Monday, February 9, 2009


Thomas Riggins

I ran across an interesting quote from Frederick Douglass the other day in The Week (2-13-09) regarding Abraham Lincoln. Douglass said. “From a genuine abolition point of view, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent. But measuring him by the sentiment of his country--- a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult--- he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.”

Here it looks like Lincoln represents a unity of opposites in his own person. Lets place Lincoln in his time. With regard to slavery we can postulate three possible positions. The defense of slavery is one position. The absolute negation of slavery-- “the genuine abolition point of view” is the counter position to the first. And a third position which combines elements of the two previous positions. This third position would incorporate the view that slavery should be gradually eliminated but not abruptly ended all at once and everywhere.

From the point of view of the progressive development of mankind the first position was, in Lincoln’s day, reactionary and untenable. Its historical manifestation was the Confederacy. The “genuine abolition point of view” was the philosophically and morally correct position. Its historical manifestation was the radical abolition movement-- which was a small minority movement relative to the total non slave population in the U.S.

Was the third position represented by the Emancipation Proclamation-- freeing some slaves but not all the slaves? Is this what seemed dull and tardy from the point of view of Absolute Truth (to use an Hegelian expression) but was zealous and radical from the point of view of existing reality?

When Douglass uses the expression “the sentiment of his country” what can he mean except that the consciousness of the American (white) people at the time was thoroughly imbrued with racism. To this consciousness Lincoln’s actions seemed radical and zealous.

This consciousness “was bound” to be consulted. Does this mean it was not possible for Lincoln to have been more “radical” than he in fact was-- i.e., that the Emancipation Proclamation was in fact the Truth of the other two propositions? Was the proclamation the best you could get in the “real world?”

A further question is if the Emancipation Proclamation would have been possible at all without the radical abolition movement? Was the historical role of the “genuine abolition movement” not to actually come to power but to make it possible for the American consciousness to accept the actions of Lincoln?

If that is so, are there any lessons for today about the role of Marxism and its relation to the consciousness of the American people to be learned from Frederick Douglass’s remarks about Abraham Lincoln?