Book Review: Akhil Reed Amar and the Words That Made “Us” – Just Not All of Us.

Reviewed: The Words that Made Us: America’s Constitutional Conversation, 1760-1840, by Akhil Reed Amar, 832 pp. Basic Books.

I have long been a big fan of Akhil Reed Amar, who holds the position of Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science at Yale University. His work on the Constitution – especially his brilliant The American Constitution: a Biography – is quite revelatory, especially for amateur Constitutional historians like me. So I am sorely grieved to say here that his newest book (of which Amar plans to make a trilogy), The Words That Made Us: America’s Constitutional Conversation, 1760-1840, is crippled – perhaps fatally crippled – by the utter disregard for the impact American Indians had on this Constitutional conversation. Indians traditionally tend to be overlooked or marginalized in conversations like these, but in this case, Amar’s snub borders on criminal negligence.

The True Blue Federalist blog has been dedicated to exposing neo-Confederate myths and Lost Cause nonsense, so it may seem odd that it now is delving into issues around American Indian Law. But the American Civil War of the 1860s was all about self-government – about the nature of American federalism, who has the right to rule, and what popular sovereignty means. We are so used of thinking of this issue as a dichotomy – as a binary situation – that we forget there is a third sovereign within the American Constitution: the American Indian nations and confederations of tribes that negotiated with the United States to be so recognized. This important aspect of American Constitutionalism is utterly neglected in this book. And this has potentially dangerous implications for Indigenous Americans.


Professor Amar has expressed his hope that this work will rank with scholars like George Bancroft as seminal works of American Constitutional history. Well, if Amar were writing in the 1950s, his position would be a mortal lock. Sadly, we live in the 2020s, and so this book turns out to be a crushingly old-fashioned disappointment. This is because Prof. Amar’s view of the Constitution (and American history in general) hasn’t progressed much from the 1950s when it comes to dealing effectively with non-Euro Americans. Yes, Amar does address slavery’s role in the Constitution reasonably well. But when it comes to addressing Indigenous Americans, this book might just as well have been written by Samuel Eliot Morison.

There’s really no reason for this. We live in a world where scholars like Vine Deloria, Jr. (Lakota), Colin Calloway and Alan Taylor (among many, many others) have shown conclusively that Natives – and the desire for Native lands – have shaped this country in profound, even Constitutional ways that simply cannot be ignored.

The book starts off with an interesting premise. Amar structures it as a set of “conversations” between various English-turned-Americans colonists about the nature of power and popular government. This is a compelling viewpoint that explains much. For example, his argument that Jefferson didn’t so much draft the Declaration of Independence as compile the ideas and statements made by hundreds of resolutions posted from the town hall meetings of average Americans all over the colonies in the spring of 1776. Distilling those ideas and crafting the language, rather than conceiving of the ideas, is what we should recognize in Jefferson.

These “conversations” – ideas tossed about, argued, and debated in various, published papers, pamphlets and broadsides, newspaper articles, personal letters and, later, Supreme Court decisions – are the crux of the book. The basic idea is that Americans participated in these debates and discussions, or read about them and approved. Through this grand conversation, then, comes the idea that the American Constitution was really a group project, created over time by the unique genius of We, the People. American Exceptionalism fairly gushes from these pages as from a busted fire plug.

It’s really impossible to miss that these conversations on the nature of the Constitution are ideas argued to-and-fro between The Great Men of American History, which is exactly the kind of history we are rightfully suspicious of these days. Amar tries to mitigate this by stating that these ideas were actually the product of the American People, merely expressed through these great men. This conceit gets harder to maintain as the book goes on.

One of the problems with this old-fashioned way of writing history is that certain groups of Americans are not heard from. Amar is quick to account for this – he sincerely doesn’t want to write a book with zero female voices, zero Black voices, and zero Native voices. It’s just that, Amar says regretfully, in the time period under discussion, women, Blacks, and Indians did not participate in these “conversations,” and so Amar simply shrugs his shoulders and ignores them. (Amar states in the book’s long recapitulation that there will be plenty of female and black voices in the second book of this planned trilogy, The Words That Made Us Equal.)

It is this shrug that represents the most egregious flaw of Amar’s great tome: the influence of Natives on the larger American conversation in general, and the Constitution in particular. Because even if Indians weren’t involved in any written discussion with James Otis, or John Adams, or Thomas Jefferson, or “Publius”, they still had a profound, enduring impact on the Constitutional conversation. Any discussion of this impact is simply absent or explained away.

I call this flaw fatal because the fact is that Indians are explicitly discussed in the Constitution (compared to women and Black people who are not mentioned in the Constitution at all until after the Civil War), and Amar never, ever takes stock of what this means. Like, ever. He simply maintains that since Indians did not write letters, disseminate their ideas via the printing press and newspapers, or draft state papers, that they simply had no role in these Constitutional conversations. This bland, out-of-hand negation of Native people and their role in creating this country is astounding coming from such a celebrated legal mind. It represents a puzzling lack of imagination.

It seems clear to me that Prof. Amar simply does not really understand the breadth, depth, or import of Federal Indian Law. There can be no other excuse for this gross misrepresentation of Constitutional history. But the advantage for Amar is that, because of his opinion that Indians aren’t part of “Us,” he can instead assign them the role that they have played for many generations of older historians: they are simply an unfortunate complication in the nice, neat narrative of American Exceptionalism. To many of the white male historians of the past, Indians are just in the way, something to be got through, to be heroically struggled against, to be relegated to the margins, so the larger, more uplifting story of America can be told. What happened to the Indians was regrettable, at times even reprehensible; but let that not get in the way of how exceptionally Great this American Conversation was.

And Amar’s Great American Conversation is great, there’s no doubt. But he spends a maddening amount of time on trivial incidents and court cases that explicate small examples of aspects of the Constitution Amar insists are really important. He spends more words on the symbolism he finds in the extraordinary coincidence of Adams’ and Jefferson’s twin deaths on July 4, 1826 than he spends on Cherokee removal. There is an air of “O the cleverness of me!” to these explanations which is merely annoying. (Amar might have learned from Lincoln that the crux or “nub” of an issue is more important than extraneous details when arguing a case.) But what is infinitely worse is that the space wasted on “Old Adams” could have been used to explain the greatest anomaly in the U.S. Constitution: Native Sovereignty. And indeed, that subject, that idea, demands a great Constitutional scholar to expound upon.

Indian Sovereignty and the Constitution

Native people had a profound effect on the European colonies, through trade, diplomacy, warfare, and captive-taking. While the romantic notion that the Iroquois Constitution (aka The Great Law of Peace) was somehow a model for the Philadelphia document has long been proved a canard, the fact is that powerful Native nations compelled Britain, France, and later the United States to treat with them diplomatically. To treat – to negotiate and deal with as equals. Countries do not treat with individuals; rather, they treat with sovereign nations. When France, Britain, and the U.S. negotiated treaties with Native nations, they were effectively recognizing those nations as sovereign.

This is the key concept: sovereignty. It essentially means the right to rule. In the Anglo-American tradition of popular sovereignty, it means that We, the People are sovereign – we have the right to rule, and we vest that sovereignty in a government that represents us. Amar tries to dismiss the idea of Indian sovereignty with a single phrase: that it wasn’t true “full-blown Westphalian sovereignty” (as was the Euroamerican tradition handed down from the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648). Setting aside this little piece of ethnocentrism for a moment, it is worth a quick look at Indian sovereignty, because while it might indeed be a little bit different from European understandings, and tends to be subtly different with each Native nation, it is still sovereignty.

Broadly, Indian sovereignty means We, the People are sovereign – we have the right to rule ourselves in accordance with our understanding of the Creator’s wishes. Native people had (and continue to have) a sophisticated understanding of sovereignty. And the overarching point here is that that sovereignty was recognized by the United States. Did that sovereignty get diminished by interaction with the United States? Sure. But then again, so did the states themselves in the ratification process of Article VII, as Amar never tires of pointing out.

Indians began to assert themselves into this Constitutional conversation from the beginning. Perhaps the first big event is the Royal Proclamation of 1763, where the King of England forbade his American subjects from crossing the crest of the Appalachian Mountain and “molesting” the Natives there. The Proclamation refers to “dominion,” and hints that Native people are under his protection – so limiting their sovereignty (as far as Great Britain was concerned) – but nevertheless recognizing that sovereignty.

This is a crucial moment, not just Constitutionally but historically. The speculation of Native land by colonists, especially Virginians, after the French and Indian War was practically an obsession for certain groups of Americans, starting with wealthy plantation owners and poor landless whites. Indeed, Alan Taylor has showed how these two rival groups were compelled into impatient partnership by incompetent and slow British land agents, who were responsible for extinguishing the Native title to that land and making it available to colonists.

Amar even has the nerve to portray a young George Washington as a simple “surveyor.” That was what I was taught as a child in the 1960s – a surveyor. My, how nice and neutral! Who could object to a mere surveyor? But that won’t scour today, not with what we know about the eighteenth-century role of these surveyors in the backcountry and how they were regarded by the Indians. In fact, as Colin Calloway points out, if caught by Native people with their equipment for measuring the land, American surveyors were often brutally murdered. Indians understood that measuring the land by surveying was actually a mechanism for despoiling them of their land, and they would not stand for it. Washington’s stint as a surveyor was exactly that of a hired gun to help Virginia grandees acquire valuable backcountry land from the Indians (and scope out speculative ventures of his own). Surveyors were the vanguard of settler-colonialism.

We know that this issue of land speculation contributed to the “constitutional conversation” because this land is mentioned, directly or obliquely, in the Declaration of Independence three times; and Indians themselves explicitly mentioned once in the infamous “merciless Indian savages” line Jefferson crafted. While the Quebec Act was intended by Parliament to simply deal effectively with governing Canada, the colonists saw the expansion of Quebec’s border to the north shore of the Ohio River as a grave threat to their speculative practices. Jefferson disguised this land motive with protests of “Self-government!” but this does not fool us today.

But what about the Constitution itself? The document explicitly mentions “Indians” by name in Article I, Section 2 (the “Indians not taxed” in the Three-Fifths clause), and in Article I, Section 8: “The Congress shall have Power…To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes” (the Indian Commerce clause). If we are to read the Constitution holistically as Prof. Amar insists in his American Constitution: a Biography, as I agree we should, then we must read this clause closely, and take in this context. The Framers listed three entities back-to-back-to-back – foreign governments, the states, and Indian nations. The first two are obviously sovereign; so the context strongly implies that the document considered Indian nations sovereign.

(This, incidentally, is why we still use the word “Indian” even though some tell us it is not politically correct. Indian is used in the Constitution; it is used in all the treaties; it is used in the SCOTUS decisions delineating these treaties. To refer to Indigenous people as Indian is simply to recognize and confirm Native nations as legitimate political entities.)

If we go through the Constitution and outline the “interlocking” aspects of the text that demonstrate Indian sovereignty, it might diagram out like this: the President can make treaties => with Indian nations => treaties that are ratified by the Senate => that then become part of the Constitution. Just how Amar can ignore this construction– especially after he has advocated this holistic method of Constitutional analysis in his previous work – is simply astonishing.

In addition, Indians were massively important to the Early Republic of Washington, Jefferson, and Madison. Or rather, Indian land was important. The great financial plan that Hamilton gets so much credit for (and Amar refers to again and again) relied heavily on paying those citizens who were holding the debt of the United States in “Western lands.” But how to secure these lands? Again, we have new-ish scholarly and popular work on this: Colin Calloway’s excellent The Victory with No Name, on the period between 1791 and 1794, when the Ohio Indians defended their lands from a brand-new, relentless U.S. Army; and journalist William Hogeland’s Autumn of the Black Snake, addressing the same period, shows that Washington and Hamilton set out create a professional army in order to take that “Western land” by main force. They did this because they realized that the young nation could not survive without cheap Indian land. These scholars have shown how the official policy of acquiring Indian land was policy set at the highest level; and that the act of acquiring this land kept taxes low, the public debt paid, and the fledgling republic alive.

But perhaps these policy matters are not lofty enough. Not “constitutional” enough. Ok then, what about the treaty made afterward, the Treaty of Greenville, in which the Ohio Indians ceded around two-thirds of modern Ohio? Amar does mention this, but it’s not much more than a footnote. This treaty, and later many other treaties, were made by the executive branch, and then ratified by the Senate. That makes them, by the Constitution’s own explicit command, part of the Constitution itself. But in addition, because treaties were negotiated, and the American actors kept minutes of these negotiations, we have the actual words of many Native people, creating the treaties which are part of the Constitution – Indians, then, contributing to the Constitutional conversation, in print. This seems somehow very important. Yet Amar gives these ideas not one drop of ink.

And what of Tecumseh, the Native leader with the greatest, broadest vision? Amar seems unsure of what he wants to say here. On one page, he states that “the charismatic Shawnee leader Tecumseh” was killed in 1813, “thus ending the war chief’s energetic but doomed effort to forge a grand tribal confederacy capable of thwarting America’s inexorable push” into the West. [p.626] But later, he scorns Tecumseh as not “having a plan.” Well, which is it? Perhaps engineering a plan to unite all the Indian nations west of the Appalachians into a single sovereign, checking American advance and preserving Indian sovereignty, is worth discussing. Or not; because just a few pages later, he asserts that this most dynamic leader was merely “a British-backed warrior who spoke little English; he did not publish any books or essays aimed at American voters” and so didn’t contribute to the conversation. [p.643] Besides just being confusing, this is an excruciatingly narrow idea of what “contributes” to the Great Conversation.

And so nowhere do we hear about how Washington pushed for war with the Shawnee and other Ohio Country peoples simply to acquire the land needed to compensate Revolutionary War veterans and help finance Hamilton’s plan. Nowhere is Jefferson’s letter of instruction to William Henry Harrison regarding how to go about getting Native leaders into debt with the United States in order to force them to hand over land without violence. The great Tecumseh is dismissed as not “having a plan.” But from the point of view of assessing the relationship between the Constitution and American Indians, the worst, most offensive part of the book is the way Amar handles Andrew Jackson and the Cherokee.

The Great Jackson

Andrew Jackson, the Indian Removal Act of 1830, and the so-called Five Civilized Tribes presents an exceptional opportunity for any scholar who wishes to explain to his or her fellow Americans the intricacies of Indian sovereignty. After all, Amar’s favorite, John Marshall, is center stage. Marshall authored three incredibly important SCOTUS decisions that form the cornerstone of how the Court regards Native sovereignty during his tenure as chief. Surely this would be an excellent chance for Amar to show the connections and interplay between Constitutional and Indian Law! Right?


Never in life. Instead, Amar presents the “Trail of Tears” simply as a bad thing that happened to the Cherokee. Amar tells the reader that the Cherokee were living on Georgian soil, ignoring the fact that it was actually sovereign Cherokee land. They were removed with heavy loss of life, and Amar feels suitably bad for them. But in some bizarre urge to absolve Jackson of any responsibility, he refuses to dig deeper.

There are two seminal Supreme Court decisions that come out of this particular crisis: Cherokee Nation v Georgia (1831), and Worcester v Georgia (1833). (The third big Indian sovereignty case, Johnson v. M’Intosh in 1823, in which Marshall applies the Doctrine of Discovery to American Indians and limits, though doesn’t extinguish, their sovereignty, gets only a footnote.) Amar accords only Worcester any real time, and Cherokee Nation is barely mentioned at all. Inexplicably, Amar either ignores key facts or knowingly distorts these two crucial interlocking cases defining Indian sovereignty for all future time.

Very briefly: First, in Cherokee Nation, Justice Marshall, writing for the Court, asserted that because Indian tribes were virtually surrounded by the United States, they constituted not fully independent, sovereign countries, but “domestic, dependent nations.” This judicial invention (for no such term as domestic, dependent nations appears in the text of the Constitution) represents a radical curtailment of Native sovereignty. (This curtailment is the part that Amar focuses on in order to dismiss Indian sovereignty as “less than”.) Marshall then decides that, since the Court is not empowered by the Constitution to adjudicate domestic dependent nations, SCOTUS doesn’t have jurisdiction! This is an extraordinary dance: the Court has no jurisdiction over a category of entities that Marshall only just created out of thin air! However, the story gets far more interesting.

This is because Justice Smith Thompson, joined by Justice Joseph Story (another Amar favorite), wrote a fairly devastating dissent. Sovereignty, wrote Thompson, has never been about mere geography – the fact that the United States surrounded the Cherokee Nation was immaterial. In addition, a weak country placing itself under the protection of a strong neighbor does not diminish the former’s sovereignty in any way. The treaty history between the Cherokee Nation and the United States demonstrated conclusively that the U.S. recognized the Cherokee as sovereign. He did not quibble over whether or not it was “full-blown Westphalian sovereignty.”

It is unclear how much this dissent affected Marshall, but it seems likely that to some degree it did because in the next decision, Worcester v Georgia, Marshall revises his position in a small but important way. First, he states that yes, the Worcester case is different, and the Court does have jurisdiction (because it is an individual versus a state). But most significantly, that yes, the Cherokee were “a distinct political community.” Again, not “full-blown Westphalian sovereignty,” but pretty damn close. And most importantly, this definition of Native sovereignty is the current doctrine that the Court continues to use. While Amar does show that Marshall considered Indians “constitutionally special,” he never explains what this means, nor discusses Marshall’s term distinct political community, nor investigates the subtleties of Native sovereignty.

But still, here we have a genuine, bona fide Constitutional conversation, between SCOTUS justices no less, just as Amar has been highlighting for the entire book. But Amar mentions this conversation not at all. Rather, he launches into a curious defense of Jackson’s actions allowing the State of Georgia to commit ethnic cleansing against the Cherokee. While Amar refers to the Trail of Tears as “heartbreaking,” he asserts that Marshall’s rulings justified Jackson’s implementation of the Indian Removal Act. He argues that Article II allows the president to recognize whichever Indian “leader” he chooses to treat with. That may be so, but the “leaders” that U.S. negotiators treated with in 1835 were not elected leaders of the Cherokee Nation, but rather a disgruntled minority of tribal citizens who felt that selling out the Nation (as per the Indian Removal Act of 1830) was in the tribe’s best interest. They had no authority to negotiate and sign a treaty with the United States, despite Amar incorrectly referring to them as “chieftains.” Yet that’s how the infamous Treaty of New Echota was made. When that treaty was upheld by the Supreme Court shortly after Marshall’s death, the fate of the Cherokee was sealed.

Adding insult to injury, Amar uses Jackson’s infamous quote in his 1830 Message to Congress:

What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms embellished with all the improvements which art can devise or industry execute, occupied by more than 12,000,000 happy people, and filled with all the blessings of liberty, civilization and religion?

Instructors like me use this quote with students to show Jackson’s brutality and ignorance toward Native people. Dismissing Jackson’s assertion that Indians were ever savages, there remains the myth that Indigenous people were primitive hunter-gatherers, and so not “using” the land “properly,” and thus justifying their dispossession. But the truth is that by 1830 the Native communities of the Trans-Appalachian West were nearly as sophisticated as their frontier neighbors. They were prosperous farmers, just as their ancestors had been for a thousand years. Historian Daniel Walker Howe puts it thus:

The emergence of a commercially and politically viable Cherokee Nation with a growing Christian minority, borrowing Western technology as needed, forced the white majority to decide what they really wanted for and from the Native Americans. In the past, whites had justified taking aboriginal lands on the grounds that the Indians were not fully utilizing them. Now, Cherokee economic development was rapidly eliminating that excuse. [Howe, p. 345]

 Yet Amar takes Jackson’s quote at face value. He actually doubles down on Jackson’s savages remark, acknowledging its racism, but defending it because “it … linked Jackson to Washington and Jefferson, who both used this word routinely—Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence itself.” Apparently, at Yale University, irony is dead.

The Importance of Indian Sovereignty

The truly tragic aspect of Amar’s ignoring Native contributions to his “conversations” is not just that he is creating yet another Great Man’s Theory of American History – that is only irritating. The tragic part is that his strategy of waving away Indian sovereignty does actual harm to today’s cause of Native rights. American Indian sovereignty is undoubtedly an awkward fit into the Constitution, where we are used to a certain symmetry in our federalism: two sovereigns, three branches of government, checks and balances, etc. But we live in a country whose citizens do not understand Native nations well at all – let alone the complex and bewildering array of treaties and court cases that dominate Indian Law. How amazing it would be to have an intellect as brilliant as Akhil Reed Amar help us to understand how to fit Indian sovereignty into a usable Constitutional framework! But rather than this, we get not just an influential scholar ignoring the Indian point of view – we are used to that – but an actual a diminution of Indian sovereignty. Amar’s great scholarly authority and prestige weighs in; states it’s not “full-blown Westphalian sovereignty,” so it doesn’t count; and moves on.

Today, Indian sovereignty is the only thing standing between Native peoples and cultural genocide. To name but one local example:

In the Pacific Northwest where I live on the Columbia River, there are many Indian nations whose lifeways – their traditions, culture, and diet – depend on Pacific salmon: Umatilla, Warm Springs, Yakama, Nez Perce, among many others. These four Nations or confederacies all signed sovereign treaties with the United States government in 1855, treaties that were ratified by the Senate in 1859. Among the rights guaranteed by their treaties is “at all other usual and accustomed stations in common with citizens of the United States.” This reserved right – a right the Indians had enjoyed forever and that they did not give up in negotiations, even as they gave up much of their land – means that the tribes kept the right to fish on land that they ceded to the United States; that even though they gave up title to that land, they reserved the right to fish there. The Supreme Court and other federal courts have interpreted “in common” to mean that these tribes also have the right to co-manage the fishery with the states and federal government. In managing salmon, they have introduced dozens of small-scale, environmentally sustainable hatcheries to reintroduce salmon to rivers and creeks where non-Indian development and irrigation withdrawals had rendered them extinct. In other words, today salmon are returning to their traditional rivers and creeks thanks to tribal sovereignty. Without this management, salmon would remain extirpated from these lands. So, Native sovereignty has benefited not just salmon, not just Native people, but everyone in the Columbia River Basin who hopes salmon come back from the brink of extinction.

There are dozens of examples like this across Indian Country. Native sovereignty protects and promotes Native culture.

A Squandered Opportunity

And so we are left with this massive book and its attempt to explain to Americans what our Constitution is about. But not all Americans. This Constitutional blind spot for Native people in Amar is, frankly, baffling. He either doesn’t understand American Indians and their Constitutional relationship to the United States; or he, like so many of the historians of the last age, prefers to avoid the narrative of how settler colonialism brutally displaced Native peoples because it gets in the way of a good story; or, he just doesn’t care. It’s impossible for me to believe he doesn’t care, since his entire public output points towards a profound sense of justice. But either way, Amar utterly ignores this crucial aspect of Constitutional history. And it’s not merely a squandered opportunity to explain a vitally important aspect of their Constitution to Americans. When one considers that this book will be read by and influence other Constitutional scholars, politicians, and jurists, not to mention average citizens interested in a deeper understanding of the Constitution, it represents an actual blow to the cause of Native nations in their quest for justice. Of course, a Constitutional scholar isn’t required to advocate for social justice for any particular group; but at the very least, they should do no harm.

Appendix and Sources:

1. The applicable Constitutional text establishing federal recognition of Indian sovereignty.

Article I, Section 8: Congress shall have power…To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes

Article I, Section 10: No State shall enter into any Treaty

Article II, Section 2: He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur

Article III, Section 2: The judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties made, or which shall be made, under their Authority

Article VI: This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.

2. Clauses in the Declaration of Independence that refer to Western lands and Indians.

He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only. [The Quebec Act]

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies [The Quebec Act]

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions. [My emphasis]


Royal Proclamation of 1763:

Report on Public Credit:

To have two thirds funded at an annuity, or yearly interest of six per cent, redeemable at the pleasure of the government, by payment of the principal; and to receive the other third in lands in the Western Territory, at the rate of twenty cents per acre. Or,

To have the whole sum funded at an annuity or yearly interest of four per cent. irredeemable by any payment exceeding five dollars per annum on account both of principal and interest; and to receive, as a compensation for the reduction of interest, fifteen dollars and eighty cents, payable in lands, as in the preceding case. [My emphasis]

Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, 30 U.S. 1 (1831)

Worcester v. Georgia, 31 U.S. 515 (1832)

Jackson on Indian Removal:,-Andrew%20Jackson’s%20Annual&text=Jackson’s%20Annual%20Message-,It%20gives%20me%20pleasure%20to%20announce%20to%20Congress%20that%20the,approaching%20to%20a%20happy%20consummation.

Treaty Between the Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla Tribes, in Confederation, and the United States, June 9, 1855:

Colin Calloway, The Scratch of a Pen: 1763 and the Transformation of North America. Oxford University Press, 2006.

_____, The Victory with No Name: The Native American Defeat of the First American Army. Oxford University Press, 2015.

_____, The Indian World of George Washington: The First President, the First Americans, and the Birth of the Nation, Oxford University Press. 2018.

Vine Deloria, Jr. and David E. Wilkins, Tribes, Treaties, and Constitutional Tribulations, University of Texas Press, 1999.

William Hogeland, Autumn of the Black Snake: the Creation of the U.S. Army and the Invasion That Opened the West, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017.

Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: the Transformation of America, 1815-1848, Oxford University Press, 2007.

Alan Taylor, American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804. W. W. Norton & Company, 2016

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The Gettysburg Address

The Gettysburg Address–151 Years Ago Today

Happy Gettysburg Address Day! Here’s Steve Earle Singing “Dixeland,” warming up for Garrison Keillor’s reading of the best two minutes in American political history.


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Libertarians for Lincoln!

Well, maybe not all of them. But while working on the “Lincoln and Race” series, I came across a remarkable set of webpages. Thanks to John McKee Barr at Loathing Lincoln,  I have discovered at least one libertarian who is moved by facts and not ideology.

In John’s post, which takes on the anti-Lincoln agenda at the Washington Post, he mentions the name of Timothy Sandefur, who works as a Principal Attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation. I clicked and found Mr. Sandefur’s blog Freespace. What I found there was a description of why secession was unconstitutional that is pretty much as good as any I’ve read. Those posts (“Springtime for Jeff Davis and the Confed’racy”) are here, here, and here.

Moreover, Sandefur has provided a link to a paper he wrote called “How Libertarians Ought to Think About the U.S. Civil War,” which argues that libertarians should support Lincoln, the Union, and the Civil War as instruments of liberty, rather than castigate them as agents of tyranny. What makes this analysis so intriguing to me is that Sandefur uses John Locke’s idea of natural rights to show, not merely why secession was not a legitimate revolution, but that the entire concept of a nation built on slavery is antithetical to libertarian philosophy.

I’ve not looked at much of the rest of Timothy Sandefur’s website. I don’t know how he feels about Teddy Roosevelt and the National Parks, or FDR and the New Deal, or the rights of indigenous Americans—and at this point I don’t need to. It’s just refreshing to find writing on the Civil War from a libertarian that is guided by principle, and not blinded by ideology. That’s an idea we should all be able to agree on.

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The Racism of Abraham Lincoln, Part 4

The Emancipation of Abraham Lincoln

The pivotal moment in both the Civil War and in Lincoln’s views on race occurred on January 1, 1863, when Lincoln signed the final version of the Emancipation Proclamation. While criticized by contemporaries and scholars for its conditional nature and its lack of style (Richard Hofstadter famously remarked that it “had all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading”), the Emancipation Proclamation changed the terms of the war from one of restoring the old Union to a revolution that would create a “new nation, conceived in liberty” by also destroying slavery. It also unleashed the forces that compelled Abraham Lincoln to emancipate himself from his racist attitudes, and and confront directly the place of blacks in America.

The Final Emancipation Proclamation punctures one of the biggest holes in the Libertarian caricature of “Lincoln the Racist” propagated by Thomas DiLorenzo. This caricature is based on Lincoln’s words in addresses, speeches, and actions before 1863—before the Emancipation Proclamation. This is because the Proclamation itself, and the Lincoln that emerges during its implementation, defy the cartoon racist Lincoln that DiLorenzo has drawn for his audience. DiLorenzo attempts to freeze Lincoln in time as a white supremacist, allowing for no change over the years of the war. In this cartoon, Lincoln simply used blacks for his own nefarious purposes.¹

This cartoon, of course, is incompatible with the reality of Lincoln’s words and deeds in 1863. In this period, Lincoln underwent a change. While we can never know to what extent Lincoln rid himself of his racist views, we can see that his views did change, and that he came to understand that, whatever his personal prejudice—and whatever the white public’s prejudice—black Americans clearly were Americans, and deserving of most of the rights enjoyed by whites.

The Emancipation Proclamation was the most radical act of Lincoln’s presidency. It was also the most unpopular act of his presidency. Libertarians and other Lincoln Loathers point to its conditions—that it famously freed very few slaves on the day of its issue—and its sterility—that it had no soaring language (although, I admit they make this a minor complaint, since Loathers despise all of Lincoln’s eloquence as cynical)—as evidence of Lincoln’s racism. This is because they A) refuse to properly understand the Proclamation; and B) its conditions and language, coupled with Lincoln’s subsequent defense of the Proclamation, actually show Lincoln’s personal realignment on race.² Continue reading

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“Loathing Lincoln” on Civil War Talk Radio

Here is an hour-long talk with John McKee Barr on “Civil War Talk Radio” with Gerry Prokopowicz. Mckee Barr is the author of Loathing Lincoln: An American Tradition from the Civil War to the Present

It’s fascinating, although there’s not enough time at the end to deal with the modern Libertarian view of Lincoln. Even so, it’s well worth your time. The interview begins at minute mark 7:45.


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Slavery, The Economist, and the Worship of Capitalism

The term is over, I am off to Northern California for some casual debauchery. I will finish my series on Lincoln and race when I get back. But in the meanwhile, here’s a brilliant post in That Devil History by Jarret Ruminski. Jarret gleefully takes on the hapless book review The Economist recently performed on Ed Baptist’s new book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American CapitalismEnjoy!

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The Racism of Abraham Lincoln, Part 3

From Colonization to Emancipation

Thus far, we have examined Lincoln’s words to understand his racism. That’s important because statesmen (especially Lincoln) live by their words. But we must also examine his deeds—specifically, we need to look at Lincoln’s policy initiatives to understand his racism and his subsequent conversion.

I think the most racist policy of Lincoln’s career was his commitment to colonization. Colonization was the idea that freed blacks in the United States could be moved away from the states into “more suitable climes” where they would theoretically thrive. The African nation of Liberia, for example, was established as an American colony of freed blacks. Colonization was coupled with another important idea that anti-slavery men in the North and Border States (like Henry Clay, Lincoln’s political idol, perhaps the highest profile politician who advocated for colonization) favored: gradual, compensated emancipation. The idea was that slaves would become free gradually (as New York had done) as they reached a certain age, and then the federal government would use taxpayer dollars to pay the master for his loss. The only remaining factor—and the one that vexed almost all white Americans who were not named Wendell Phillips or Thaddeus Stevens—was what to do with the freedmen. (Somehow, it never occurred to white statesmen that these freedmen were all second or third or even fourth generation Americans.)

The idea of removing millions of native-born Americans to other parts of the world simply because of their skin color properly appalls us today. Lincoln’s commitment to colonization was nearly life-long, only abandoned after the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. But like all else, we must understand his commitment colonization within the context of the time. Moreover, observing the transition in Lincoln’s policies as president from colonization to emancipation can help show the evolution of Lincoln’s thinking about race itself. And lastly, looking at colonization and the reasons moderates like Lincoln favored it can give us another example of racism as the cause of the Civil War.

And the issues swirling around colonization are crucial, because they cut to the heart of, not merely Lincoln’s racism, but to the stated reasons for the Deep South seceding from the Union in 1860. The obvious implication of these issues is that neither Abraham Lincoln, nor almost any of his countrymen, could envision living in a multi-racial society.

I have already written in this blog of racism as a cause of the war. The Ordinances and Declarations of Secession, coupled with the addresses of the Special Secession Commissioners, show that the seven Deep South states regarded the election of Lincoln and the “Black Republicans” as a grave threat because it promised (as they thought) an end to slavery, and therefore an end to white supremacy. These documents also make it clear that one of the forms of equality that Southern whites feared they would have to endure is the social equality of blacks; what we today call integration. Thus, we can see that when we say “slavery caused the war,” we are also saying “racism against blacks helped to cause the war.”

In the North, racism, while not as virulent as the South, was also a powerful motivating element. Most Northerners who opposed slavery (excluding the radical abolition wing) were also racist to some degree or another. The question of where newly-emancipated slaves would live seemed answered by colonization. Allen Guelzo discusses “good” colonizationists and “bad” colonizationists as the difference between those who felt blacks would never be given a fair shake in the United States, and so were better off going elsewhere to a place they could craft an equality all their own; and those who disliked slavery and blacks, and wanted to ship freedmen out because they didn’t like them. Lincoln understood this instinctively, and we can see it manifested in his presidency.

By the time Lincoln was inaugurated, seven states had already left the Union. After Ft. Sumter and Lincoln’s call for volunteers to put down insurrection, four more would leave. Suddenly, slavery was not an issue for the new president. His immediate overriding goal was to put down the rebellion and “practically restore… the constitutional relation between the general government, and…the states.” This, of course, didn’t stop abolitionists from demanding that Lincoln use the war to destroy slavery. However, he disappointed anti-slavery Republicans, since he regarded—correctly, in my view—slavery as protected by the Constitution. For Lincoln to attack slavery in 1861 would be to admit that Republicans did indeed intend black equality as a plank in their platform, when it most certainly was not. More importantly, Lincoln understood that he could not alienate Northerners who did not care about slavery. And most important of all, he must not threaten Kentucky, that crucial border slave state, with emancipation. “To lose Kentucky,” Lincoln said in 1861, “is nearly the same as to lose the whole game.”

His address to Congress in December of 1861 contained an assurance to Americans that his goal was only the restoration of the Union, not the destruction of slavery. He would take care that the war did not become a “violent remorseless revolutionary struggle.” But at the same time, the president mentioned to Congress that he might wish for financial appropriations to colonize free blacks out of the country. But why would one need to exile blacks if one was committed to preserving slavery? This suggests Lincoln was playing both ends from the middle. Of course, this was not unusual for him. As Brooks Simpson has recently pointed out, “Lincoln seemed quite willing to entertain and even promote multiple paths toward the same conclusion.” He might not have intended in the winter of ’61 to disturb slavery, but he needed to hedge his bets in case he might change his mind later.

And indeed, by the spring of 1862, Lincoln was beginning to change his view. Events forced him to reconsider slavery—as both a cause of the war and as a tool of the rebellion. After the failure of George McClellan to end the rebellion on the Peninsula in 1862, Lincoln understood stronger measures were necessary. Emancipation was already taking place by fits and starts all across the vast front of the war, and with the continued military failures in the east, Lincoln understood that to strike a fatal blow to the Confederacy, he must strike a fatal blow against slavery. By summer, Lincoln was prepared to issue the Emancipation Proclamation as a war measure to destroy the rebellion.

But he still was not prepared for a multi-racial society; or at least if he was, he knew most Americans weren’t. And so to prep the ground for emancipation, Lincoln began to push for colonization schemes. I think one of the most telling moments in his advocacy came on August 14, 1862 when Lincoln met with four free black community leaders from Washington. First, he informs them he’s asked Congress to set aside money for colonization. Then he gets to his main point:

You and we are different races. We have between us a broader difference than exists between almost any other two races. Whether it is right or wrong I need not discuss, but this physical difference is a great disadvantage to us both, as I think your race suffer very greatly, many of them by living among us, while ours suffer from your presence. In a word we suffer on each side. If this is admitted, it affords a reason at least why we should be separated. You here are freemen I suppose.

A VOICE: Yes, sir.

THE PRESIDENT: Perhaps you have long been free, or all your lives. Your race are suffering, in my judgment, the greatest wrong inflicted on any people. But even when you cease to be slaves, you are yet far removed from being placed on an equality with the white race. You are cut off from many of the advantages which the other race enjoy. The aspiration of men is to enjoy equality with the best when free, but on this broad continent, not a single man of your race is made the equal of a single man of ours. Go where you are treated the best, and the ban is still upon you.

I do not propose to discuss this, but to present it as a fact with which we have to deal. I cannot alter it if I would. It is a fact, about which we all think and feel alike, I and you. We look to our condition, owing to the existence of the two races on this continent. I need not recount to you the effects upon white men, growing out of the institution of Slavery. I believe in its general evil effects on the white race. See our present condition—the country engaged in war!—our white men cutting one another’s throats, none knowing how far it will extend; and then consider what we know to be the truth. But for your race among us there could not be war, although many men engaged on either side do not care for you one way or the other. Nevertheless, I repeat, without the institution of Slavery and the colored race as a basis, the war could not have an existence.

It is better for us both, therefore, to be separated. [My emphasis]

This, which we today rightly see as Lincoln’s most cringe-worthy moment, is still an exchange of remarkable frankness. Lincoln is stating a political fact: that racism prevents blacks from enjoying their liberties; and equality is out of the question. It would be better for all if blacks—voluntarily and supported by the federal government—went their own way. There is an undercurrent of pathetic wistfulness to Lincoln’s plea: it’s as if he’s saying “If it weren’t for you people, we whites would be enjoying Jefferson’s perfect liberty and equality as promised in the Declaration of Independence. But no; because of your presence (through no fault of your own, I admit), that vision of a free white republic is hopelessly complicated.”

Boy, was it ever.

We regard this as a grossly embarrassing moment—perhaps his worst as president. But, again, it’s important to point out that, as frustrated as he was, Lincoln’s words have a complete lack of vitriol. He was noted by contemporaries again and again as being every bit as respectful to black people in the White House as whites.

Lincoln’s alleged indifference to slaves and slavery—and therefore his racism—has another source that both neo-Confederates and Libertarians cite again and again. It is Lincoln’s open letter to Horace Greeley. Greeley, the editor of the most important newspaper in the North, had written an editorial criticizing the Lincoln administration for its aimlessness in fighting the war. Lincoln seized on this as an opportunity to communicate not so much with Greeley as with the American people directly:

As to the policy I “seem to be pursuing” as you say, I have not meant to leave any one in doubt.

I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be “the Union as it was.” If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.

I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free. [My emphasis]

Lincoln Loathers love to use this as evidence that Lincoln cared not at all for blacks, that he was as racist as any Southern slaveholder. But again, context is everything. This is Lincoln preparing Americans for the Emancipation Proclamation (which lay in a drawer waiting for a military victory to give it teeth). What critics would call callous indifference in the phrase “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that,” is actually a good description of the Emancipation Proclamation’s decree to free slaves only in states (or parts of states) in rebellion. What the loathers interpret as racism is, in truth, Constitutional conscientiousness. But they have to call it racism, don’t they? Since part of the Libertarian narrative is that Lincoln was a tyrant who ran roughshod over the Constitution, they can’t allow this letter to be interpreted correctly. And, of course, they always—always!—omit the last sentence:

I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free.

Lincoln continued to hope for some sort of colonization even after he issued the preliminary proclamation after the Battle of Antietam in September of 1862. On the eve of the final Emancipation Proclamation, in his Annual Message to Congress in December of 1862, he still made some space for colonization. This address is basically his first major attempt (apart from the Greeley letter) to convince Congress (and the American people) that emancipation was essential to winning the war, and that the resulting liberation of nearly four million blacks need not cause great upheaval. To avoid the feared upheaval, a great portion of the address is dedicated to a series of proposals around compensated emancipation and colonization. But there is much more to this remarkable address than just holding out for colonization. Lincoln seems to realize that farming out blacks to foreign countries might not work:

I can not make it better known than it already is that I strongly favor colonization; and yet I wish to say there is an objection urged against free colored persons remaining in the country which is largely imaginary, if not sometimes malicious.

Lincoln is maintaining his long-held view; and yet there is a note of impatience with the irrational fear of his countrymen. He goes on at length arguing that the fear of free blacks living among white Americans is groundless. His logic is cold; it is not based on “brotherly love,” but rather on economics:

It is insisted that their presence would injure and displace white labor and white laborers…. Is it true, then, that colored people can displace any more white labor by being free than by remaining slaves? If they stay in their old places, they jostle no white laborers; if they leave their old places, they leave them open to white laborers. Logically, there is neither more nor less of it. Emancipation, even without deportation, would probably enhance the wages of white labor, and very surely would not reduce them. Thus the customary amount of labor would still have to be performed—the freed people would surely not do more than their old proportion of it, and very probably for a time would do less, leaving an increased part to white laborers, bringing their labor into greater demand, and consequently enhancing the wages of it. With deportation, even to a limited extent, enhanced wages to white labor is mathematically certain. Labor is like any other commodity in the market—increase the demand for it and you increase the price of it. Reduce the supply of black labor by colonizing the black laborer out of the country, and by precisely so much you increase the demand for and wages of white labor.

Or, as here, the logic of demographics:

But it is dreaded that the freed people will swarm forth and cover the whole land. Are they not already in the land? Will liberation make them any more numerous? Equally distributed among the whites of the whole country, and there would be but one colored to seven whites. Could the one in any way greatly disturb the seven? There are many communities now having more than one free colored person to seven whites and this without any apparent consciousness of evil from it. The District of Columbia and the States of Maryland and Delaware are all in this condition. The District has more than one free colored to six whites, and yet in its frequent petitions to Congress I believe it has never presented the presence of free colored persons as one of its grievances. But why should emancipation South send the free people North? People of any color seldom run unless there be something to run from.

In both cases, Lincoln continues to insist that colonization would benefit both white and black, but that it is not a necessary component. He equivocates. Again, this is consistent with Prof. Simpson’s argument that colonization represented one possible solution, not the only solution. 

And then, he tries to break it to Americans that the old ways of thinking are history, and that they are going to need to get over themselves:

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.

Lincoln is talking about emancipation, but he might as well be speaking of reconsidering the role of blacks in America.

And after January 1, 1863, the date when the final Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, Lincoln never again publicly mentioned colonization. And it made good sense to abandon colonization after issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. The Proclamation, of course, did not merely decree slaves free; it authorized these newly-freed slaves and Northern free blacks to join the Union army, and strike a blow against the slaveholders who had held them in bondage and tried to destroy the nation. Suddenly, emancipation made freedmen not a burden for negrophobe whites, but a weapon to save the Union. And that salvation could only happen by destroying slavery.

It is from this point–this realization that the old Union could not be saved, but that a “new nation” must be created–that we begin to see real transformation in Lincoln’s ideas on race, and the growth for which Foner argues. In the next post, we will see how the logic of emancipation and black military service dictated the terms which forced Lincoln to mostly abandon his racist attitudes.

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The Racism of Abraham Lincoln, Part 2

The Context of Lincoln’s Racism

So let’s start with absolute reality, stripped of both wishful thinking and ideology:

Abraham Lincoln was a racist.

Yes, it’s true. For many of us, this is disappointing. But the simple fact that Lincoln was a racist doesn’t explain anything. In the 1850s and 1860s, most white Americans, North and South, were racist. That is the key element of context in understanding this: Lincoln’s viewpoint on blacks was totally unremarkable in his time. It’s only a problem for us today because our sensibilities (and our science) tell us that race is a ridiculous notion, and racists are irrational beings with whom we wish no congress. It’s also a problem because when we learned about Lincoln in the fourth grade, our teachers portrayed him as “The Great Emancipator” and neglected the finer points and subtleties of the war. For all we learned (incorrectly), the Civil War was solely about destroying slavery, period.

So what does it explain, then? How do we further put Lincoln’s racism in context? How do we come to terms with it? And most important for my purposes, how did Lincoln’s racism inform his policies toward the South, the war, and the Union?

The standard work on Lincoln’s ideas about race and slavery is Eric Foner’s splendid The Fiery Trial. Anyone who wishes to seriously discuss Lincoln and race (anyone not living with the primary sources, at any rate) must take the arguments in this book into consideration. To ignore it—or worse, to attack its author for his politics—is to be unserious. While Thomas DiLorenzo is a deadly-serious polemicist, as a historian he shows all the seriousness of a clown convention. For example, continuing in his article, DiLorenzo first quotes Lincoln from a famous speech, and then attacks some of authors of recent books on Lincoln:

“I am not, nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold [political] office, nor to intermarry with white people,” said the political idol of the Marc Levins, Harry Jaffas, Rich Lowrys, Rush Limbaughs, and all other Lincoln-worshipping neocons (not to mention the Leftist/Marxist Lincoln worshippers like Eric Foner and 99% of the academic history profession).

The quote DiLorenzo uses, from the fourth Lincoln-Douglas debate in Charleston on September 18, 1858, is Exhibit A in the Libertarian prosecution of “Lincoln the Racist.” It is perhaps the quote Libertarians are most fond of deploying. There are other remarks by Lincoln to be sure, but primarily by this quote Lincoln stands condemned. In this case, DiLorenzo uses this quote to take a swipe both at Lincoln and at DiLorenzo’s opponents on the right and left of the political spectrum. He especially gets a in stab at Eric Foner. Well, he has to, doesn’t he? Professor Foner’s left-ish political background is perhaps more repugnant to DiLorenzo’s Libertarianism than the so-called “neocons” he attacks. But more important to DiLorenzo than simply making a fling, it additionally means DiLorenzo is not required to deal with Foner’s arguments and scholarship. (Aren’t ad hominem attacks fun? They’re easy, too!) “Foner is a Red; therefore his ideas aren’t worth understanding.”

But the thing about the Libertarian narrative is that context is a bitch. DiLorenzo is especially adept at plucking events and quotes out of their historical context. However, what happens when we look at the context of Lincoln’s speeches and writing and how they changed over time is something far more interesting—something that leads to understanding, and sometimes to the genuine admiration that DiLorenzo abhors.

The very first thing to understand is that Abraham Lincoln hated American slavery. On this there is no doubt. Like his idol, Henry Clay, he saw it retarding the progress of the country. He also saw it as a great moral wrong that contradicted the promise of America expressed in the Declaration of Independence. But for Lincoln and most Northerners, hating slavery was not the same as accepting black equality. And agitating for the abolition of slavery endangered the Union, which is…

The second thing to understand: Abraham Lincoln loved the Union. The United States government, under the Constitution, was indeed “the last best hope of earth,” since it ensured common people like Lincoln the chance to rise as far as talent would take them. It is true that the Constitution was flawed by the embedment of slavery within it, and Lincoln felt that was unfortunate. But because contemporary Constitutional law maintained that slavery was a local matter to be determined by the states, Lincoln felt the institution was beyond the pale of criticism.

These two things in concert begin to explain the context we need to understand Lincoln’s racism.

Because anti-slavery agitation provoked Southerners, Lincoln avoided making any public utterances regarding slavery in the early part of his political career. Slavery was a divisive issue, and he wanted unity among his Whig Party members, North and South. But after the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, as Richard Hofstadter points out, almost every single speech Lincoln gave was about restricting the expansion of slavery. And the key here is slavery’s expansion, not its existence. Lincoln only ever said that slavery was legal where it existed, but that the country as a whole had the right to restrict it to those states.

Libertarians love to quote the Lincoln-Douglas debates for examples of Lincoln’s racism, but they never ever discuss its context. If they did, they would have to go back to fairly consider the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which opened the territory of the Louisiana Purchase to slavery based on “popular sovereignty.” In doing so, the Kansas-Nebraska Act repealed the Missouri Compromise, considered a sacred promise between sections. This was arguably the single most important event in the entire Sectional Crisis, and was this event that so outraged Lincoln (and millions of other Northerners) that it propelled him back into politics. For our purposes, we can learn much from his speech in Peoria, IL, his first response to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the speech he used to project himself back into politics:

When southern people tell us they are no more responsible for the origin of slavery, than we; I acknowledge the fact. When it is said that the institution exists; and that it is very difficult to get rid of it, in any satisfactory way, I can understand and appreciate the saying. I surely will not blame them for not doing what I should not know how to do myself. If all earthly power were given me, I should not know what to do, as to the existing institution. My first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia,—to their own native land. But a moment’s reflection would convince me, that whatever of high hope, (as I think there is) there may be in this, in the long run, its sudden execution is impossible. If they were all landed there in a day, they would all perish in the next ten days; and there are not surplus shipping and surplus money enough in the world to carry them there in many times ten days. What then? Free them all, and keep them among us as underlings? Is it quite certain that this betters their condition? I think I would not hold one in slavery, at any rate; yet the point is not clear enough for me to denounce people upon. What next? Free them, and make them politically and socially, our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not. Whether this feeling accords with justice and sound judgment, is not the sole question, if indeed, it is any part of it. A universal feeling, whether well or ill-founded, can not be safely disregarded. We can not, then, make them equals. It does seem to me that systems of gradual emancipation might be adopted; but for their tardiness in this, I will not undertake to judge our brethren of the south. [My emphasis]

Three elements stand out here. First is that Lincoln absolves the South for responsibility for the institution of slavery; it’s not Southerners’ fault they have slaves. The second is Lincoln’s commitment to colonization (which I will discuss later). The third is Lincoln’s “own feelings” on black equality.

By today’s standards, these feeling are racist notions. But it’s also interesting to see what Lincoln doesn’t say here: he doesn’t say blacks are inherently unequal; he says their inequality is a choice made by whites. There is no vitriol, no virulence—no hatred—to this racism. There is none of the rhetoric used by Southerners and Northern Democrats, that blacks were “savages,” that black equality would “degrade” whites—none of that. Lincoln is simply stating a political fact. Moreover, Lincoln leaves the door open for his own feelings to change: he might be able to see blacks as equal even as his neighbors couldn’t! It is ambiguous; he’s keeping his options open to be convinced. But when all is said and done, he cannot ignore the democracy. Those who disregard public opinion go down to defeat, and the defeated tend to disappear from the political scene. Lincoln’s entire genius was finding that perfect middle ground that was both reasonable and radical. (Not that he intended to be radical—indeed, he had his radicalism thrust upon him. But that’s a story for another time.)

Because this speech does not advance the Libertarian narrative, Peoria is rarely quoted by them. Nor do Libertarians like DiLorenzo go out of their way to quote Lincoln’s speech in Chicago, in July, right before the Lincoln-Douglas debates were organized. This speech made it is correspondingly clear that Lincoln at a certain level did consider blacks equal, since the enslavement of one group of people could easily translate to the enslavement of other groups of people. This, the end of Lincoln’s Chicago speech, remains what Foner calls “the most forthright affirmation of equality of Lincoln’s entire career”: ¹

[W]hether it come from the mouth of a King, an excuse for enslaving the people of his country, or from the mouth of men of one race as a reason for enslaving the men of another race, it is all the same old serpent, and I hold … it does not stop with the negro. I should like to know if taking this old Declaration of Independence, which declares that all men are equal upon principle and making exceptions to it where will it stop. If one man says it does not mean a negro, why not another say it does not mean some other man?

So I say in relation to the principle that all men are created equal, let it be as nearly reached as we can. If we cannot give freedom to every creature, let us do nothing that will impose slavery upon any other creature. Let us then turn this government back into the channel in which the framers of the Constitution originally placed it.… [L]et us discard all this quibbling about this man and the other man—this race and that race and the other race being inferior, and therefore they must be placed in an inferior position…. Let us discard all these things, and unite as one people throughout this land, until we shall once more stand up declaring that all men are created equal.

Of course, context cuts both ways. Lincoln understood that in Chicago, which was farther north and had a reasonably strong abolitionist contingent, he could risk the soaring rhetoric of equality. Later that summer, in the debates with Stephen Douglas, Douglas tried to use the Chicago speech to tar Lincoln with the brush of “negro equality.” And so what we see is Lincoln pandering to voters depending on which part of the state he was in. In the Lincoln-Douglas debate in Quincy, a more northerly part of the state, and so only moderately racist:

I will say here, while upon this subject, that I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so. I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which, in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together on the footing of perfect equality, and, inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a difference, I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position. I have never said anything to the contrary, but I hold that, notwithstanding all this, there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence — the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man. I agree with Judge Douglas that he is not my equal in many respects, certainly not in color — perhaps not in intellectual and moral endowments; but in the right to eat the bread, without the leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal, and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man.

It is in Charleston, more to the south of Illinois, and so much more racist, that we find the famous quote libertarians love. Here it is in its more complete context:

While I was at the hotel to-day an elderly gentleman called upon me to know whether I was really in favor of producing a perfect equality between the negroes and white people. [Great laughter.] … I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, [applause]—that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will for ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.

So Lincoln makes his position clear. It is a racist position, no denying it. But again, we can sense no hatred or virulence here. What we do find is the same recognition of a standard 1850s political reality: most white voters did not consider blacks equal. And it is not difficult to reconcile Lincoln’s statements in the Chicago speech and the Charleston debate—in Chicago, Lincoln was expressing an ideal: make the Declaration of Independence a working part of the American creed or risk aristocracy; in Charleston, Lincoln was facing the reality of bare-knuckle politics: his opponent accused him of what was Southern Illinoisans considered unacceptable, and Lincoln said—truthfully—that he did not consider blacks equal.

I’m not sure what’s more disappointing, actually: Lincoln’s racism or his political pandering. We can place his racism in the context of the period, and so understand it. The pandering simply shows us that politicians haven’t changed in over 150 years. I suppose we can take some comfort in that.

So far, we see Lincoln in the 1850s much more concerned about slavery than in black equality. In this, he was merely a man of his time. And yet we also see a man unwilling to consign blacks to everlasting servitude based on their skin color. Again, he simply was not a virulent racist, whatever DiLorenzo strains to assert. And more importantly, Lincoln saw slavery and inequality as undermining the promise of the Declaration of Independence, which was as sacred as any idea to Lincoln.

One of the many problems with DiLorenzo’s narrative is that it freezes Lincoln in time, allowing for no personal or political growth. But we know that he did indeed grow (that, after all, is the thesis of Foner’s book); the question remains in what way? Now that we’ve established this context, we need to look at President Lincoln, and how his mild racism affected his policies dealing with the nation and the Civil War. How did Lincoln go from the man who could say “I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and black races” to one who speak with a straight face about “a new birth of freedom”?


¹ Hofstadter, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It, 138-145.

² Foner, The Fiery Trial, 104.


Posted in Abraham Lincoln, Civil War, Lincoln's Words, Racism, Slavery, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 24 Comments

The Racism of Abraham Lincoln, Part 1

The Racism of Abraham Lincoln

In early August, this  came across my feed:

Lincoln’s handwriting confirmed in nineteenth-century book on racism

Experts have confirmed that handwriting in an Illinois library’s copy of Types of Mankind is that of the Great Emancipator.  The book is a lengthy justification of racism based on the notion that different races constitute separate species.

Lincoln made a notation inside the book with the name and place of residence of its owner, a fellow attorney named Clifton Moore, from whom he probably borrowed it to study his opposition’s arguments in preparation for a legal case or political debate.

A more complete story appeared in several media outlets, including the Christian Science Monitor:

Did Abraham Lincoln read – and write in – a book justifying racism?

If someone were to claim that an old book had been scribbled in by Abraham Lincoln himself, you might be inclined to take that claim with a grain of salt.

Especially if that old book was “Types of Mankind,” a volume extolling the 19th-century theory that different races were actually different species, and that the Caucasian was the natural superior and fit to rule over all the others – a view that Lincoln was famous for opposing.

That’s why, when historians confirmed that handwriting on the inside cover of “Types of Mankind” was indeed Lincoln’s, they also stressed that the president, writer of the Emancipation Proclamation, was almost certainly reading the book in an attempt to better understand his opponents’ point of view.

Even Time Magazine had an article online about the discovery:

Abraham Lincoln’s Handwriting Found in Racial Theory Book

The Great Emancipator was reading a book that seeks to justify racism

Experts confirmed Tuesday what had long been whispered at a public library in the small town of Clinton, Illinois — a name written on a page in the book Types of Mankind was penned by none other than Abraham Lincoln.

On an early page of the book is written the name Clifton Moore, a local attorney and colleague of Lincoln, NBC Chicago reports. Below that note is one from a different attorney attesting that Lincoln wrote it in 1861, just before he was elected president. Lincoln is presumed to have written Moore’s name in the book to remind himself, or someone else, as to the identity of its rightful owner.

“There are certain letters of the alphabet that Lincoln wrote in a way that were not common to his era,” says the curator of Lincoln’s presidential museum James Cornelius. “A forger can typically do some of the letters in a good Lincolnian way. They’ll give themselves away on a couple of the others. This all adds up.”

The 700-page tome offers up the theory that different races on earth were created at different times and thus could not be equal and it was part of the natural order that Caucasians would enslave Africans and Native Americans. The book, published in 1854, was popular among racists and slave owners for lending support to their way of life.

Historians at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential [Institute] stressed that Lincoln did not subscribe to the beliefs put forth in the book, but that racial division was a hot button issue at the time of his presidency and he was likely educating himself on opposing arguments.

“Everything we know about Lincoln’s legal, religious and scientific thinking tells us he rejected that argument,” adds Cornelius.

Different media outlets handled this discovery similarly: Lincoln had in his possession a purportedly scientific book that justified racism. But what’s the big deal, after all? Why are these outlets teasing the idea that Lincoln might have held racist opinions, yet restraining themselves from just announcing as they would any other celebrity’s dirty laundry: Lincoln was a racist! There is something in that notion that both fascinates us and makes us queasy—like passing a bad traffic accident. The media smells a story, but because the subject is Lincoln, the implications of that story are too repulsive to elaborate much.

So, then, what about this book that Lincoln had in his possession?

The book itself was written by the eccentric scientist, Josiah Nott of Alabama. William W. Freehling in his The Road to Disunion, Volume II tells us that Nott once had the insight that mosquitoes were somehow the vector that caused yellow fever, but he was not able to develop that hypothesis quickly enough: four of his children died of the disease in 1852. Greif-stricken, he then turned his frenetic energies to the issue of slavery. His magnum opus (written with Englishman George Gliddon), Types of Mankind, offered a polygenesis theory of human development. At its core, Nott argued that the different races were not descended from a single pair of humans (as in the Book of Genesis), but rather several pairs appeared in different places at different times. Thus, the world’s different races were inherently unequal, and this justified black slavery. It is also worth mentioning that this book was published in 1854, the same year as the Kansas-Nebraska Act.¹

While the discovery of Lincoln’s handwriting in this book is itself an interesting thing—because however ridiculous and racist it is, Types of Mankind is an inquisition into the origins of humanity written at a time when many scientists were advancing similar hypotheses, culminating in Charles Darwin’s crowning achievement in 1859—it provoked outbursts of wild ecstatic glee in certain Libertarian circles. Thomas DiLorenzo at (an arch-Libertarian website), positively gloated:

A recent article that appeared in the Huffington Post, FOX news online, the Daily Mail, and elsewhere described how Lincoln’s handwriting had been verified by handwriting experts in an 1854 book entitled Types of Mankind.  According to these news articles, the book argued that the different races developed at different times, and were therefore not susceptible to co-existing or amalgamation.  “The book was used by nineteenth-century white supremacists!,” screamed the articles.

What on earth was Abraham Lincoln, “Father Abraham,” the eternal friend and savior of the black race, doing with such a book?!  The Lincoln cult quickly swung into action creating an alibi.  The news articles all reported that “Illinois state historians” all “took great pains to offer reassurance that the former president who ended slavery didn’t subscribe to the theories at hand” in the book.  No facts were offered, only painful “reassurances” by these state-funded “historians.”  I don’t know about you, but I’m not feeling especially reassured

DiLorenzo is not reassured because he makes lots and lots of money pushing the Libertarian interpretation of Lincoln, and that interpretation depends heavily on Lincoln’s racism. According to this narrative, Lincoln used the slavery issue as a cynical ploy to wage a cruel and unjust war against on the South. He didn’t care about blacks, but used the idea of freeing slaves as a way to destroy the political power of the slave states and pave the way for a powerful, centralized nation-state. Lincoln used slavery as an excuse to consolidate all political and economic power in the federal government.

If this sounds reductionist to the point of being silly, that’s because it is. While Lincoln the Tyrant is the favored caricature of Libertarians, Lincoln the Racist is a close second. But how racist was Lincoln? And, more important, how did his attitude toward blacks affect his policy before and during the Civil War? These are good questions, and so we shall examine Lincoln’s racism in a series of posts and see if DiLorenzo’s polemic has any validity.



¹Freehling, 42-43.

Posted in Abraham Lincoln, Civil War, Lincoln's Words, Racism, Slavery | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments

Phil Leigh Leaves “Emerging Civil War”

Well, that was fast.

No sooner do I discover a Libertarian foil to argue with than I receive this email:

Mr. Shelley,

My name is Kristopher White and I am one of the editors of Emerging Civil War. I wanted thank you for your thoughtful responses to Phil Leigh’s recent post. For a variety of reasons, Mr. Leigh is no longer a part of our website. I wanted to make you aware that we are pulling all of Mr. Leigh’s posts from our website. Because of this you may find some broken links to your posts that engage him. You will also find that any comments that are associated with any of his posts are going to disappear. I just wanted to let you know that the system will automatically delete all comments associated with his posts.

Kristopher White
Co-Founder Emerging Civil War

Since I obviously don’t count myself a fan of Mr. Leigh’s scholarship, his departure from Emerging Civil War comes as good news. Emerging Civil War has some fine work posted by real students of history. I’m not up on Internet blog ethics enough to know whether pulling all his posts is the right thing to do; part of me wants them to stay as part of the historical record. Also, it seems like a good way for the editors/admins to say “Yep, we have screwed up in the past, but we own it.” But I certainly understand. [See UPDATE below.] They are trying to establish “the next generation of Civil War historians,” and so don’t really need the work of an Abbeville Institute polemicist harming their credibility.

The worst part of this is that the posts were removed so fast, I didn’t have time to copy-and-paste Al Mackey’s great critique/comment he made there on an earlier Leigh post. Oh well. All is ephemeral on the Internet. 

UPDATE: I have had further communication with Kris White at Emerging Civil War. He informed me Phil Leigh requested all his posts be taken down from the site. And so my remark above is answered. I didn’t mean it as a fling, and Kris didn’t take it that way. He seems very committed to making ECW into a first-rate blog of scolarship.

Posted in Reconstruction, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments