By Andrew M. Mwenda
How Lincoln made history on slavery and Museveni succumbed to the pressures for social conservatism
I have been forced by friends and fans to reply to Joseph Bossa’s otherwise good defence of former U.S. president Abraham Lincoln (The Independent May 02-08 and Daily Monitor May 11). In that article, Bossa makes two core points about the former US president: first that Lincoln was not a racist; and second that he was outraged by slavery and was always opposed to it. Let me allow Lincoln to speak for himself.
In a speech during campaigns for Senate to the congressional district of Charleston, Illinois, in 1858, Lincoln had this to say: “I am not now, nor ever have been in favour of bringing about in any way the social or political equality of the white and black races. I am not now nor ever have been in favour of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor of intermarriages with white people. There is a physical difference between the white and the black races which will forever forbid the two races living together on social or political equality. There must be a position of superior and inferior, and I am in favour of assigning the superior position to the white man.”
On slavery, again, let us allow Lincoln to speak for himself (in speeches at Peoria, Illinois, 1854): “When Southern people tell us that they are no more responsible for the origin of slavery than we are, I acknowledge the fact. When it is said the institution exists, and it is very difficult to get rid of in any satisfactory way, I can understand and appreciate the saying… A system of gradual emancipation might well be adopted, and I will not undertake to judge our Southern friends for tardiness in this matter.”
Lincoln is speaking in the 1850s, yet as early as 1776 – when the Declaration of Independence was issued – several white American leaders were speaking publically and passionately that black people are equal to whites and should be given full rights. They said slavery should be abolished immediately. Over 90 years later, Lincoln did not.
Thus in his inaugural address in March 1861, Lincoln said quoting an earlier speech he had given: “I acknowledge the constitutional rights of the States — not grudgingly, but fairly and fully, and I will give them any legislation for reclaiming their fugitive slaves. The point the Republican Party wanted to stress was to oppose making slave States out of the newly acquired territory, not abolishing slavery as it then existed. I have no purpose directly or indirectly to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”
In his letter to Alexander H. Stephens (Public and Private Letters of Alexander Stephens, p. 150), Lincoln said: “Do the people of the South really entertain fear that a Republican administration would directly or indirectly interfere with their slaves, or with them about their slaves? If they do, I wish to assure you as once a friend, and still, I hope, not an enemy, that there is no cause for such fears. The South would be in no more danger in this respect than it was in the days of Washington. My paramount object is to save the Union, and not either destroy or save slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing the slaves, I would do it. If I could save the Union by freeing some and leaving others in slavery, I would do it. If I could save it by freeing all, I would do that. What I do about slavery and the coloured race, I do because it helps save the Union.”
As an advocate in Illinois, Lincoln represented a Kentucky slaveholder seeking to have his slaves returned to him. (Lincoln lost the case). Yet in letters (especially to his friend Joshua Speed) and in many speeches and remarks, Lincoln said it was morally wrong for one human to own another. (“As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master…”). But then, if he thought slavery was an evil, why represent a client who was a slave owner against slaves seeking freedom?
This contradiction in his statements shows that Lincoln was first and foremost a politician. He made speeches to different audiences in difference situations to gain political advantage. May be by the standards of his time Lincoln was seen as progressive. One can rightly accuse me of “presentism” i.e. using present standards to judge him. But even by those standards, Lincoln was not a leading progressive in America.
Indeed, a similar excuse can be given for President Yoweri Museveni in regard to homosexuals in Uganda. Our society is deeply homophobic; Museveni is a product of it. It is possible there is no person in Uganda who has had candid discussions with Museveni on homosexuality as I have. In these discussions I have found the president very curious and incredibly open-minded – far removed from the attitude of most Ugandans I talk to on this subject. Reading both Museveni and Lincoln and trying to place each within the time in which they lived, I find them in similar circumstances.
Bossa seems to be unaware that Lincoln did not fight the south to end slavery but to preserve the union. Indeed, the Emancipation Proclamation did not liberate all slaves. Instead, the border-states (Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri) that had remained loyal to the union were left free to keep their slaves. Lincoln also exempted some selected areas of the confederacy that had already come under control of the union. In effect, the Emancipation Proclamation did not free a single slave as it applied to states and areas in the south where the federal government had no control.
Bossa possibly missed the point I was making i.e. that when Lincoln had a chance to overcome his prejudices towards black people and even act contrary to what popular opinion demanded in America at the time, he leaped unto the chance and made history by emancipating slaves especially by supporting the 13th Amendment (not the Emancipation Proclamation). When Museveni confronted a similar dilemma, rather than transcend his prejudices and the political demands of the moment, he succumbed to them. Where Lincoln defended and promoted social progress, Museveni has defended and promoted retrogressive conservatism.