The 1619 Project and the ‘Anti-Lincoln Tradition’

Cartoon by John Tenniel (Wikimedia Commons)

Earlier this year, the Pulitzer Prize Committee announced that this year’s prize for journalistic commentary would be awarded to New York Times staff writer Nikole Hannah-Jones for her work on the 1619 Project. Beginning in August of last year to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the first Africans to arrive in Virginia, the 1619 Project aims to re-examine the legacy of slavery in the United States. The Committee highlighted Hannah-Jones’ introduction to the project as ‘a sweeping, provocative and personal essay…which seeks to place the enslavement of Africans at the center of America’s story, prompting public conversation about the nation’s founding and evolution.’

While the announcement was greeted by applause in many quarters, it also provided critics with an opportunity to renew their attacks against Hannah-Jones and, by extension, the 1619 Project. In addition to taking issue with Hannah-Jones’ overarching contention that ‘anti-Black racism runs in the very DNA of this country’ and her assertion that slavery was a ‘primary reason the colonists fought in the American revolution’, detractors expressed outrage at her representation of Abraham Lincoln as less a ‘Great Emancipator’ than a political opportunist who believed ‘that Black people are the obstacle to national unity.’ Among the most enthusiastic critiques have come from conservative historian and longtime Lincoln apologist Allen Guelzo, who, since the Pulitzer announcement, has revived his attacks on Hannah-Jones’ “outrageous lying slander of Abe Lincoln” and repeated his belief that the 1619 Project represents an exercise in sloppiness and historical invention.

Guelzo’s comments are, if nothing else, consistent. Two decades earlier he used almost verbatim prose to discredit the work of Ebony journalist and popular historian Lerone Bennett Jr., whose study Forced Into Glory offered a biting critique of the nation’s sixteenth president. Hannah-Jones’ receipt of a Pulitzer Prize and the renewed hand-wringing over her depiction of Lincoln provides an opportunity to revisit this debate. Similarly, when accounting for Hannah-Jones’ own acknowledgement of the long shadow cast over the 1619 Project by Bennett’s work, as well as this year marking the twentieth anniversary of Forced Into Glory’s original publication, it seems a useful moment to return to Bennett’s hefty text. 

For much of the century following Lincoln’s death in 1865, the president was held in high esteem within Black American communities. As a child in Jackson, Mississippi, Bennett witnessed this devotion first-hand, later describing Black attitudes towards the president as almost Christ-like. However, such sentiments should not obscure the complexity of Lincoln’s relationship to Black America – something embodied through his most prominent Black critic and admirer, Frederick Douglass, who in the years following Lincoln’ death would alternatively describe him as both ‘the Black man’s president’ and ‘preeminently the white man’s president.’ More broadly, a small but vocal contingent of Black historians and intellectuals stressed that Lincoln’s views on slavery did not automatically make him a friend of Black people. In a 1901 presentation at the Boston Literary and Historical Association, Black lawyer Archibald Grimke contended that Lincoln’s primary concern had been the preservation of the Union and that he was ‘no friend to humanity as evidenced by the negro.’ 

This complex relationship can be traced on an institutional as well as individual level. The self-professed mission of the National Negro Committee, later renamed as the NAACP, was explicitly intertwined with Lincoln’s legacy. Early statements contended that ‘Abraham Lincoln began the emancipation of the Negro American. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People proposes to complete it.’ Yet Diana Schaub has suggested that the NAACP’s official publication The Crisis became the key vehicle through which W.E.B Du Bois helped to usher in a ‘turn away from Lincoln’ during the 1920s. America’s preeminent Black intellectual criticized Lincoln’s veneration and called for a reckoning with his contradictory impulses: ‘cruel, merciful; peace-loving, a fighter; despising Negroes and letting them fight and vote; protecting slavery and freeing slaves.’ Du Bois would expand upon this characterization in Black Reconstruction (1935), where he applauded Lincoln’s role in issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, but also noted that for the majority of his life Lincoln ‘simply could not envision free Negroes in the United States.’ 

By the 1940s and 1950s this dualistic image of Lincoln had spread to the pages of the Black popular press, where readers could find forceful defenses of Lincoln’s status as the ‘Great Emancipator’ alongside commentary by influential journalists such as Simeon Booker and civil rights activists such as Constance Baker Motley which noted Lincoln’s opposition to Black social and political equality. Into the 1960s work by academically trained Black scholars maintained a tone of qualified praise for the sixteenth president, with Benjamin Quarles’ Lincoln and the Negro and John Hope Franklin’s The Emancipation Proclamation adopting a racially liberal approach that emphasized Lincoln’s shifting racial attitudes and capacity for personal growth.

However, these sentiments were rapidly overtaken by New Left and Black militant historians, who framed Lincoln as ‘unheroic, opportunistic, and somewhat insensitive to the suffering of black people in bondage.’ Arguably the most forceful attack came through Bennett’s 1968 Ebony essay “Was Abe Lincoln a White Supremacist?” a question the journalist answered in the positive and which was taken up by Black Power activists such as Julius Lester, who declared that ‘Blacks have no reason to feel grateful to Abraham Lincoln.’ 

During the latter decades of the twentieth century, Black scholars continued to grapple with the president’s complicated legacy. For more moderate historians such as Franklin, Lincoln’s philosophical evolution on the question of Black rights remained a central thesis. In a 1985 paper published in the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Franklin maintained that ‘neither Malcolm X nor Lester nor Bennett recognized the flexibility of Lincoln and his capacity for growth’ 1. By contrast, scholars such as Vincent Harding expanded upon earlier criticisms to depict Lincoln as at best a hesitant and unreliable ally whose vaunted Emancipation Proclamation provided little more than ‘ambiguous legal standing to the freedom which black people had already claimed’ for themselves. Perhaps more significantly, opinions on the sixteenth president within the African American community as a whole continued to trend downwards – in a 1956 Gallup Poll which asked respondents to name America’s three greatest presidents, nearly half of all African Americans listed Lincoln; by 1999, this number had fallen to a little over a quarter. While Black approval ratings for past presidents declined across the board during the second half of the twentieth, this drop suggests that longstanding Lincoln critiques within the Black community had begun to find a more receptive audience. 

It is this trend which so alarms Lincoln scholars such as Guelzo, who understand the ‘withdrawal from Lincoln by African Americans’ to be a manifestation of ‘a profound nihilism that sees little meaning in American freedom and little hope for real racial progress.’  If ‘Lincoln is America’, as he appears to be for many of his most public defenders, then the ‘anti-Lincoln tradition’ in Black intellectual thought which fed into the 1619 Project is at heart an anti-American enterprise. Yet, to paraphrase James Baldwin, if Black scholars and the African American community love America they must retain the right to criticize her – and her most famous sons and daughters – in perpetuity. To position the rich ‘anti-Lincoln tradition’ which has developed within African American communities over the last 150 years as an anti-American one is a stance than runs counter to Hannah-Jones’ own characterization of the relationship between Blackness and American identity:

What if America understood, finally, in this 400th year, that we have never been the problem but the solution?…

…I wish, now, that I could go back to the younger me and tell her that her people’s ancestry started here, on these lands, and to boldly, proudly, draw the stars and those stripes of the American flag.

We were told once, by virtue of our bondage, that we could never be American. But it was by virtue of our bondage that we became the most American of all.

  1. John Hope Franklin, “The Use and Misuse of the Lincoln Legacy,” Papers of the Abraham Lincoln Association (1985)
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E. James West

E. James West is a UK-based writer and historian, currently working as a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Northumbria University Newcastle. Her is the author of 'Lerone Bennett, Jr. EBONY Magazine and Popular Black History' (University of Illinois Press). Follow him on Twitter @ejwestuk.