Humility

“If you’re modest and have an awareness of the limits of your own knowledge you know that you need the people who disagree with you to correct for your own errors. [However] if you think you have the truth 100% then the people who disagree with you are just in the way.”

-David Brooks, NY Times

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Abraham Lincoln & Emancipation

One of the things I appreciate most about history is the complex nature of the characters involved. When we study history in school, we often only retain the “highlight reel moments” that still today ripple from a person’s legacy, while missing some of the important backstory that made those moments happen.

Abraham Lincoln is a great example of this.

To most people, Lincoln is known as the Great Emancipator because of the Emancipation Proclamation that went into effect on January 1, 1863. Of course, this was a pivotal moment in his leadership and in the African-American experience. However, even though he always hated slavery, his views on African-Americans and their role in society certainly evolved over the course of his political career.

Similar to the hot-button political issues of our day today, the solutions are easy and simple from our couch as private citizens, but considerably more complex as an elected official. Once emancipated, the questions of what to do with former slaves were not simple, and some of Lincoln’s early answers to these questions were frankly shameful from our perspective today.

– Throughout his career, he was often at odds with abolitionists, moving too slow in producing change. They called for an immediate end to slavery and for freed slaves to be incorporated as equal members of society. Instead, Lincoln advocated for a more gradual phasing-out process.

– For well over a decade, Lincoln felt that the best way to confront the problem of slavery was colonization: the idea that a majority of the African-American population should be asked or required to leave the United States and settle in Africa or Central America. The thought process here came from seeing no way that blacks and whites could live together peaceably.

– In 1861-1862, Lincoln pushed a variety of plans to compensate slave owners in return for their slaves’ emancipation. Aside from the District of Columbia, it got shot down at the State level and was never enacted.

As I looked into all this further, I gained a ton of admiration for Lincoln in this: he listened and changed!

As he edited the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation in August of 1862, Lincoln opened the White House to a delegation of freed slaves in the hopes of getting their buy-in on a plan for colonization. However, this sparked a new level of frustration among black leaders and abolitionists, who argued that African-Americans were as much natives of the country as whites, and thus deserved equal rights. Slaves and slave-owners alike resisted the idea of colonization (for different reasons, as you can imagine). Furthermore, a shift in Lincoln’s thinking occurred when he saw the high numbers of freed slaves leaving plantations and crossing Union lines to suit up in military uniforms and fight against the South. He figured since they put their lives on the line, they had placed a significant and personal stake in our nation.

The preliminary version of the Proclamation was published a month later on September 22, 1862, and it looked very different from his other public policies up to this point. Eric Foner, history professor at Columbia University and author of The Fiery Trial, explains Lincoln’s change of heart: “The Emancipation Proclamation completely repudiates all of those previous ideas for Lincoln. [The abolishment of slavery is] immediate, not gradual. There is no mention of compensation and there is nothing in it about colonization. After the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln says nothing publicly about colonization.”

What could this mean for us today?

I see at least two things…

1. It’s easy to view those in authority over us from a negative and fatalistic perspective. Ie. “That’s the way they’ve been, that’s the way they are, and that’s the way they’ll always be.” This narrative reminds me that the thought processes of ANY person in any position can change with time.

2. As people of faith, we should be voices of reason and compassion among the chaos of well-meaning but sometimes misguided leaders. When we see injustice do we speak up? Do we put pressure on our elected officials when we see our fellow man hurting as a result of public policy? There’s a way to do this that is both aggresssive and respectful, and people who want to influence change need to figure that tension out. Again, we have a responsibility to find a way to do it respectfully, but remaining silent about issues that matter is not an option. Can you imagine all that our nation would have lost if the colonization plan went forward?

#OurHistory 

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