cover image Big Enough to Be Inconsistent: Abraham Lincoln Confronts Slavery and Race

Big Enough to Be Inconsistent: Abraham Lincoln Confronts Slavery and Race

George M. Fredrickson, . . Harvard Univ., $19.95 (156pp) ISBN 978-0-674-02774-9

Based on his W.E.B. Du Bois lectures at Harvard, Stanford professor emeritus Fredrickson (Arrogance of Race ) wades into a controversial arena: was Lincoln a heroic emancipator or a racist who didn't care about slaves at all? Stating that in between “pathological” racism and egalitarianism lies a spectrum of possibilities, Fredrickson says that Lincoln is not easily classified. After opening with a quick, useful survey of the relevant historiography, Fredrickson addresses Lincoln's thoughts about issues ranging from white supremacy to colonization and black military service. One question that looms large for Fredrickson is whether Lincoln meant the most racist comments he made during the 1850s. He hated slavery yet “clearly... could not readily envision a society in which blacks and whites could live in harmony as... equals.” Fredrickson suggests that Lincoln's public statements may have reflected both his real thoughts and the savvy political sensibility of an ambitious man who knew he couldn't get elected without invoking white supremacist shibboleths; furthermore, Lincoln's thoughts about blacks—especially about their capacity for citizenship—may have changed during the Civil War. This brief book will be widely discussed by historians and will provide nonacademic readers a lucid introduction to some of the most heated debates about the 16th president. (Feb.)