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Jonathan White is a professor at Christopher Newport University in Virginia, a historian of Abraham Lincoln and the American civil war. His new book, A House Built By Slaves, studies meetings between the 16th president and Black Americans. Its title comes from Michelle Obama’s speech to the Democratic convention in 2016.
By email, I asked White about his career, about Lincoln, and about a book published at a time of considerable controversy over the role of race and racism in American history.
How did you become a Lincoln scholar?
I always loved history – in part because I grew up in a house outside Philadelphia from the 1720s and used to dig up old stuff in the back yard. I started college, Penn State, as a business major but I quickly changed to history. During my first year at Christopher Newport I wrote a book on civil liberties called Abraham Lincoln and Treason in the Civil War. I think that’s when I began to think of myself as a Lincoln scholar.
Why is Lincoln seen as one of the greatest presidents?
I think Lincoln is usually ranked at the top because he accomplished so much against such great odds. He grew up on the frontier with an education he called “defective”, but he rose above his environment to lead the nation through its greatest constitutional conflict. His presidency was far from perfect, but he managed to both save the Union and end slavery.
Why should Americans read about Lincoln?
I’ve been teaching Lincoln speeches every semester since I got to CNU in 2009, and yet I always find them to be so relevant. In his 1860 Cooper Union speech, he called on Americans to fight for what they believe in but to engage one another in open, respectful debate. The themes of self-reflection and forgiveness in his second inaugural address also continue to resonate with students. My hope is that people won’t just read about Lincoln, but that they’ll also read his own words.
How did you come to study Lincoln and race?
In 2014, I started gathering letters written by African Americans to Lincoln. My initial idea was to publish a book of “correspondence and conversations” but I soon realized I had way too much for one book. So I broke it into two. In October 2021, I published To Address You As My Friend: African Americans’ Letters to Abraham Lincoln. On 12 February, Lincoln’s birthday, I’ll publish A House Built By Slaves: African American Visitors to the Lincoln White House.
I got the title from Michelle Obama’s 2016 DNC speech. She talked about how the struggles for freedom and civil rights throughout American history eventually led to her, as the first African American first lady, to wake up “every morning in a house that was built by slaves”. There’s irony in this image, and it captures how the White House has been a place of both oppression and racial transformation. My work shows some of the progress that was made. African Americans came to the Lincoln White House to discuss matters of national importance, and to call for equality and equal rights. In short, they were saying, “We are citizens, and our voices should be heard.”
In light of the 1619 Project, the murder of George Floyd and the national conversation about race, does Lincoln need defending?
I think he does. Nikole Hannah-Jones’s lead 1619 essay in the New York Times Magazine is beautifully written and does important work of reminding Americans of the centrality of race to the American story. But she gets Lincoln wrong. She focuses on one moment in August 1862 when Lincoln condescendingly told a Black delegation they should lead the freedpeople out of the country through a process known as colonization. But she doesn’t give the context for that meeting or explain why he did what he did.
A reader would be left with the impression that Lincoln did not treat Black visitors well, but nothing could be further from the truth. In every other instance, he welcomed them warmly, and listened to their concerns. In A House Built By Slaves, I explain what Lincoln was doing in that infamous meeting and show how it was an anomaly that needs to be understood in context.
In light of Republican attacks on history in schools, does history need defending?
I think it’s a big mistake for legislatures and governors to try to keep children from learning about controversial aspects of our history. Students need to learn and understand the complicated history of race in this country.
I know it’s a cliche, but we really can’t make sense of where we are today unless we have a sense of where we’ve come from. And that means teaching a variety of voices and perspectives. The readings for my classes are almost entirely primary sources, and I love using documents written by authors who disagree with each other. I don’t tell my students how to think, I just try to get them to think critically about the readings so that they can come to their own conclusions. That’s what I think we should be encouraging in our education system.
What was it like to be part of the discovery of a Frederick Douglass letter about the Freedmen’s Memorial in Washington, in 2020?
That was a real thrill. Shortly after the murder of George Floyd, activists in DC began to talk about tearing down the Freedmen’s Memorial in Lincoln Park – a statue that was paid for entirely by former slaves. One night I was in a text exchange with my friend Scott Sandage, who teaches at Carnegie Mellon. He and I were debating how Douglass felt about the pose in the statue, since it features Lincoln towering over an enslaved man. Our discussion set Scott to searching on newspapers.com and that’s how he found the letter. The media interest was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before.
Can studying Douglass help us understand Lincoln?
I’m currently teaching a course on emancipation, and my students are reading a lot of Douglass. I think they have been surprised by how critical Douglass was of Lincoln during the first few years of the war.
Douglass said Lincoln was abolitionism’s worst enemy and the south’s greatest slave hound. But his views changed. After meeting Lincoln in 1864, he came to see Lincoln’s heart was fully in emancipation, that it was not just about “military necessity”.
When Douglass dedicated the statue in DC in 1876, he recounted his wartime criticisms of Lincoln but essentially conceded that Lincoln’s slow and steady approach had been right. Sure, Douglass wished Lincoln had acted against slavery more quickly, but in the end he recognized that Lincoln got the job done.
A biography of a man named Appleton Oaksmith, who was convicted of slave trading during the civil war. After that, I’m thinking about emancipation in DC, or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s experiences during the civil war.
A House Built By Slaves: African American Visitors to the Lincoln White House is published in the US by Rowman & Littlefield
This content was originally published here.