I still use Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery-American Freedom in my colonial America course. Morgan’s book is still, in my opinion, the best historical narrative of early Virginia. (The students love it!) I also like Morgan because he offers my students a great lesson in contextualization, especially in regards to race. Morgan teaches us that “racism” is not a timeless idea. It does not look the same in every historical era, but has been constructed differently in particular times and places, such as seventeenth-century Virginia.
This is the lesson of Sam Wineburg’s fourth chapter of Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past. Wineburg builds the chapter around Abraham Lincoln’s remarks on the inferiority of the “black races.” To the twenty-first century reader, Lincoln’s words are hard to swallow:
I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which in my judgment will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality…I am in favor of the race to which I belong, having the superior position. I have never said anything to the contrary.
There are many who have used these words of Lincoln’s as evidence that he was a “racist.” But Wineburg asks us, as any good historian might, to consider the context in which they were uttered before passing judgment. These remarks were delivered in the midst of the 1858 Illinois senate campaign. They were said at Ottawa, a “hotbed of antiblack sentiment” in Illinois. They were uttered before a crowd that strongly supported Lincoln’s opponent, Stephen Douglas. They were delivered in the context of a political campaign where “courting votes” was the ultimate goal.
So was Lincoln a racist? Is this something that historians should decide? Wineburg quotes Donald Fehrenbacher on this point. (“Only His Stepchildren: Lincoln and the Negro,” Civil War History 20 ). The quotation is worth repeating here in full:
Anyone who sets out conscientiously to answer [whether Lincoln was a racist] will soon find himself deep in complexity and confronting some of the fundamental problems of historical investigation. In one category are various questions about the historian’s relation to the past: Is his [sic] task properly one of careful reconstruction, or are there more important purposes to be served? Does his responsibility include rendering moral judgments? If so, using what standards–those of his own time or those of the period under study? Then there are all the complications encountered in any effort to read the mind of a man, especially a politician, from the surviving record of his words and actions. For instance, what he openly affirmed as a youth may have been silently discarded in maturity; what he believed on a certain subject may be less significant than the intensity of his belief; and what he said on a certain occasion may have been largely determined by the immediate historical context, including the composition of the audience.
Wineburg’s goal is not to decide whether or not Lincoln was a racist. Rather, it is to show that when we use twenty-first century categories to interpret nineteenth-century language we are in danger of the historian’s greatest sin: presentism. The primary goal of the historian is to challenge her readers and students to think how Lincoln’s words might have been understood in their context. And this should be done before making moral judgments. Our natural inclination is to lash out at Lincoln for his supposed “racism,” but historical thinking, as Wineburg reminds us over and over again, is an unnatural act.
Once again Wineburg calls our attention to the strangeness of the past and the dangers of bringing our own supposedly timeless notions of race (or any other category) to bear on an era different from our own. Doing this teaches us empathy–a virtue that all of us need.
Historical thinking of the type described here, and in particular the disposition to think about the past by recognizing the inadequacy of one’s own conceptual apparatus, is essential in teaching people how to understand others different than themselves. If we never recognize that our individual experience is limited, what hope is there of understanding people whose logic defies our own, whose choices and beliefs appear inscrutable when judged against our own standards?