By Joseph Bossa
A public letter to Andrew Mwenda
Dear Mwenda, Museveni ain’t no Lincoln.
I can no longer restrain myself and let pass without answer your opinion piece in The Independent of March 07-13, 2014 (Issue No 307) under the heading ‘’Museveni and Lincoln.’’
I first got acquainted with Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, 50 years ago when I was in Junior Two, the equivalent of today’s Senior One. A classmate (God bless his soul) allowed me to peruse a book by the title ‘’ Abraham Lincoln’’ which he had smuggled from his home library. From that day I got hooked on Lincoln.
I have tried to read every book on that subject that has crossed my way (which must be miniscule, given that more books have been written about Lincoln than any person in history, save Jesus). Still, I would like to think that I know a thing or two about Lincoln.
Therefore, when I saw that name in your article, my interest was aroused. What struck me the most was the last paragraph of the article, which I set out here in full:
‘’Abraham Lincoln was a racist who publicly argued that black people were not equal to white people and should therefore remain in an inferior status, just like Museveni admits to being a homophobe. Yet when confronted with an opportunity to transcend his prejudices and make history by defending something most white Americans disagreed with, Lincoln grabbed the chance. When faced with a similar opportunity, Museveni (whose position on gays has been more progressive than Lincoln’s position on racial equality) allowed short term political considerations to blind his judgment.’’
You say that you gained your opinion regarding Lincoln from watching a movie of the same title one afternoon. Well, movies have never been the best medium for depicting the life and character of a historical figure, be it Gandhi, Adolf Hitler, John F. Kennedy or Nelson Mandela. Most movies make a caricature of the subject and short-change historical events.
Mwenda, you will admit that you are possibly mixing two, and probably three, concepts, namely slavery, racism and racial segregation. But the mix-up is understandable because all three evils were linked in that the victims were one and the same—the black people of African origin—and the perpetrators were the same—the white Americans.
The matter was compounded by some blacks being slaves while others were free. And there were some American states where slavery was legal and some states where it was illegal, giving rise to the house divided, half- slave and half- free, that Lincoln spoke of.
It helps to clearly see the difference between slavery, racism and racial segregation if we remember that it took another hundred years after the abolition of slavery (in 1865) to abolish racial segregation. Racism; overt and covert, still lingers in America to this day.
With regard to slavery and racism, one could be a racist, which assumes one race to be superior to another, but against slavery, which is holding another person, regardless of race, in bondage. But one could not be pro- slavery without being a racist at the same time since American slavery was premised on the presumption of white racial superiority over blacks. Ironically, a Frenchman; Alexis de Tocqueville, in his book Democracy in America (published in 1833) observed, ‘’Race prejudice seems stronger in those states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists, and nowhere is it more intolerant than in those states where slavery was never known.’’
You state that Lincoln was a racist who ‘’transcended’’ his racism and abolished slavery. Was he? Let’s examine the evidence of his racism or lack thereof.
At a personal level, Lincoln from an early age empathised and sympathised with black Americans both in terms of bondage and race. He wrote, ‘’I used to be a slave . . . but now I am free.’’ For until he turned 21, his father used to hire him out to farmers to plough their fields and harvest their crops but at the end of his labour, the father kept all the earnings. He equated this kind of exploitation by his father to slavery. And writing to a friend who he thought might not remember him well, he described himself as ‘’a long black fellow’’.
Politically, his position was clear from his response during his debates on slavery with Senator Stephen Douglas. In 1857, the Senator had asserted that those agitating for an end to slavery by invoking the phrase ‘’all men are created equal’’ in the Declaration of Independence ‘’do so only because they want to vote, and eat, and sleep, and marry with Negroes’’.
Lincoln’s reply was: ‘’Now I protest against that counterfeit logic which concludes that, because I do not want a black woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. I need not have her for either, I can just leave her alone.’’ He continued, ‘’In some respects she certainly is not my equal; but in her natural right to eat the bread she earns with her own hands without asking leave of anyone else, she is my equal, and the equal of all others.’’ He challenged the Senator, if he did not believe in the words of the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal, to come up with an amendment to say that all men are created equal except Negroes. Are those the words of a racist?
Contrast those words with those of the said Senator, who would argue, ‘’. . . this government of ours was founded on the white basis. It was made by the white man, for the benefit of the white man, to be administered by white men.’’
Now, it has been said that political beliefs do not necessarily correlate with personal behaviour. In other words, quite often, our words may not match our personal conduct and our self-view may not be the same as others see us. We therefore need to examine Lincoln’s personal conduct and how others saw him with regard to the two issues of racism and slavery.
In his time, Frederick Douglass was probably the most eminent black man in America and one of the harshest critics of President Lincoln’s policies on slavery. One day, Douglass came to visit Lincoln at the White House. Twice, as they were talking, Lincoln’s messenger came into the room to inform him that the governor of Connecticut wished to see him. ‘’Tell Governor Buckingham to wait, for I want to have a long talk with my friend Douglass,’’ Lincoln told the messenger. Reporting on the visit to their mutual friend, Douglass said, ‘’He treated me as a man; he did not let me feel for a moment that there was a difference in the colour of our skins. The President is a most remarkable man.’’ On his part, Lincoln told the friend that he considered Douglass ‘’one of the most meritorious men in America.’’
This was not a mere political gimmick. Their friendship and mutual respect was known to Lincoln’s wife, so that shortly after his death, Mary, his widow, gave to Douglass her husband’s favourite walking stick as a momento of their friendship.
Lincoln’s treatment of Douglass was not just due to personal chemistry between them. It extended to the rest of the members of the black race. It is said that Lincoln met with more blacks at the White House, not counting slaves and servants, than any other previous president.
That was not the conduct of a racist.
But it is also true that Lincoln was part of the community he lived in. He shared its sentiments with regard to black people not being the social equal of whites. He told sexist and racial jokes, which according to today’s mores would be considered to be in poor taste. For, although he was an extraordinary man, he was still a man.
I rest my case against the accusation of Lincoln being a racist. As you seem to confuse racism and slavery, I spend a few lines on the matter. But first let’s deal with a historical detail. Lincoln is more famous for signing the Emancipation Proclamation, which came into effect on January 01, 1863 than for the 13th Amendment of the Constitution, which came in 1865. He pushed for the amendment in order to make the Proclamation permanent for he feared it could be interpreted as having been a war measure and reversed after the civil war.
When you talk about Lincoln transcending his prejudice in signing the anti-slavery law you actually mean that as a person he was pro-slavery, that he signed the document IN SPITE of his own beliefs. Nothing could be farther from the truth. That movie you watched must have deceived you. Lincoln had a deep moral conviction against slavery. As soon as he signed the Proclamation he said, ‘’I never in my life felt more certain that I was doing right, than I do in signing this paper.’’ So firm was he in this move that he would later say to those urging him to rescind it, “For such work another would have to be found.’’ As if that was not strong enough, he added, ‘’I should be damned in time and in eternity for doing so. ’’That was consistent with his often stated personal view that ‘’If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.’’
Mwenda, you may argue that the purpose of your article was not to discuss in detail the significance of Lincoln’s anti-slavery law and Museveni’s Anti- Homosexuality Bill, that this was a by the way, that you were not aware of the raw intellectual nerve you were touching. Still that does not excuse you for lapses of logic in the article.
You say that Lincoln was a racist who transcended his prejudices and initiated the law that abolished slavery. There is nothing logically wrong with that, even though it is factually incorrect. But it is illogical to say that Museveni is an anti-homosexual (homophobe) who transcended his prejudice and signed an anti-homosexuality law! You would have been on firm ground if you had said that Museveni succumbed to his prejudices and the prejudices of his countrymen and signed the anti-homosexuality law, if you really thought he even cared.
Then you say that in Lincoln signing the anti-slavery law and Museveni signing the Anti- Homosexuality Bill, the two men made history. How was that history made? According to you, Lincoln made history by defending ‘’something most white Americans disagreed with’’. And as for Museveni? Because he ‘’allowed short term political considerations to blind his judgment’’. Museveni’s is certainly a strange way of making history. I suppose history can be made by one appealing to the better angels as by exploiting the dark side of our nature.
I become uncomfortable when you seem to put on the same footing, historically, Lincoln’s anti-slavery law and Museveni’s anti- homosexuality law. Did you mean to tell us that the anti-homosexuality law is to Uganda what the anti-slavery law was to America and the world? Well, the two laws are not anywhere near each other either at the purely Ugandan and American domestic levels or internationally.
There was a crowd of people, white and black, gathered outside the White House the day the Proclamation was signed who listened as it was read to them. A black minister would later say of what he saw: ‘’Men squealed, women fainted, dogs barked, white and coloured people shook hands , songs were sung. It was indeed a time of times and a half time. Nothing like it will ever be seen again in this life.’’ Can you, Andrew, say that of the day the anti-homosexuality Bill was signed?
At the international level, Karl Marx no less, writing from Vienna, Austria, acknowledged the revolutionary nature of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and called it, ‘’the most important document of America since the founding of the Union . . . . Never yet has the New World scored a greater victory. . .’’ International reaction to the signing of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill is as well known to you as to me.
Finally Mwenda, mentioning Lincoln and Museveni in the same sentence the way you did was worse than a misjudgement. One day I will tell you why.
Joseph Bossa, Vice-President, UPC