Abraham Lincoln and White America. By Brian R. Dirck. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2012. 213 pp.
Americans tend to mythologize Abraham Lincoln, and in recent decades the temptation has been to regard him as a champion of racial equality. Brian Dirck resists that temptation. Resolutely, he sticks to the facts and with thorough research explores Lincoln's relationship to race and white society in his era. He thoughtfully speculates on what it meant to Lincoln to be white and how whiteness affected his actions.
Dirck concludes that "Lincoln very definitely functioned under a set of limitations where race was concerned," for he was "in many ways a product of the predominant white culture of his time." Though better than most of his contemporaries and "still fundamentally admirable," Lincoln "could have done more to confront white bigotry" (p. x). Lincoln grew up in, was immersed in, and sought power and influence in a racist society. As a rising politician, he endorsed racist positions or used racist humor to advance his interests. By the 1850s, many Northerners were coming to see slavery as undesirable or wrong or a threat to their own interests. But slavery and race were two distinct issues: white Northerners could be antislavery yet shudder at the thought of living in a society where free black people aspired to equality. Throughout his career, Lincoln's "passionate hatred of human bondage was not matched by a passionate hatred of white supremacy" (p. 86).
Dirck rightly points out that before the Civil War, Lincoln repeatedly tried to reassure Southern whites that he and his party posed no threat to slavery where it existed. When slavery and emancipation became pressing wartime issues, managing the fears of white Northerners became one of the president's responsibilities. "[B]y pitching emancipation almost exclusively in military terms," Lincoln appealed "directly to whites' self-interest," hoping to lessen their racial fears (p. 117).
We have known that Lincoln underestimated the commitment of most Southerners to the Confederacy. Dirck argues that he also "had a difficult time grasping the dark depths of white Southerners' fear and loathing of African Americans" (p. 87) even as he "worried incessantly about the ... deep, ugly reservoir of white racial fear that emancipation would expose and probably exacerbate" in the North (p. 105).
Colonization of African Americans in some other country was a way to mollify whites' anxieties...