day, you lose the war, and the discussion over slavery doesn't matter a whole lot."

The exhibit text also emphasizes that Lincoln supported gradual emancipation of slaves: "In 1861 and 1862, Abraham Lincoln proposed plans for freeing the slaves over many years, with the government playing slaveholders for their human property. The president himself drafted this plan for emancipation for the loyal slave state of Delaware. Under its terms, the last slaves would not have been freed until 1893. When the border states rejected his plan, Lincoln decided on immediate emancipation."

On September 22, 1862, Lincoln signed the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. And on January 1, 1863, the president signed the final order: "I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States and parts of States are, and henceforward shall be, free."

The exhibit points out that the Emancipation Proclamation had a limited effect, but that it was more than mere gesture: "Lincoln's critics have charged that the Emancipation Proclamation gave immediate freedom to no one. The assertion is false. The Proclamation settled the uncertain status of the tens of thousands of fugitive slaves who had escaped during 1861 and 1862: No longer were escaped slaves mere ‘contraband of war'; now they were free people."

Forever Free makes clear that altruistic considerations aside, Lincoln had one major reason to declare slaves free: "Enlisting black soldiers in the Northern army was one of the most important provisions of the Emancipation Proclamation. By war's end, some 200,000 African American soldiers and sailors had fought for the Union. Most of them - about 140,000 - were escaped slaves, and nearly 40,000 gave their lives. The Union's black warriors did more than win battles; they also changed minds. The bravery of black volunteers helped to change white people's preconceptions of the character and abilities of an entire race of oppressed Americans. It was [an] enormous step toward freedom and equality."

Dahlstrom noted that it's often overlooked that emancipation was "a political tool for Lincoln. It's hard to separate Lincoln's personal feelings with how he uses this as a political tool and a war tool."

And even after the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln was obviously ambivalent on the issue of slavery.

In his second inaugural address in March 1865 Lincoln was still making the case that the Civil War was less about abolition than circumscribing slavery: "To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it."

Even in that speech, less than six weeks before his assassination, Lincoln refused to unequivocally condemn slavery: "Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered."


Forever Free was organized by the Huntington Library and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History in cooperation with the American Library Association.

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