To Address You as My Friend: African Americans’ Letters to Abraham Lincoln

Univ. of North Carolina. White, Jonathan W ed. Oct. 2021. 320p. ISBN 9781469665078. $29.95. HIST
For this original and gripping book, historian White (American studies, Christopher Newport Univ.; Midnight in America: Darkness, Sleep, and Dreams during the Civil War) has mined archival records to locate and now publish letters that Black Americans wrote to President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. The letters cover a broad range of subjects, including demands for basic rights, but they’re bound together by a common belief among letter-writers that Lincoln was a true “friend” of Black people and thus would give their letters due respect. In addressing Lincoln directly, and most often seeking help for particular cases rather than general policies, the letter-writers also revealed their conception of “the government” as embodied in Lincoln, and acted accordingly. Many of the letters never reached the president, but he did respond in some way to those that did, though not always to the satisfaction of the letter-writer. That said, the cumulative effect of many personal accounts did affect policy considerations. White adds immeasurably to the value of the letters by providing informative historical context and relating the disposition of the letter-writers’ requests.
VERDICT These letters provide telling examples of the ways that Black Americans, free and enslaved, proactively and persistently sought liberty by word and deed and laid claim to the rights and responsibilities of citizenship: a truth as pertinent and pressing in the 21st century as during Lincoln’s day.
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