In Big Enough to Be Inconsistent: Abraham Lincoln Confronts Slavery and Race, George N. Fredrickson attempts to strike a scholarly balance in assessing Lincoln’s views on race and slavery. Fredrickson opens this work with an extended historiographical assessment, focusing primarily on some of the more recent scholarship. He notes that the historiography addressing Lincoln’s racial and anti-slavery views have essentially fallen into two camps: the hagiographic praise of Lincoln as the great emancipator, or one in which he is viewed solely as a dyed-in-the-wool white supremacist. Fredrickson argues that Lincoln shouldn’t be forced into one of those two camps, and rather, that while Lincoln had long been committed to anti-slavery, he was a political pragmatist whose racial views changed over the course of his political career.
Fredrickson argues that in Lincoln’s “Illinois Years,” prior to 1860, Lincoln was committed to anti-slavery, but only within the bounds of constitutional, legal, and political constraints. He also contends that Lincoln was “clearly” a white supremacist, though he argues that there can be degrees of racism. Fredrickson states that Lincoln’s racism was based on conformity to the wider Illinois electorate, and thus he was a passive white supremacist, out of conformity and political expediency.
During the Civil War, however, Lincoln’s racial views changed. While he was able to reconcile his respect for the constitution with his anti-slavery views by framing emancipation as a military necessity, increasing the Union’s manpower while destabilizing the southern economy. As large numbers of blacks enlisted in the Union Army, however, Lincoln’s commitment to colonization waned. Lincoln’s commitment to republican ideology would not allow for the enlistment of blacks in the military, but the denial of their rights as citizens.
By parsing out the evolution of Lincoln’s views on slavery and race separately, and by placing them in the context of the broader public opinion, Fredrickson successfully provides necessary nuance in the egalitarian vs. racist debate.