Abraham Lincoln pondered greatly what to do about Negroes, as they were called in the 19th century.
In the 1850s and 1860s, before and during Lincoln's presidency and the Civil War, race issues tore the United States apart. Lincoln understood that slavery was morally wrong, but still he believed whites and Negroes would always have difficulty living together. Negroes, he felt, were less capable than whites.
Lincoln wondered if some other place outside the United States could be found for Negroes who wanted to leave. He wrote about the idea and discussed it with Negro delegations who visited him in the White House, but Negro colonies never happened the way he thought they should.
Lincoln turned out to be the Great Emancipator, but his views of African-Americans, as Negroes are now called, could never be called progressive. He freed the slaves but he did not free himself, let alone his country, from certain prejudices.
Should these attitudes be held against Lincoln now? Should he be judged today by yesterday's standards? And what about his treatment of America's Indians?
Lincoln volunteered, but barely saw action, in the 1832 Black Hawk War against the Sioux in upper Illinois and what became the Wisconsin and Michigan territories. As president, he authorized the collective hanging of 38 Sioux after Union armies put down the Sioux rebellion in 1862 in a particularly violent fashion in the new state of Minnesota. More than 300 names had been forwarded to him for execution; he authorized the deaths of 38.
Pressures were placed on Lincoln – as great pressure was put on Sir John A. Macdonald in Canada after the trial of Louis Riel – to hang them all, pardon them all or something in between. No decision would please everyone; any decision would inflame many.
Lincoln believed the Indian way of life to be doomed. The government had a duty to move them toward the "arts of civilization" through "moral training" that would "confer upon them the elevated and sanctifying influences, the hopes and consolations, of the Christian faith," he said.
Indians needed to become farmers. "Pale-faced people are numerous and prosperous because they cultivate the earth, produce bread and depend upon the products of the earth," he wrote, "rather than wild game for subsistence."
By the standards of the time, Lincoln, was not as bloodthirsty as others toward Indians, which is damning with faint praise. He, like Macdonald, wanted to change them for what they considered high-minded reasons, principal being their own welfare. He and Macdonald, flawed by today's standards, were men of their time.
Today, native American polemicists and historians have little good to say about the most revered U.S. president. The same can be said of aboriginal writers, and present-day advocates of Canadian aboriginal causes in the universities and beyond, about Macdonald, whose 200th birthday we celebrate this week. He was a contemporary of Lincoln's until the president's assassination.
Lincoln preserved the union of his country; Macdonald created and built a country. Obviously, they did not accomplish these mighty tasks alone. Lincoln had to forge a "team of rivals" within his own party. Macdonald had to negotiate compromises among conflicting political factions, especially between English- and French-speakers.
Without them, the United States and Canada might not exist today in their contemporary forms. By the standards of history, their accomplishments lie in the fact that their countries endured. More than that, their countries became two of the most successful in the world.
Each man was flawed, and these flaws have been extensively noted. To judge them through the prism of their flaws is to deliberately minimize their accomplishments and engage in historical "presentism," the application of today's standards to those that prevailed long ago.
"Presentism" always deforms history because it reads back today's mores and beliefs and assumptions into a time in which we did not live. It presumes that today's decisions should take into account how the world would want and expect such decisions to be taken a century or more from now.
This approach is always popular with those for whom history is a stick with which to beat today's drums of injustice and to read their particular narratives into the past.
Fortunately, the country-building visions of Lincoln and Macdonald remain as enduring today as they were in their time. We understand their weaknesses, but we appreciate more their strengths.