Kampala- Dear Andrew, I can no longer restrain myself and let pass your opinion in The Independent of March 07-13, 2014 under the heading “Museveni and Lincoln.’’
I first got acquainted with Abraham Lincoln 50 years ago when I was in Junior Two, the equivalent of today’s Senior One, when a classmate (God bless his soul) allowed me to peruse a book by the title Abraham Lincoln which he had smuggled from his home library.
From that day, I got hooked to Lincoln. I have tried to read every book on that subject that has crossed my way (which must be miniscule, given that more books have been written about Lincoln than any person in history, save Jesus). Still, I would like to think that I know a thing or two about Lincoln.
What struck me the most was the last paragraph of the article:
“Abraham Lincoln was a racist who publicly argued that black people were not equal to white people and should therefore remain in an inferior status, just like Museveni admits to being a homophobe. Yet when confronted with an opportunity to transcend his prejudices and make history by defending something most white Americans disagreed with, Lincoln grabbed the chance. When faced with a similar opportunity, Museveni (whose position on gays has been more progressive than Lincoln’s position on racial equality) allowed short term political considerations to blind his judgment.’’
You say you gained your opinion regarding Lincoln from watching a movie of the same title one afternoon. Well, movies have never been the best medium for depicting the life and character of a historical figure, be it Gandhi, Adolf Hitler, John F. Kennedy or Nelson Mandela. Most movies make a caricature of the subject and short change historical events.
Andrew, you will admit that you are possibly mixing two, and probably three, concepts, namely slavery, racism and racial segregation. But the mix-up is understandable because all three evils were linked in that the victims were one and the same—the black people of African origin—and the perpetrators were the same—the white Americans.
The matter was compounded by the fact that some blacks were slaves while others were free. And there were some American states where slavery was legal and some states where it was illegal, giving rise to the house divided, half- slave and half- free, that Lincoln spoke of.
It helps to clearly see the difference between slavery, racism and racial segregation if we remember that it took another hundred years after the abolition of slavery (in 1865) to abolish racial segregation and racism, overt and covert, lingers still in America to this day.
With regard to slavery and racism, one could be a racist, which assumes one race to be superior to another, but against slavery, which is holding another person, regardless of race, in bondage. But one could not be pro-slavery without being a racist at the same time since American slavery was premised on the presumption of white racial superiority over blacks. Ironically, a Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville in his book Democracy in America (published in 1833) observed, “Race prejudice seems stronger in those states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists, and nowhere is it more intolerant than in those states where slavery was never known.’’
You state that Lincoln was a racist who “transcended’’ his racism and abolished slavery. Was he? Let’s examine the evidence of his racism or lack thereof.
Lincoln’s way of work
At a personal level, Lincoln from an early age empathised and sympathised with black Americans both in terms of bondage and race. He wrote, “I used to be a slave . . . but now I am free.’’ For until he turned 21, his father used to hire him out to farmers to plough their fields and harvest their crops but at the end of his labours the father kept all the earnings. He equated this kind of exploitation by his father to slavery. And writing to a friend who he thought might not remember him well, he described himself as ‘’a long black fellow’’.
Politically, his position was clear from his response during his debates on slavery with Senator Stephen Douglas.
In 1857, the Senator had asserted that those agitating for an end to slavery by invoking the phrase ‘’all men are created equal’’ in the Declaration of Independence “do so only because they want to vote, and eat, and sleep, and marry with negroes’’. Lincoln’s reply was: “Now I protest against that counterfeit logic which concludes that, because I do not want a black woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. I need not have her for either, I can just leave her alone.’’ He continued, “In some respects she certainly is not my equal; but in her natural right to eat the bread she earns with her own hands without asking leave of any one else, she is my equal, and the equal of all others.’’
He challenged the Senator, if he did not believe in the words of the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal, to come up with an amendment to say that all men are created equal except negroes. Are those the words of a racist?
Contrast those words with those of the said Senator, who would argue, ‘’. . . this government of ours was founded on the white basis. It was made by the white man, for the benefit of the white man, to be administered by white men.’’
Now, it has been said that political beliefs do not necessarily correlate with personal behaviour. In other words, quite often, our words may not match our personal conduct and our self-view may not be the same as others see us.
We, therefore, need to examine Lincoln’s personal conduct and how others saw him with regard to the two issues of racism and slavery.