JJonathan 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 the encounters between the 16th president and black Americans. Its title comes from Michelle Obama’s speech at the Democratic convention in 2016.
Via email, I asked White about his career, about Lincoln, and about a book published at a time of considerable controversy about the role of race and racism in American history.
How did you become a Lincoln Scholar?
I’ve always loved the story – partly because I grew up in a house outside Philadelphia in the 1720s and used to dig up old stuff in the backyard. I started college, Penn State, as a business major, but quickly transitioned into history. During my freshman year at Christopher Newport, I wrote a book on civil liberties called Abraham Lincoln and betrayal in the Civil War. I think that’s when I started to think of myself as a Lincoln scholar.
Why is Lincoln considered one of the greatest presidents?
I think Lincoln is generally ranked at the top because he accomplished so much against such great odds. He grew up on the frontier with an upbringing he called “flawed,” but he rose above his surroundings to lead the nation through its greatest constitutional conflict. His presidency was far from perfect, but he succeeded in both saving the Union and ending slavery.
Why should Americans read about Lincoln?
I’ve taught Lincoln’s speeches every semester since joining CNU in 2009, yet I still find them so relevant. In his 1860 Cooper Union speech, he called on Americans to fight for what they believe in, but to engage each other in open and respectful debate. The themes of self-reflection and forgiveness in his second inaugural address also continue to resonate with students. I hope people won’t just read on Lincoln, but that they will also read his own words.
How did you come to study Lincoln and race?
In 2014, I started collecting letters written by African Americans in Lincoln. My initial idea was to publish a book of “correspondence and conversations” but I soon realized that I had way too much for just one book. So I broke it in two. In October 2021, I published To Address You As My Friend: Letters from African Americans to Abraham Lincoln. On February 12, Lincoln’s birthday, I will publish A House Built By Slaves: African American Visitors to the Lincoln White House.
Got the title from Michelle Obama’s DNC speech in 2016. She explained how the struggles for freedom and civil rights throughout American history ultimately brought her, as the first African-American first lady American, to wake up “every morning in a house built by slaves”. There is irony in this image, and it shows how the White House has been a place of both oppression and racial transformation. My work shows some of the progress that has been made. African Americans came to the Lincoln White House to discuss issues of national importance and to demand equality and equal rights. In short, they said: “We are citizens and our voices must 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 1619 main essay in The New York Times Magazine is beautifully written and does an important job of reminding Americans of the central role of race in American history. But she is wrong about Lincoln. It focuses on a moment in August 1862 when Lincoln condescendingly told a black delegation that they should lead the freedmen out of the country through a process known as colonization. But it does not give the context of this meeting or explain why he did what he did.
A reader would have the impression that Lincoln did not treat black visitors well, but nothing could be further from the truth. In all other cases, he welcomed them warmly and listened to their concerns. In A House Built by Slaves, I explain what Lincoln was doing at that infamous meeting and show how it was an anomaly that needs to be understood in context.
In light of the Republican attacks on history in schools, does the story need to defend?
I think it’s a big mistake for legislatures and governors to try to prevent children from learning about controversial aspects of our history. Students must learn and understand the complicated history of the race in this country.
I know it’s a cliché, but we really can’t understand where we are today unless we have some idea where we came from. And that means teaching a variety of voices and perspectives. The readings for my classes are almost entirely primary sources, and I like to use material 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 they can come to their own conclusions. This is what I think we should encourage in our education system.
What was it like to be part of the discovery of a letter from Frederick Douglass on the Freedmen’s Memorial in Washington, in 2020?
It was a real thrill. Shortly after the murder of George Floyd, activists in DC began talking about tearing down the Freedmen’s Memorial in Lincoln Park – a statue 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 of the statue, as it depicts Lincoln dominating an enslaved man. Our discussion led Scott to search journals.com and that’s how he found the letter. The media interest was unlike anything I had experienced before.
Can Douglass’ study help us understand Lincoln?
I currently teach a course on emancipation, and my students read a lot of Douglass. I think they were surprised at how critical Douglass was of Lincoln during the early years of the war.
Douglass said Lincoln was the greatest enemy of abolitionism and the greatest slave dog in the south. But his views have changed. After meeting Lincoln in 1864, he came to see that Lincoln’s heart was fully emancipated, that it was not just about “military necessity.”
When Douglass dedicated the statue to DC in 1876, he recounted his wartime criticisms of Lincoln, but essentially admitted that Lincoln’s slow and steady approach had been right. Of course, Douglass wished Lincoln had acted faster against slavery, but in the end he recognized that Lincoln had done the job.
A biography of a man named Appleton Oaksmith, who was convicted of slave trading during the Civil War. After that, I think of emancipation in DC, or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s experiences in the Civil War.