Friday, April 13, 2012

New Book by Washington College Historian Explores Lincoln's Racial Attitudes, Political Savvy

CHESTERTOWN, MD—Was Abraham Lincoln a racist? In his compelling new book, Lincoln and Race (Southern Illinois University Press), Washington College history professor Richard Striner weighs the evidence and concludes that, not only was Lincoln free of racial bias, but he also was a political genius willing to deceive his opponents about his racial attitudes in order to further the cause of human rights.
“With lawyerly precision, Richard Striner mines the speeches and writings of our 16th president to make a compelling case for a President Lincoln who, contrary to contemporary belief, had a long and abiding commitment, not just to the end of slavery, but also to equality before the law for all men, whatever the color of their skin,” writes Clay Risen of The New York Times.
The author of five previous books, two of them about Lincoln, Striner has been writing and thinking about the Civil War president since he was a graduate student in history at the University of Maryland in the late 1970s. He says that writing Lincoln and Race gave him a chance to explore in depth one of the themes of his first major work on Lincoln, Father Abraham (Oxford, 2006).
“Was Lincoln, emancipator and champion of liberty, actually a conflicted soul struggling to overcome his own racial prejudice? As I worked my way through the issue in Father Abraham, I thought it quite unlikely for a number of reasons, but most of all because, studying his statecraft and politics, it became clear to me that Lincoln was a moral Machiavellian, an idealist with street smarts,” Striner says.
“Lincoln chose to employ deception a number of times during his White House years, in ways that are easy to document. He had to craft a very careful strategy in order to prevent all sorts of worst-case contingencies, including a white supremacist backlash that would have set back the antislavery cause for God knows how many decades.”
Striner structured Lincoln and Race as a sort of detective yarn, a courtroom drama. He even invokes Dashiell Hammett’s classic detective novel The Thin Man in his introduction. Assembling the evidence piece by piece, affording all sides of the debate a fair hearing, he has one end in mind: that “any satisfactory theory should make greater sense than the others.”
Striner became fascinated with Lincoln’s statecraft when he was in graduate school, “looking at the past in order to find my own bearings in terms of political philosophy, looking for inspiration. Lincoln struck me powerfully in many ways, not least because of the way he harmonized a great idealism with a very tough realism. Later, when I worked as a grassroots historic preservationist in Washington, I came to appreciate him even more because, trying to summon power to my cause, I realized I was trying at a very low level to do what he did so brilliantly on a grand scale.”

Striner’s habit of mining the past for inspiration has informed his numerous articles, including recent pieces about Lincoln for the popular New York Times “Disunion” series on the Civil War, and a cover story in The American Scholar in which he urges the administration to consider Lincoln’s strategy of printing greenbacks as a possible cure for contemporary economic woes. His 2011 book, Lincoln’s Way: How Six Great Presidents Created American Power, examines how Lincoln and five subsequent presidents pushed forward large-scale public projects and policies that made the country great.
Striner is currently working on a book about Woodrow Wilson, who, “unlike Lincoln, was a terrible strategist,” he says. “Wilson was narcissistic and foolish in ways that make him Lincoln’s operational opposite. If democracy is going to work, it demands leadership, and if the world is going to be made better, it will be by people who know how to deliver real results and not just pose on a soapbox demonstrating how perfect they are in their attitudes. That’s nice, but it doesn’t free any slaves.”