Right now I am considering the “double consciousness” of Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth president of the United States of America. Lincoln’s presidency signaled the end of an American social order that diabolically reduced the African into a piece of chattel, forced to suffer through what the poet Robert Hayden calls the “voyage through death,” i.e., the Middle Passage. His presidency interro-gated an American consciousness that articulated the value of the enslaved African on American soil as owning a mere three fifths of the humanity God bestows upon each human being. His presidency encouraged an America in which all Americans are included in the Jeffersonian idea articulated in the Declaration of Independence that accords each American the rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
On January 1, 1863, when Abraham Lincoln issued the revolutionary document liberating all enslaved Blacks living in the slave-holding states, he changed the institution of slavery as it existed in America from 1619 to 1865. In the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln says: “That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord , all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free. . .” (quoted Franklin 43). Abraham Lincoln’s authoring and eventual signing of the Emancipation Proclamation catapulted his identity into the American cultural icon identified most in popular culture with freeing the folk with, says the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “fleecy locks and dark complexions,” the folk who, continues King, would “inject new meaning into the veins of history and civilization.” Lincoln’s identity as America’s great emancipator was underscored in August of 1963 during the March on Washington for jobs and freedom when approximately 250,000 Americans gathered at the Lincoln Memorial. The late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., identified Lincoln as the “beacon of light, the political visionary, and the symbolic shadow” responsible for the African-Americans’ passage from slavery to freedom in America. And yet, Lincoln’s identity as the “great emancipator” is problematic and representative of the double consciousness present in the American cultural psychic concerning Abraham Lincoln.
W.E.B. Dubois conceived the theory of double-consciousness. In his polemical text, The Souls of Black Folk, Dubois articulates the African-American’s dual commitment to the disparate identities. The African-American, he suggests, is plagued with “warring souls,” i.e., two identities that are not unified in political or social consciousness.
The African-American was (and is) not the only American plagued with the contending identities associated with issues of race and class in America; all Americans have been affected, including Abraham Lincoln. Lerone Bennett says Lincoln was a politician “divided against himself.” As Lincoln mulled over the text of the Emancipation Proclamation, critics such as Lerone Bennett and Julius Lester strongly suggest Lincoln’s contradictory views concerning the African-American and his freedom. Lincoln’s primary concern was not the enslaved African’s freedom; it was maintaining the viability of the Union. “If Lincoln had his way,” says Bennett, “there would be no Blacks in America. None” (215). Julius Lester says, “Blacks have no reason to feel grateful to Abraham Lincoln. . . How come it took him two years to free the slaves?” (107). Lincoln, it seems, validates Lester’s argument and the idea that he was plagued with a “warring soul.” In a letter written to Horace Greeley in August of 1862, he says: “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union. . .” (652).
However, in that same letter Lincoln anchors my belief that he was conflicted because he understood how he should perform as the presidential identity of the Union. He says: “I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty . . .” (652). I am convinced that the ideas of Lincoln, the private man, served as the navigating force behind the most important performance act of his life, signing the Emancipation Proclamation. As the African-American historian John Hope Franklin notes in his text The Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln needed no convincing that slavery was wrong, and he had been determined for many years to strike a blow for freedom if the opportunity ever came his way. As a young man he told a New Orleans group in 1831: “If I ever get a chance to hit that thing [slavery], I’ll hit it hard” (Franklin 29).
Lincoln experienced Dubois’ notion of the “warring soul.” He understood the need to “hit it (slavery) hard.” Within each human being there is the ethnical notion that to be human is to experience freedom. Yet he wrestled with the fragility of a country divided against itself. Lincoln’s deepest yearning is the mantra of twenty-first-century Americans-to do what’s best for the country. Lincoln may have been challenged with the idea that freeing the enslaved African would force an altering of the psychic stream of European American thought. The emancipation of the enslaved placed America in a quandary as it forced White Americans to change their view of the enslaved African-American’s place. As Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka) says: “What is so often forgotten in any discussion of the Negro’s ‘place’ in American society is the fact that it was only as a slave that he really had one. The post-slave society had no place for the Black Americans, and if there were to be any area of the society where the Negro might have an integral function, that area would have to be one that he created for himself” (55).
The emancipated African-Americans became America’s human dilemma; they drove their former masters to seek a new way of defining them as they sought to redefine themselves. Lincoln, I am sure, must have understood this.
It is a historical fact that Lincoln’s Emanci-pation Proclamation did not provide emancipatory privileges to all enslaved Africans. The Thirteenth Amendment did that. For sure, though, God used the sixteenth president of the United States as the human conduit who placed the issue of slavery on the marquee of American politics. Lincoln’s use of biblical references in speeches such as “House Divided” to argue against slavery suggests that he yearned for an America in which the demon of slavery was abolished. If in the milieu of a yearn is the stillness found in the silent whisper of a man or woman in prayer, Abraham Lincoln’s prayer concerning the abolishment of slavery was answered. That, I do believe!
The Thirteenth Amendment is the document that secured the freedom of all enslaved Africans.
I am aware that not all Blacks were slaves. According to Kenneth M. Stampp, in “1830, more than thirty-six hundred free Negroes or persons of mixed ancestry owned slaves” (194). However, the racial image of an American slave is a person of African descent.
Bennett, Lerone. Forced Into Glory. Illinois: Johnson Publishing Company, 2007.
DuBois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: The Library of America, 1990.
Franklin, John Hope. The Emancipation Proclamation. New York: Doubleday Publishing, 1963.
Jones, Leroi. Blues People. Reprint. New York: Perennial, 2002.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. Stride Toward Freedom. New York: Harper and Row, 1958.
Lincoln, Abraham. Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings. Ed. Roy P. Basler. Ohio: DaCapo Press, 2001.