Lerone Bennett, Jr.’s book, “Forced Into Glory” (1999), convincingly documents how most historical accounts have wrongly described Abraham Lincoln as a fighter against slavery. His work also shows that Lincoln was intensely reactionary, making decisions which, contrary to legend, returned many blacks to slavery.
Bennett insists that Lincoln had a life-long commitment to racism. In 1853, as one of 11 managers of the Illinois State Colonization Society, he advocated colonization of all blacks to Central or South America. In 1857 he urged the Illinois legislature to appropriate money for colonization. Three months after signing the Emancipation Proclamation, he sent 450 blacks to an island off the coast of Haiti where 100 died within a year. In April 1865, Lincoln summoned General Benjamin Butler to the White House about the “possibility of sending the Blacks away.”
Bennett documents consistency, from Lincoln’s 1836 vote against black suffrage to his 1865 support of the Louisiana constitution which gave the vote to Confederate veterans but not to black veterans of the U.S. Army.
In 1847, as an attorney representing a slave-owner, he asked two judges to send a black mother and her four children back into slavery. The white judges rejected Lincoln’s plea and freed the family. Lincoln’s law partner, William Herendon, took cases of slaves, but Lincoln never did.
Bennett challenges those who excuse Lincoln’s attitude, saying the few exceptions in the racist climate of the 19th century are out-spoken abolitionists like Wendell Phillips or the militant John Brown. But men like Lyman Trumbull, a known opponent of the pro-slavery Kansas-Nebraska Act, were elected to the Senate over Lincoln. In 1853, 22 Illinois legislators stood against the Negro Exclusion Law, but not Lincoln. Members of Lincoln’s cabinet spoke out for Negro suffrage. Politicians from Mid-West states led the fight against Negro exclusion and black laws. Other politicians took stands for instant emancipation, confiscation of rebels’ land and for use of black soldiers.
Bennett critiques the Gettysburg Address for avoiding pressing issues of the day. The lynchings and burnings of blacks in NYC that very year weren’t mentioned. Lincoln never uttered the words Confederate, South or slave.
Bennett describes how each of three drafts of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation reacted to a more progressive Congress. Congressman Daniel Gott called for a ban on the slave trade in the nation’s capital. Lincoln then wrote his first draft, a bill for gradual and compensated emancipation in D.C., stating that all persons now within said District lawfully held as slaves should remain such.
In September 1861, Lincoln revoked General Fremont’s blanket emancipation of all the slaves in Missouri. Intense criticism caused him to write his second “emancipation” draft, proposing gradual emancipation but total compensation for slave-owners in Delaware, with two timetables for ending slavery: 1893 and 1914!
In 1862, when General Hunter decreed that all slaves in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida should be freed, Lincoln revoked it, re-enslaving one million people! Criticism was again levied at Lincoln, so Congress urgently signed the Second Confiscation Act saying that all rebel property, including slaves even 1,000 miles from a battlefield, could be seized. Lincoln countered on July 22, allowing 60 days warning for the South, and only for gradual, compensated confiscation.
That July, Congress also authorized the use of black soldiers. Lincoln told a delegation of Midwesterners in August that he would rather resign than use black soldiers to kill white men.
Ultimately, the Proclamation “enslaved and/or continued to enslave over half a million slaves, more than it ever freed,” because there was no power to effectively free slaves in rebel states. The border states, with an additional 556,540 slaves, were excluded because they weren’t in rebellion. Also excluded were large sections of Tennessee, Louisiana and Virginia controlled by federal troops — 396,863 slaves — some already wage workers. In January, 1863, slaves totaled four million. By February 1865, two months before the war ended, 3,800,000 blacks were still enslaved.
What did Lincoln do on race issues? He volunteered three times for the war to ethnically cleanse Illinois of Indians. He maintained the brutal treatment of black soldiers and their unequal pay. When William Walker, a black soldier, protested, Lincoln condemned him to the firing squad. He made sure 38 Indians hung for rebelling against his administration’s genocidal strategy. But when Confederates massacred hundreds of blacks, women and children at Fort Pillow, Lincoln did nothing.
Bennett’s work is well-researched and relentlessly exposes Lincoln’s reactionary policies. He also directs sharp criticism at modern biographers for perpetuating the racist hypocrisy of Lincoln’s heroic image as “the freer of slaves.”