I've enjoyed the recent diatribes and counter-diatribes concerning Lincoln's place in American history [letters, July 30, Aug. 7]. I come down somewhere in the middle. Lincoln, like Jefferson, was a great president, but like Jefferson, he was also a racist. Both men hated slavery. (Yes, Jefferson owned slaves. Nevertheless, his denunciations of slavery were if anything stronger than those of Lincoln. As one of a number of abolitionist slave owners at the time of the Revolution, Jefferson was no more a hypocrite than, say, a rich New Dealer or millionaire socialist of a later date.)

Both men came up with essentially the same solution -- free the slaves and send them back to Africa, or Haiti or their own segregated state in the defeated South or "empty" West. In the words of Lincoln biographer Mark E. Neely Jr., the great man's vision "was a profoundly racist dream, rooted in an inability to imagine a biracial future for America." The same could have been said for Jefferson.

Some of the letter writers claimed that Lincoln substantially modified his racism after reaching the White House, but that view is not supported by the record. While in the White House, Lincoln told a group of blacks that the white race "suffers from your presence" (and vice versa). Moreover, according to Reconstruction authority Kenneth Stampp, well after his Emancipation Proclamation Lincoln was still toying with a plan that would postpone total emancipation until 1900. The Jefferson-Lincoln vision of a lily-white "yeoman democracy" and its acceptance by much of mainstream America is, even more than slavery, the racial sin from which our nation still suffers.


Falls Church