WHITE: A House Built By Slaves (2022)

A House Built By Slaves: African American Visitors to the Lincoln White House by Jonathan W. White. Rowman & Littlefield, 2022. Cloth, ISBN: 978-1538161807. $26.00.

For many years, historians have debated the answer to the question, “who freed the slaves?” One camp, headed by James M. McPherson, argued for the centrality of President Abraham Lincoln in the process of slavery’s abolition; another, led by Ira Berlin, insisted that the actions of enslaved peoples and their abolitionist allies forced Lincoln to act. In A House Built By Slaves, historian Jonathan W. White deftly shows that both Berlin and McPherson were correct in their assertions. By examining the day-to-day life of Lincoln’s White House, White offers a narrative of Black Americans pushing the president toward emancipation and Lincoln listening to their arguments as he steered the ship of state through the turmoil of the Civil War. This is a book that underscores the degree to which ensuring freedom for nearly four million people held in bondage was not the work of one faction or one man, but the work of many hands.

A House Built By Slaves is organized chronologically, tracking the familiar contours of Lincoln’s thinking about slavery and emancipation over the course of the war. Beginning with Lincoln’s life prior to the presidency, the book proceeds through the war’s first two years—when Lincoln still believed in the potential for voluntary colonization—to the emancipation proclamation and the enlistment of Black men in the Union armies. White has a strong command of both the scholarship and critical turning points of the conflict, giving attention to topics such as the common soldier, the potential for foreign mediation in the war, and voting throughout the text. By inserting interludes to propel his narrative forward, White simultaneously reminds readers of important political and military context without weighing down his text with cumbersome detail. It is the work of a scholar in command of his subject and his craft—rendering the book instantly accessible to a wide audience, but also informative to readers possessing a range of expertise about the war.

Perhaps the book’s most crucial element is the degree to which White centers and contextualizes African American voices during the war. Though attention is given to Lincoln and the evolution of his political thoughts, White also gives voice to the words and thoughts of men such as William J. Walker, AME Bishop Daniel Payne, and Frederick Douglass, as well as women like Elizabeth Keckley, who worked for the Lincoln family and observed the president up-close throughout the war. Their stories, and countless others, White suggests, form the warp and weft of our cultural understanding of the Civil War. Because of the richness of these stories, the book will be particularly enriching in classrooms at all levels.

Lincoln received his African American visitors in the same fashion as his white constituents. While White discusses an infamous meeting in which Lincoln lectured several Black visitors about colonization, he proves that this incident was the exception in the Lincoln White House and not the rule. As White rightly points out, Lincoln would have subjected himself to far less criticism if he had barred African American visitors, but the president did not let political opinions or social conventions dissuade him from hosting citizens both Black and white on his public meeting days.

Readers should not approach this book expecting significant criticism of Lincoln. In fact, White defends Lincoln against critics that have emerged in recent months and years. White appreciates and contextualizes the desire of these activists and celebrities who wish to decenter the sixteenth president from the national narrative surrounding emancipation, but argues that engaging with a fuller understanding of Lincoln’s treatment of Black citizens might cut across some of the more extreme criticisms that have been levied at the sixteenth president. Though this adds a discordant note of presentism to the work, White engages with the current political discourse in a manner that is understanding and respectful; for most readers, it will reinforce the originality and importance of the stories presented in A House Built By Slaves.

In sum, this is a work that will long deserve a place on the bookshelves of Civil War historians and enthusiasts. To find something new to say about Abraham Lincoln is certainly an achievement; to tell the stories of countless others while doing so cements White’s work as some of the best in the field today.

 

Dr. Cecily N. Zander is a Postdoctoral Fellow at The Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University.

 

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