It was black Americans, after all, who refused to give up on Lincoln's emancipationist legacy even when American whites wanted to forget it. And if Lincoln shared in the racial prejudice of his day, it is also true that his outlook grew significantly over the years of his presidency. He was "the first great man that I talked with in the United States freely," Frederick Douglass wrote, "who in no single instance reminded me of the difference between himself and myself, of the difference of color.
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And yet, as Bennett and others have rightly insisted, the Lincoln of earlier generations of blacks was also in part a mythic figure—his own racial prejudices passed over too lightly, even as African-Americans' roles in emancipation were underemphasized. Du Bois stressed the importance of taking Lincoln off his pedestal in order to place attention on the need for ongoing progress. But Du Bois refused to reject Lincoln in the process. Of all the great figures of the 19th century, "Lincoln is to me the most human and lovable.
And I love him not because he was perfect but because he was not and yet triumphed.
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Lincoln will always remain the president who helped destroy slavery and preserved the Union. With stubbornness, caution and an exquisite sense of timing, he engaged almost physically with unfolding history.
Derided by some as an opportunist, he was in fact an artist, responding to events as he himself changed over time, allowing himself to grow into a true reformer. Misjudged as a mere jokester, incompetent, unserious, he was in fact the most serious actor on the political stage. He was politically shrewd, and he took a long view of history. And he knew when to strike to obtain his ends.
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Just for his work on behalf of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States, he has earned a permanent place in the history of human freedom. In addition, he was a man of patience who refused to demonize others; a person of the middle who could build bridges across chasms. Herein may lie one of his most important legacies—his unwavering desire to reunite the American people. In Chicago's Grant Park, the night he was declared the winner of the election, Obama sought to capture that sentiment, quoting from Lincoln's first inaugural address: "We are not enemies, but friends Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.
And with the inauguration of the nation's first African-American president, we remember that, in , with the Union war effort going badly, the national government might have been tempted to suspend the upcoming elections. Not only did Lincoln insist they take place, he staked his campaign on a controversial platform calling for the 13th Amendment, willing to risk everything on its behalf. When he went on to an overwhelming victory in November, he obtained a mandate to carry through his program.
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