Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts–Part VII

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 [1974]). 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.

Wineburg concludes:

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?

7 thoughts on “Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts–Part VII

  1. Nicolec: Thanks for the comment. Yes, Lincoln must be understood in the context of other speeches and the speeches of his contemporaries on race. I like this idea. I am teaching the Civil War this semester (an era well out of my area of scholarly expertise) and your comment has triggered some good thoughts about how to teach Lincoln.I do not think empathy always necessitates a “that’s just how it was back then” mentality. Empathy requires that we let historical actors speak before judging. In fact, it is a prerequisite for any sort of moral inquiry. And it makes our moral critique of the past much deeper and richer. This is the kind of moral criticism historians *can* do. This, I think, is quite different than simply accusing Lincoln of being a racist and refusing to listen to him.In the end, if we can teach this to our students we can also teach them how to act civilly with those who they disagree with in the present. Perhaps I am way to idealistic here, but it seems that historical thinking can contribute to a civil society.


  2. While I think it is important to teach students empathy I also think it is important to avoid the “that is just how it was back then” type of excuse making. Not only do they let historical actors ‘off the hook’ too easily- they use this type of thinking to excuse their own behavior. Students like clear categories and want to contextualize history in this manner. It is problematic to ask if Lincoln was a racist for many reasons- ‘racist’ is too loaded (kids hear racist and see the KKK terrorizing folks). Second- it is too simplistic (as if he is either A or B). It seems to me students would understand Lincoln and the time period better by having to read a variety of Lincoln’s speeches dealing with race coupled with some reactions to his speeches (by his contemporaries). This research could be guided by a hypothetical question like: Do you think Lincoln would have said the same thing if he had been sitting with Frederick Douglass? The resulting conversation would hopefully highlight the crux of this debate over how to view Lincoln as a historical actor- rather than a firm yes he was a racist or no he wasn’t type answer.


  3. Historiann: I am with you on all of this, as long as the moral judgment comes after, or as a result of, the historical reconstruction. If my students enter into judging the past before they understand it, then I am not sure I am teaching them how to think historically, which is my job. It seems to me that Laurel Ulrich’s primary goal was to reconstruct Martha Ballard’s world. Such a reconstruction, of course, should raise a host of moral issues that feminists (and non-feminists, I hope) would want to address, but this is not her primary goal as a historian.Or what about Rosemarie Zagarri’s work? She argues that it was the Federalists, not the Jeffersonians, who tended to theorize much more about a role for women in the republic. (I think she calls it “archaic feminism”). Granted, most of my feminist students would look at the idea of republican motherhood or archaic feminism as terribly backward, but shouldn’t our PRIMARY or first goal be to deter these students from viewing the Federalist position solely from a 21st century feminist perspective? Even if we are in strong agreement with that perspective? Rather, isn’t our job to have our students see that in the context of the 18th century republican motherhood or archaic feminism was a much better option than what the Republicans were offering?I am all for moral judgment. Like you, I do it all the time. But I refuse to let my students, whatever the issue, condemn the past without doing the necessarily work of empapthy and understanding first. One more example: When I teach pro-slavery documents in my survey course, my students’ first reaction is to cast moral condemnation on the slaveholders. They cite things that they learned in a religion or Bible course in an attempt to discredit the authors of these documents. Most of them make very convincing moral judgments on these pro-slavery advocates and I usually agree with them. But it seems my job is to bring them into the mental world of these writers, as repulsive as they might be, and help my students understand their arguments. I want them to know the difference between Calhoun and Fitzhugh and Dew. In this particular case moral judgment is easy, historical understanding is difficult.Thanks again for the conversation!


  4. As a feminist, I’m extremely comfortable making moral judgments about the past. There is no lost world that feminists can romanticize, and increasingly I fear that we don’t have a very bright future to look forward to. Globally and transhistorically, women are a subordinate or despised category of people whose labor is underpaid, exploited, or stolen from them. Context is important, but its importance can be overstated in fields in which we see disturbingly little change over time, compared to modern political, economic, or intellectual history. We can–indeed I think we must–make judgments about the past, but I absolutely agree with you that we should do it by taking historical context into consideration. For example, when you consider that Thomas Jefferson was a man who owned other people and stole their labor and their children, then the concept that he might have raped people he owned or coerced them into a sexual liason doesn’t seem that much more criminal, does it?


  5. Historiann: I am still trying to figure out how to make moral judgments on the past–both in my teaching and writing–without crossing the line into presentism.And thanks for your insightful comments. While I have a growing number of readers here, most of them seem to be very shy when it comes to commenting.


  6. Which is more disturbing for students to contemplate: that Lincoln was a racist, or that he was a politician? Either way, you’re taking on a sacred cow. (Nothing wrong with that, of course! I do it all of the time.)This reminds me in some ways of the retrospective judgment of Thomas Jefferson for his decades-long sexual relationship with Sally Hemings. People got their panties in a wad over the notion that Jefferson might in fact have been like every other 18th C slaveowner and used his slave/s sexually. Somehow that was twisted around to be a more heinous abuse than slaveowning itself, which is of course absurd. To take a page out of Frank Sinatra’s book, “You can’t have one without the other!”


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