On December 1, 1862—a month before he issued the Emancipation Proclamation—President Abraham Lincoln wrote to Congress. He was not yet the Great Emancipator. Instead, he proposed to become the Great Compensator.
Lincoln proposed a Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: the most expansive and expensive slavery-reparations plan ever put forth by a U.S. president. “Every State wherein slavery now exists shall abolish the same therein at any time or times before” January 1, 1900, and slaveholders “shall receive compensation from the United States” for emancipating the enslaved.
Lincoln stressed to his fellow citizens that “we cannot escape history.” Pursuing gradual emancipation, and compensating the enslavers for their lost labor and wealth—and not the enslaved for their lost labor and wealth—would repair a broken America once and for all. “Other means may succeed,” he said in closing; “this could not fail.”
Indeed, Lincoln’s proposal did not fail to escape history. His politically expedient plan made and portended history, projecting a middle ground for Americans to stand between permanent slavery and inequality, and immediate emancipation and equality.
Today, many Americans who oppose reparations, including a slight majority of Democrats, stand on this middle ground. These Americans self-identify as “not racist,” but do nothing in the face of the racial wealth gap that grows as white people are compensated by past and present racist policies. Or they support small-scale solutions that barely keep up with this growth. Or they support class-based solutions that are bound to partially fail in solving this class- and race-based problem. Or they oppose reparations because they’ve consumed the racist idea that black people will waste the “handouts,” that the reparations bill will be too expensive, or that black America is not too big to fail.