Garry Wills on Lincoln
Garry Wills' article on Lincoln in the New York Review of Books is an excellent, concise analysis of Lincoln's views towards slavery and African-Americans. Ironically, Gore Vidal was blasted nearly a quarter of a century ago for a similar analysis of Lincoln's views--but of course, Vidal understood Lincoln better than most of the historians of the time. See here and here for the juicy exchanges between Vidal and major Linclon or Civil War era historians in the NY Reivew of Books back in the late 1980s.
In any event, the most profound quote in the Wills article belongs, not suprisingly, to the iconic Frederick Douglass, when he said:
Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, 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.
The point here should be clear, but often needs repeating in a variety of ways. What Douglass recognized is that we have a right to judge a leader outside of his or her time. But we should not judge a leader outside of his or her time as if the time today is the same as the time then. That would be what alternative history writers call "presentism." It is "presentism," for example, that leads too many "Holocaust studies" historians to harshly criticize FDR and his response to the Holocaust against Europe's Jews in World War II. It is often found to be a problem of the specialist who really doesn't understand the sweep of history, but it can affect any of us--and so must be confronted when it arises.
Wills' article strikes a blow against presentism, and a blow for historical accuracy and understanding. Wills' article should be required reading in every high school or college class in American History.