Lincoln for Today

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., editor-in-chief of The Root and co-host of the PBS series "Looking for Lincoln" and author of Lincoln on Race and Slavery (Princeton University Press, 2009), examines Abraham Lincoln's views on race.


Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Comments [25]

James from Newark


I have heard your argument before and have been tempted to agree on occassion but I can't. If something is right or wrong, it continues to be so regardless of the day, age or era. Those who practice radical Islam (wahabism) for instance - are we supposed to explain away their actions or give them a pass because such beliefs are in vogue in the small communities where they exist? How about in two hundred years from now. Should we give them a pass and explain away their hatred of Western Institutions. Surely we can have some sense of what makes them tick so to speak. But no free passes given to them or Lincoln.

Feb. 18 2009 12:28 PM


I've heard your argument before and sometimes on the verge of agreement, but really right is right and wrong is wrong no matter the age or era of the speaker. For instance in small communities in the Mid East people in these communities are drawn to radical Islam or wahabism. Can their support of suicide bombings be explained away today or 200 years from now by saying that they were just creatures of their time?

Feb. 18 2009 12:22 PM
Max from NYC

Your guest was not seeing Lincoln " objectively." He looks at Lincoln through a 21st century perspective and not a 19th century. All of the facts he mentioned ignored the politics of the day. WNYC normally has a true scholar to put comments in context.

Feb. 18 2009 11:54 AM
mozo from nyc

#20 thanks for the clarification.

Feb. 18 2009 11:51 AM
Margie from Northern Westchester

"white supremacist" is such a loaded and anachronistic term. Doesn't address how progressive Lincoln was for his times, nor how he was able to accomplish what he did through his being a moderate. He was president, after all. Sometimes the "radical middle" is where the progress occurs. Not without the spurring on of more extreme and activist points of view, however.

Feb. 18 2009 11:51 AM
Margie from Northern Westchester

#11 Booth and his gang intended to kidnap Lincoln and hold him to ransom confederate prisoners. Booth heard this last speech and decided to assassinate Lincoln then and there.

Feb. 18 2009 11:44 AM

The caller from Bed-Stuy really shed light on how we understand our history in this country. The bottom line is, "we" is not monolithic, and despite the standardization of curricula in schools, communities will teach the histories that are most instructive, helpful, and relevant to them. Apparently, white America is just catching up in being ready to accept a more honest view of Lincoln's--and by extension much of white America's--attitude toward race.

Feb. 18 2009 11:39 AM
The Truth from Atlanta/New York

#17 - I agree, I was surprised to here him say that he didn't know Lincoln used the "N" word.

Feb. 18 2009 11:37 AM
surprised from Jersey city

I am just surprised that someone like Gates who teaches it Yale, is soo suprised to find out that Lincoln was a complex man. I know very little of Lincoln and yet everything that was discussed about Lincoln seems to elementary given the period.

Feb. 18 2009 11:34 AM
The Truth from Atlanta/New York

Lincoln was concerned with the success of the "union" and that was all. He could take slavery or leave it whichever was going to benefit the "union". He had no special affinity towards the slaves.

Feb. 18 2009 11:34 AM
hjs from 11211

life lesson: it's easy to judge people you don't know.

Feb. 18 2009 11:33 AM
Gina Nicholl from Michigan

does he have to say "darkie jokes" he should say "racist jokes"

Feb. 18 2009 11:30 AM
Vicki Richman from Sugar Hill, Harlem

Lincoln presided over the largest mass execution in U.S. History, during the Civil War. 400 Native Americans were sentenced to hang. Lincoln commuted 360 sentences. However, the remaining 40, who were hung together suddenly one morning, were the largest group of prisoners ever put to death at the same time by American justice.

Feb. 18 2009 11:30 AM
Kate from White Plains, NY

In addition to Lincoln's experience with Frederick Douglas and the black Union soldiers, Lincoln's meetings with middle-class black and multi-racial Louisiana free blacks who also had educations that impressed Lincoln made him question his presumption of black inferiority. Basically, I think in world history, you find that when a group is oppressed and denied access to social mobility and education, it become easy for the majority group to find examples within that minority to reinforce the presumption that they are ignorant or inferior. In other words, if we made black people inferior by denying them access to education, we should not be surprised that Lincoln saw them as inferior for much of his life.

Feb. 18 2009 11:28 AM
mozo from nyc

For the record, John Wlikes Booth had planned along with several other conspirators to kill Lincoln several months prior to the assassination. This was not a decision made four days beforehand.

Feb. 18 2009 11:26 AM
Robert from NYC

Curb your enthusiasm.

Feb. 18 2009 11:13 AM
markBrown from

a) #4 jen (I disagree, she is bringing a breath of fresh air to the show...)
#7, #3, thank you I really didn't realize the issue of black vs white slave owners.

Feb. 18 2009 11:12 AM
Peter Reed from New Haven

I just wanted to register that I profoundly disagree with the formulation: was Lincoln a racist?

I think this formulation presents a false dichotomy, as if one either *is* or *is not* a racist.

I think racism is a cultural phenomenon of which one partakes. It is a spectrum of attitudes and behaviors and thoughts and perceptions. It is not a status.

"Is Abe Lincoln a white supremacist," as Prof. Gates just expressed, is a more precise way of asking the question, if we're interested in the issue of active promotion or adherence to a white supremacist ideology.

Feb. 18 2009 11:11 AM
The Truth from Atlanta/New York

White men of his "time" were racists.

Feb. 18 2009 11:09 AM
The Truth from Atlanta/New York

Lincoln was a man of his time. Also, FYI mc...not all of us thought slave owners were all white.

Feb. 18 2009 11:08 AM
mc from Brooklyn

Bruce, often the question that is posed is just an attention grabber. I've seen others "Shoulder-pad Feminism" comes to mind from last year. The content will probably be good with Gates. Just ignore the "grabber."

Feb. 18 2009 11:07 AM
Bruce from Park Slope, Brooklyn

The question is poorly posed. The question is whether or not he transcended his times. The Emancipation was the first step in what has been and will continue to be a long struggle that will not end because of singular events. But those singular events, such as the election of Barak Obama, stand as mileposts on the road to a healthier mindset for the human race.

Feb. 18 2009 11:04 AM
mc from Brooklyn

This is a little off topic but I read a statement by Gates once that there were more Black slave owners than Jewish slave owners. This is fascinating to me because it shows the situation to be far more complex than it actually looks in hindsight, where we all think that all slaves were Black and all owners were white.

Feb. 18 2009 10:49 AM
Todd from Greenpoint, Brooklyn

--From A People's HIstory of the United States by Howard Zinn

Feb. 18 2009 09:25 AM
Todd from Greenpoint, Brooklyn

Lincoln to NY Tribune Editor Horace Greeley less than six months before the Emancipation Proclamation:

"My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy Slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about Slavery and the colored race, I do because it helps to save this Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union."

Feb. 18 2009 09:24 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Get the WNYC Morning Brief in your inbox.
We'll send you our top 5 stories every day, plus breaking news and weather.