My decision to pick up history as one of my majors in college came as no surprise to my parents. As a child in elementary school, I would check out book after book on Abraham Lincoln to read with my dad (they share a birthday!). I frequented the biography section of the school library quite often, and I took out many different installments in a graphic novel series that detailed important aspects of American history, such as Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, the Boston Tea Party, and the Civil War. (Side note: I cannot for the life of me remember the name of this series of graphic novels, and I’m very sad about it as I would love to link you all to these books I enjoyed as a child as well as revisit them myself, but I can’t find them anywhere.)
You can imagine my surprise when, years later in high school, my American history teacher looked me in the eyes and told me, “Abraham Lincoln did not free the slaves.” Of course he did, I thought. I had read about the Emancipation Proclamation from the time I was 8 years old; I knew everything about Abraham Lincoln. He was an American hero. He was a radical abolitionist in a time when radicalism literally split the country in two. But, he was the one who brought it back together. In class we sat down, and we read the text of the Emancipation Proclamation: “All persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”
For the people who did not learn about this topic in high school or college, the Proclamation, in simple terms, says this: if you are an enslaved person in a Confederate state, the president of the United States of America dictates that you are free. But the people in the Confederate States of America did not recognize the authority of President Abraham Lincoln or the American Congress. They believed themselves to be their own country. Jefferson Davis’ response to the Proclamation decried it as, rather than the heroic document it is considered today, a criminal one that would be judged harshly by the eyes of history. The American Congress expected this response, knowing that while they considered the secession illegitimate, the Confederate States would not respect their legislation. So what exactly was the point of the Proclamation?
The United States, at that point, was, more dramatically than at any other point in history, a house divided against itself. In 1863, we were two years deep in the midst of a bloody civil war, fighting over a state’s right to determine whether or not they would be free or slave-holding. This conflict split the Union in two, and Lincoln, as the sixteenth president of this Union, felt it was his duty to reunite it. However, the Proclamation was more of a symbolic gesture on Lincoln’s part than a move towards actual policy change in the slave South; since the Confederacy was not loyal to the American government, only people living in Union-occupied Confederate land were freed. Abraham Lincoln himself, although personally an avid supporter of abolition, did not initially view ending slavery as the end-all goal of the Civil War. In 1862 he famously wrote, “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.” So the Emancipation Proclamation is not the defining executive order that it often is touted as and that Donald Trump apparently thinks it is. In 1863, there were slave states even in the Union, like Maryland and Delaware, that, even though they did not secede into the Confederate states, did not abolish slavery until the ratification of the 13th Amendment in December 1865, after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. He could have outlawed slavery in both the North and the South, but he did not. He did not want to alienate states such as Maryland and Delaware from the Union war effort; slavery, while personally abhorrent to him, was a bargaining chip that he had to compromise on. The Emancipation Proclamation, rather than directly freeing the masses of enslaved peoples in the South, issued a stark warning to the South that, if they lost the war, they would be punished for their insolence by the confiscation of their most valuable property: enslaved humans.
So when Donald Trump stood on the debate stage Thursday night and stated that “No president had done more for African-Americans than [he has], except perhaps Abraham Lincoln,” I wondered why he was using Lincoln as a yardstick. But let’s humor him for a second: perhaps Trump has done as much for Black people than Lincoln did. For all of Trump’s abhorrent policies and viewpoints, I am an avid supporter of criminal justice reform, and his endorsement of the bipartisan First Step Act is in fact a first step towards monumental improvements to the system. Yet how many of his other policies are cancelling out this achievement? Even as he works towards a legacy of executive clemency, his administration has cut funding for halfway houses, shut down the Obama-era program that worked to guaranteed legal aid to all citizens, reduced research studying the overincarcereation of Black and Latino youth, and cut back the use of training against racial stereotyping in law enforcement. In 2017, he told a group of police officers, “Please don’t be too nice!” to people they’ve arrested. They responded with cheers and applause; three years later, George Floyd was murdered by a police officer kneeling on his neck. He has repeatedly pushed the racist “birther” conspiracies against both Barack Obama and Kamala Harris, and referred to various developing nations as “shithole countries,” grumbling that the Haitians all have AIDS and the Nigerians should “go back to their huts.” Stories of Trump’s contempt for non-white immigrants isn’t new, of course, we all remember how he painted Central American refugees as drug dealers, criminals and rapists. All of this is just from the past five years; before he was in office, Trump’s record on race was arguably even worse. In 1995 he spent $85,000 on ads in New York newspapers calling for the death penalty for the five innocent Black teens who have become known as the Central Park 5. The FBI has released documents that show Trump’s businesses specifically denied housing applications to prospective Black and Puerto Rican renters in the 70s under the guise of “not wanting welfare cases” in his apartment buildings. All of that, and more, clearly point to at least a little bit of racism in the veins of the man who claimed to be the “least racist person in the room” on Thursday while standing across the stage from a Black woman.
Abraham Lincoln was by all accounts a good man and a good president. He was opposed to slavery, but he had to work within the limits of his office in the very precarious position as a wartime president to do as much as he could to hold the nation together. And he succeeded, of course, but he was not the champion of Black Americans that Trump (or our education system) make him out to be and that Trump is trying to compare himself to. Of course, we should analyze and criticize Joe Biden’s and Kamala Harris’ records on race and on criminal justice; all public officials, including Biden and Harris, including Trump, even including Abraham Lincoln, must not be looked at as heroes but as politicians acting within the constraints of their office and political parties. The difference is that Lincoln appealed to the best of America, calling for unity in a time of strife and anger, even if he could not do much in terms of legislation to immediately improve the lives of Black people in America. Trump has simply stoked the fires of division throughout his almost four years in office and in the decades beforehand. We will never have another president like Abraham Lincoln, for better or for worse. And no matter how hard Trump tries to emulate Lincoln, he will never escape his own racism.