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Big Enough to Be Inconsistent: Abraham Lincoln Confronts Slavery and Race

Overview

“Cruel, merciful; peace-loving, a fighter; despising Negroes and letting them fight and vote; protecting slavery and freeing slaves.” Abraham Lincoln was, W. E. B. Du Bois declared, “big enough to be inconsistent.” Big enough, indeed, for every generation to have its own Lincoln—unifier or emancipator, egalitarian or racist. In an effort to reconcile these views, and to offer a more complex and nuanced account of a figure so central to American history, this book focuses on the most controversial aspect of Lincoln’s thought and politics—his

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BIG ENOUGH TO BE INCONSISTENT

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Overview

“Cruel, merciful; peace-loving, a fighter; despising Negroes and letting them fight and vote; protecting slavery and freeing slaves.” Abraham Lincoln was, W. E. B. Du Bois declared, “big enough to be inconsistent.” Big enough, indeed, for every generation to have its own Lincoln—unifier or emancipator, egalitarian or racist. In an effort to reconcile these views, and to offer a more complex and nuanced account of a figure so central to American history, this book focuses on the most controversial aspect of Lincoln’s thought and politics—his attitudes and actions regarding slavery and race. Drawing attention to the limitations of Lincoln’s judgment and policies without denying his magnitude, the book provides the most comprehensive and even-handed account available of Lincoln’s contradictory treatment of black Americans in matters of slavery in the South and basic civil rights in the North.

George Fredrickson shows how Lincoln’s antislavery convictions, however genuine and strong, were held in check by an equally strong commitment to the rights of the states and the limitations of federal power. He explores how Lincoln’s beliefs about racial equality in civil rights, stirred and strengthened by the African American contribution to the northern war effort, were countered by his conservative constitutional philosophy, which left this matter to the states. The Lincoln who emerges from these pages is far more comprehensible and credible in his inconsistencies, and in the abiding beliefs and evolving principles from which they arose. Deeply principled but nonetheless flawed, all-too-human yet undeniably heroic, he is a Lincoln for all generations.

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Editorial Reviews

Philadelphia Inquirer

Offers a lucid analysis of scholarship on that topic over recent decades. Lincoln has been depicted as everything from a pragmatic racist to a prudential abolitionist.
— Carlin Romano

Rain Taxi

The cottage industry of books on Abraham Lincoln represents both a process of national hagiography and the impulse to deconstruct the myth of Honest Abe, the Great Emancipator. George Fredrickson, pioneer of the comparative method of historical study, aims in this slim book for a middle ground between those who hold to a vision of Lincoln as a saintly anti-slavery advocate (albeit one who bided his time, waiting for the perfect political moment to champion emancipation) and those who argue that Lincoln was, as many of his statements seem to indicate, a racist...This book, through its engagement with the complicated tensions around race at the time of the Civil War, also offers a valuable insight into the continuing history of racism and the racial divide in American today. The legacy of slavery and segregation still characterizes our society, occasionally dominating headlines but far more frequently remaining a ubiquitous subtext in private conversations and national discourse. The noble goal of Fredrickson's career was bringing such tension, and its ugly, tangled history, to the surface, so that we, his readers, can continue to repair our divided house.
— Spencer Drew

New York Review of Books

For more than thirty years George Frederickson was a leading historian of race relations and racial ideologies in the United States and other multiracial societies...Frederickson's thorough research, original insights, common-sense interpretations, and lucid prose made him a historian's historian as well as a writer who reached a broad audience with several of his books...Big Enough to Be Inconsistent focuses more on Lincoln's own racial attitudes than on his policies toward slavery.
— James M. McPherson

Eric Foner
Like all of Fredrickson's work, Big Enough to Be Inconsistent is marked by meticulous scholarship and a fair-minded evaluation of differing interpretations and pieces of evidence. It is balanced and insightful throughout.
Philadelphia Inquirer - Carlin Romano
Offers a lucid analysis of scholarship on that topic over recent decades. Lincoln has been depicted as everything from a pragmatic racist to a prudential abolitionist.
Rain Taxi - Spencer Drew
The cottage industry of books on Abraham Lincoln represents both a process of national hagiography and the impulse to deconstruct the myth of Honest Abe, the Great Emancipator. George Fredrickson, pioneer of the comparative method of historical study, aims in this slim book for a middle ground between those who hold to a vision of Lincoln as a saintly anti-slavery advocate (albeit one who bided his time, waiting for the perfect political moment to champion emancipation) and those who argue that Lincoln was, as many of his statements seem to indicate, a racist...This book, through its engagement with the complicated tensions around race at the time of the Civil War, also offers a valuable insight into the continuing history of racism and the racial divide in American today. The legacy of slavery and segregation still characterizes our society, occasionally dominating headlines but far more frequently remaining a ubiquitous subtext in private conversations and national discourse. The noble goal of Fredrickson's career was bringing such tension, and its ugly, tangled history, to the surface, so that we, his readers, can continue to repair our divided house.
New York Review of Books - James M. McPherson
For more than thirty years George Frederickson was a leading historian of race relations and racial ideologies in the United States and other multiracial societies...Frederickson's thorough research, original insights, common-sense interpretations, and lucid prose made him a historian's historian as well as a writer who reached a broad audience with several of his books...Big Enough to Be Inconsistent focuses more on Lincoln's own racial attitudes than on his policies toward slavery.
Publishers Weekly

Based on his W.E.B. Du Bois lectures at Harvard, Stanford professor emeritus Fredrickson (Arrogance of Race) wades into a controversial arena: was Lincoln a heroic emancipator or a racist who didn't care about slaves at all? Stating that in between "pathological" racism and egalitarianism lies a spectrum of possibilities, Fredrickson says that Lincoln is not easily classified. After opening with a quick, useful survey of the relevant historiography, Fredrickson addresses Lincoln's thoughts about issues ranging from white supremacy to colonization and black military service. One question that looms large for Fredrickson is whether Lincoln meant the most racist comments he made during the 1850s. He hated slavery yet "clearly... could not readily envision a society in which blacks and whites could live in harmony as... equals." Fredrickson suggests that Lincoln's public statements may have reflected both his real thoughts and the savvy political sensibility of an ambitious man who knew he couldn't get elected without invoking white supremacist shibboleths; furthermore, Lincoln's thoughts about blacks-especially about their capacity for citizenship-may have changed during the Civil War. This brief book will be widely discussed by historians and will provide nonacademic readers a lucid introduction to some of the most heated debates about the 16th president. (Feb.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Three masterly essays (the title is an estimation of Lincoln from Du Bois himself) based on the author's lectures. With graceful and efficient expertise, Fredrickson (history, emeritus, Stanford Univ.) deconstructs our rigid castings of Lincoln as either savior or racist. This exceptional book has that rare ability to make the less informed feel wise and the wise feel all the more discerning and learned. For all libraries.


—Margaret Heilbrun
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674027749
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 2/28/2008
  • Series: The W. E. B. Du Bois Lectures Series , #6
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 168
  • Sales rank: 1,115,780
  • Product dimensions: 4.50 (w) x 7.10 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

?George M. Fredrickson was Edgar E. Robinson Professor of United States History Emeritus, Stanford University.
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Table of Contents

Preface

1. A Clash of Images: Great Egalitarian or Hard-Core Racist?

2. Free Soil, Free Labor, and Free White Men: The Illinois Years

3. Becoming an Emancipator: The War Years

Notes

Index

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  • Posted July 1, 2013

    I personally had to read this book for a class project but I lea

    I personally had to read this book for a class project but I learned much more than what I already knew about Lincoln. I respect him not because he was a president of the U.S. but because he stood up for what he believed in and even though what he stood for risked his life, he still changed the world when it comes to racism, equality, and standing up for what you believe in.

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