Abraham Lincoln And Fifty Years Of Freedom
BY ALEXANDER WALTERS, D. D.,
Bishop of A. M. E. Zion Church
[Note 38: Extract from address given at Carnegie Hall, New York,
February 12, 1909.]
The distinguished person whom we pause to honor was not born great, if
to be born great means to be born in a mansion, surrounded at the start
of life with opulence, "dangled on the knee of indulgence and charmed to
sleep by the voice of liveried servants"; if this is the measure of
greatness, then Abraham Lincoln was not born great,--but if to be born
great is to be ushered into the world with embryonic qualities of heart,
elements calculated to unfold into the making of the stature of a
complete man, a manly man, a brave, a God-fearing man--a statesman equal
to the greatest emergency of a nation, then the little fellow of destiny
who made his initial bow to the goddess of light in Hardin County,
Kentucky, February 12, 1809, was born great.
If to achieve greatness is to win the hearts of one's youthful
companions, one's associates in professional life, and to merit the
confidence and genuine love of a nation to the extent of securing its
greatest honors and to perform the mightiest work of a century, then
Abraham Lincoln achieved greatness.
* * * * *
The assertion has been made that President Lincoln was not in favor of
universal freedom. I beg to take issue with this view.
A careful study of this sincere, just, and sympathetic man will serve to
show that from his earliest years he was against slavery. He declared
again and again; "If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong; I cannot
remember when I did not so think and feel."
Back in the thirties this young man clad in homespun was standing in the
slave-mart of New Orleans, watching husbands and wives being separated
forever, and children being doomed never again to look into the faces of
their parents. As the hammer of the auctioneer fell, this young
flat-boatman, with quivering lips, turned to his companion and said: "If
ever I get a chance to hit that thing (slavery), I will hit it hard, by
the Eternal God I will."
In March, 1839, he had placed upon the House Journal of Illinois a
formal protest against pro-slavery resolutions which he could get but
one other member beside himself to sign. Long before he was made
President, in a speech at Charleston, Illinois, he said: "Yes we will
speak for freedom, and against slavery, as long as the Constitution of
our country guarantees free speech, until everywhere on this wide land
the sun shall shine, and the rain shall fall, and the winds shall blow
upon no man who goes forth to unrequited toil."
While in Congress in 1848 he offered a bill to abolish slavery in the
District of Columbia. It was his opinion that Congress had control over
the institution of slavery in the District of Columbia and the
territories, and he evidenced his desire for the freedom of the slaves
by offering a bill to abolish it in the District, and he afterwards
strenuously advocated the elimination of slavery from the territories.
In 1864, about the time of the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Law,
President Lincoln said to some gentlemen from the West: "There have been
men base enough to propose to me to return to slavery our black warriors
of Port Hudson and Olustee, and thus win the respect of the masters they
fought. Should I do so, I should deserve to be damned in time and
Through all the mighty struggle of the Civil War when bowed in sorrow,
and when it was truly said of him "That he was a man of sorrows and
acquainted with grief," he was ever heard to say, "It is my desire that
all men be free."
If President Lincoln were not in favor of the freedom of the slaves, why
did he write the Emancipation Proclamation without the knowledge of his
Cabinet and, when reading it to them, informed them that he did not do
so to have them make any changes, but simply to apprise them of its
contents? I answer, because he saw the time had come, the opportune time
for which he had longed, when he, as President of these United States,
could free the slaves. The South was so certain that it was Mr.
Lincoln's intention to liberate the slaves, that, upon his election as
President, they seceded from the Union. They felt that the institution
which they had struggled so long to maintain was doomed.
His famous letter to Horace Greeley, so diplomatically written, shows
him to be in favor of the emancipation of slaves. Said he; "My paramount
object is to save the Union, and not either to save or destroy slavery.
If I could save the Union without freeing any slaves I would do it; 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. I
shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors, and I shall adopt
new views as fast as they shall appear to be true views. I have here
stated my purpose according to my views of official duty, and I intend
no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men
everywhere could be free."
Had President Lincoln not desired the freedom of the slaves would he
have written this last sentence?
Professor Pickens, of Talladega College, says: "He was a patriot
statesman; although he abhored slavery in his own inclination, he was
wise enough to see that the question of slavery was subordinate to the
immediate object of saving the Union. If slavery is not wrong, nothing
is wrong; he declared as his private opinion; but it was his public duty
and his oath to save the Union, regardless of slavery. His logic and
clear seizure of the main point stood him in good stead against the
over-zealous Abolitionists on the one hand, while on the other hand, as
soon as the interests of Negro freedom and the interests of the Union
coincided, the same unchanged and consistent logic answered those who
assailed him on constitutional grounds."
Mr. Lincoln believed that the Constitution protected slavery in the
States wherein it existed, and his aim was to let it alone where it had
a constitutional right to exist. Not because he thought slavery right,
but because of his respect for the law.
His original position was that, since slavery was protected by the law,
the friends of freedom would have to abide their time and continue to
create sentiment sufficient to change the law and thus overthrow the
iniquitous institution. This is the only interpretation that can be put
upon his doctrine. "The house divided against itself."
Is it reasonable to think that a man so thoughtful and sincere as was
Mr. Lincoln could give a life to the advocacy of the freedom of the
slaves, and in his heart not be in favor of their liberation. Mr.
Lincoln often expressed ideas on the emancipation calculated to
jeopardize his political future, which he would not have done but for
the fact that in his heart of hearts he was committed to the cause of
The slaves hailed him as their savior, which he proved to be by
emancipating 4,000,000 of them, and he will be held in loving
remembrance by Afro-Americans as long as the world shall stand.
It is fitting that we assemble ourselves together on the anniversary of
his birth to honor his memory, and tell of his noble deeds to the rising
President Lincoln was truly a great man; a giant in intellect, a
peerless diplomat, a fearless advocate of the rights of humanity and a
wise ruler. In council he stood head and shoulders above the members of
his Cabinet and other advisers, notwithstanding he was surrounded by
some of the greatest scholars and statesmen of his time.
Allow me to apply to Lincoln the words of Wendell Phillips in his
address "Toussaint L'Ouverture":
"Lincoln was greater than Caesar; Caesar fought to further his ambition
and to extend a great empire. Lincoln was an advocate of principle,
justice, and fair play. He was greater than Alexander; Alexander fought
for glory--to conquer all the world, all at the sacrifice of happy homes
and the desolation and ruin of countries. Lincoln sacrificed comfort and
ease to save a nation and liberate an enslaved people. He was greater
than Napoleon; Napoleon made wives to be widows, and children to be
fatherless and homeless, and drenched Europe and Egypt in blood for fame
and the desire to found a greater empire than the Roman dynasty; but
Lincoln perished because he dared to defend an oppressed people."
When the last scarred veteran shall gather around the last campfire and
shall rehearse stories of valor, he will close his tale of sorrow with
the name of Lincoln.
When the last poet shall compose his last poem on America's greatest
struggle,--yea of the victories of Vicksburg, Fort Donaldson, Lookout
Mountain, Gettysburg, Appomattox, Petersburg, and the fall of Richmond,
he will close it by paying a tribute to the memory of the sainted
When the last statesman of the world shall pronounce a farewell anathema
upon the world's oppression, when he shall write the names of those
foremost in the work of emancipation, after he shall have written the
name of Moses,--long ere he reaches the name of Wilberforce or Clarkson,
he shall have written high on the scroll of fame the name of Lincoln.
When the last flag bearing the "Stars and Stripes" shall wave over this
great commonwealth, telling of its glory and tremendous influence, on
the wings of the eagle upon the staff of that flag will be written for
her to bear away on the eternal breezes the name of the immortal
Lincoln,--the savior of his country, the Emancipator of its people.
* * * * *
The dying legacy bequeathed to the American nation by the martyred
Lincoln was a united country and a free people. It gave us a nation
which to-day stands first in the galaxy of the nations of the world--in
character, thought, wealth, and all the qualities which make for the
highest civilizations--a glorious country, whose natural resources stand
All honor to Mr. Lincoln, the nation's Chieftain, the giant of the
conflict, the statesman of the age, the immortal Emancipator; and all
honor to the men who wore the blue, both white and black; and all honor
to the men and women who gave their sons to the cause and furnished the
sinews of war; and all praise be to the God of Heaven who was behind
the conflict controlling all.
If we would properly honor this great and good man we must finish the
work which he so nobly began,--the lifting up of the Negro race to the
highest point of civilization. This can be accomplished; first, by being
good and loyal citizens ourselves, and by teaching our children to be
The groundwork of our material advancement is industry. As a race we are
generally industrious, but we need to become more skillfully so.
Unskilled labor cannot compete with skilled labor, neither North or
South. In the past you gave us certain positions as the result of
sympathy, not because we could perform the work as skillfully as others.
The sentiment which actuated you to help us was a noble one, but that
kind of sentiment is a thing of the past; now we are required to stand
or fall according to our merits. When goods are to be manufactured,
machines constructed, houses and bridges built, clothing fashioned, or
any sort of work performed, none but skilled workmen are considered;
there are a great number of employers that care but little about the
color of the workmen; with them the question is, Can he do the work?
We must continue the struggle for our civil and political rights. I have
no sympathy with that class of leaders who are advising the Negro to
eschew politics in deference to color prejudice.
Does it make for permanent peace to deny to millions of citizens their
political rights when they are equal to the average electorate in
intelligence and character? Fitness, and not color or previous condition
of servitude, should be the standard of recognition in political
matters. Indeed the Negro should not be denied any civil or political
right on account of his color, and to the extent this is done there is
bound to be disquietude in the nation.
We have already seen that temporizing with slavery at the formation of
the Union resulted in a hundred years of strife and bitterness, and
finally brought on devastation and death. And may we not profit by this
bitter experience? The enlightened American conscience will not tolerate
injustice forever. The same spirit of liberty and fair play which
enveloped the nation in the days of Mr. Lincoln and that was recognized
by his astute mind, clear to his mental vision and so profoundly
appreciated by his keen sense of justice and which he had the courage to
foster against all opposition is abroad in our land to-day, will
Mr. Lincoln was the first to suggest to his party the enfranchisement of
the Negro. He wrote Governor Hahn, of Louisiana, advising that the
ballot should be given to the colored man; said he, "Let in, as for
instance, the very intelligent and especially those who have fought
gallantly in our ranks. They would probably help in some trying time in
the future to keep the jewel of liberty in the family of freedom."
It seems to me right and proper on this memorable day, when the nation
has stopped to consider the work of the man above all others who started
the Negro on his upward way, that we should appeal to the enlightened
conscience of the nation, to unloose further the fetters which bind the
black man, especially the industrial bands placed upon him in the North.
I appeal to the white people of the South, the sentiment-makers of that
section, to create sentiment in favor of law and order, and that they
demand a cessation of lynchings. I appeal to the legislature of the
South to allow the civil and political door of hope to remain open to my
people, and in all things which make for quietness and permanent peace,
let us be brethren.
The Negro should no longer be considered a serf, but a citizen of this
glorious Republic which both white and black alike have done so much to
Mr. Edwin D. Mead, in the New York Independent of January 21, 1909,
says, "Has the country been faithful to Lincoln's memory and task? Has
the evolution of emancipation been pushed with proper persistence and
earnestness? Are we ceasing our discrimination against men because they
are black? It is not a question put by North to South. It is a question
put to Springfield, Illinois, the old home of Lincoln himself, as
directly as to men in Maryland busy with their pitiful disfranchising
chicanery." To the still lingering cry of "black men down" this salutary
Commemoration rings back, the "all men up," whose echoes after forty
years were growing faint in too many American hearts.
Had they not grown faint in many, the recent words of Justice Harlan, so
like Lincoln's own, upon the Berea College decision confirming the
Kentucky law that, however, they themselves desired it, and even in
private institutions, a black boy and a white boy may not study together
the rule of three or the law of gravitation, the Golden Rule, or the
Emancipation Proclamation,--would have aroused a vastly profounder and
"If the views of the highest court of Kentucky be sound, that
commonwealth may, without infringing on the Constitution of the United
States, forbid the association in the same private school of pupils of
the Anglo-Saxon and Latin races respectively, or pupils of Christian and
Jewish faith respectively. Have we become so inoculated with prejudice
of race that any American government professedly based on the principles
of freedom and charged with the protection of all citizens alike can
make distinctions between such citizens in the manner of their voluntary
meeting for innocent purposes, simply because of their respective races?
If the court be right, then the State may make it a crime for white and
colored persons to frequent the same market-places at the same time or
to appear in an assemblage of citizens convened to consider questions of
a public or political nature, in which all citizens without regard to
race are equally interested; and other illustrations would show the
mischievous, not to say cruel, character of the statute in question, and
how inconsistent such legislation is with the principle of the equality
of citizens before the law."
Mr. Mead further says that Abraham Lincoln was called upon to make his
memorable and mighty protest with reference to a single race. In our
time the problem becomes vastly more complex and pressing.
But, however complex, there is but one way of solving it--the simple,
Christian, fraternal way. It is well for us that the Lincoln centennial
comes to say this to us persuasively and commandingly.
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