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.


About Christopher Shelley

Christopher Shelley teaches American history and American Indian history at Portland Community College. He is fond of border collies, and bleeds Dodger-blue. Any and all opinions expressed here are those of the expressors themselves, and in no way represent the views of Portland Community College.
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15 Responses to The Racism of Abraham Lincoln, Part 1

  1. jarretr says:

    DiLorenzo quite frankly astounds me. He has the intellectual nuance if a five year-old and seems incapable of reconciling opposing ideas in his head at the same time. Back when I was in my first year of grad school, I wrote my final U.S. historiography paper on how scholars have treated Lincoln over the years, and I included DiLirenzo because his dishonest, out-of-context use of primary and secondary sources was so flagrant that it boggled my mind. I mean, where is this so-called “Lincoln Cult” that he rails against without end? It doesn’t exist. If building strawmen were a profession, DiLorenzo would have a lifetime achievement award.


    • “Flagrant” and “Dishonest” are the key words there, Jarret. There’s just no way to read through the blizzards of paper on Lincoln and his thought–not to mention Lincoln’s actual words–and come away with the Libertarian thesis. To paraphrase Jimmy, it’s “results oriented”: DiLorenzo has a cat to skin, and no amount of actual evidence is going to turn him away from that result.

      I wouldn’t care so much except that his narrative gets more attention than the work of actual scholars, and–most important for me–has a way of making it into the public consciousness. In short, people believe his nonsense, and for better or worse, we’ve taken on the job of debunking him in this medium. Whether it makes any difference in the Big Picture for me or anyone else to argue with him in the blogosphere I can’t say. I just know that I’ve got the time and resources, so what the hell?


      • Jimmy Dick says:

        He has an audience. We are familiar with that audience. It is the same people that believes in the Lost Cause, believes race is not an issue in America, believes secession is constitutional, believes that Obama is not a native born American citizen and is a Muslim, can’t tell the difference between socialism and communism, believes in American Exceptionalism, and exhibits anti-intellectual behaviorism while watching Duck Dynasty and waving CBFs.

        It is the same audience that eagerly waits for Rush Limbaugh, David Barton, Mike Huckabee, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck to tell them what they should believe in. It is the same audience that sends millions of dollars to con artists disguised as preachers. An original thought and a cold glass of water might kill them from the sheer shock. Yes, the American dumbass is the target audience of DiLorenzo and his ilk. Just think of how much money we pass up every day by not writing pure crap for that audience who has shown a willingness to pay thousands of dollars for H.K. Edgerton to show up with his minstrel show while he fleeces them out of thousands of more dollars selling them t-shirts (which the question comes up about where they are made at?) and other trinkets perpetuating the image of the American South as a land of idiot rednecks.

        Damn that professionalism and credibility I seek as a historian and educator. If I valued money more than my self-worth I too could make a lot of money writing copy for bound pages of toilet paper, telling idiots what they want to hear, and generally making people stupid.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. jarretr says:

    Apologies for typos. Wrote that comment on my phone.


  3. jarretr says:

    “The American dumbass is the target audience of DiLorenzo and his ilk.” And what a large audience they be!


  4. Pingback: Canister! | Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

  5. Andrew Raker says:

    I have a copy of “The Turner Diaries” in a box somewhere, from when I had to read it for college, and I’m sure my name is inside the front cover. I really hope that someone like DiLorenzo doesn’t find it in 150 years to use it as proof that I’m a horrible, horrible racist.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Exactly. I have at my elbow DiLorenzo’s The Real Lincoln–not because it’s a great book, but because I need to actually read it to understand his argument so that I can demolish it. Which is something DiLorenzo seems never to have done with Eric Foner.


  6. Tim Gibson says:

    If only you Author wannabees could make as much money as DiLorenzo.. As it is you get to make claims that no one bothers to read or answer. You are losers.


    • Thanks for reading, Tim. But I didn’t go into history because it was a lucrative field; and I didn’t start this blog to further any literary pretensions. If I had wanted to misrepresent the events of the past and assert relationships that didn’t exist–in other words, to lie–and make millions of dollars while pushing a juvenile political agenda, I suppose I could have. But I’m not really cut out for that sort of thing. But I sleep well, knowing that my “claims” are all substantiated by the historical record–as opposed to DiLorenzo’s.

      I understand that’s it’s difficult for people like you who measure all human success in terms of money to comprehend values like intellectual honesty, especially since that value hinders economic success. But if you think bloggers like me started doing this Civil War memory stuff out of a sense of sour grapes, then I fear you’re too shallow to really understand what is written here–not that you actually spent any time reading it.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Jimmy Dick says:

      DiLorenzo is an economics professor. If he was so good at economics, why isn’t he making millions on the market instead of writing extremely pisspoor history aimed at a small market of gullible people, the majority of whom have no college education? He hasn’t really made that much money.

      But if you consider DiLorenzo successful, then you have to consider James McPherson and Eric Foner to be mega superstars and pillars of success when it comes to Civil War scholarship. Those two have made far more money than DiLorenzo has or ever will. Plus their scholarship is based on facts, not made up stuff to support discredited ideas.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Phelps says:

    I have a old picture that has a negro family looking at a picture of Lincoln and a negro man in uniform the picture is titled True Blue with something under the blue. Wondering how old it is?


  8. Terry Hulsey says:

    Gentlemen, here is the forum of your own making where you can put forth to an impartial world all of the evidence to controvert Thomas DiLorenzo, and yet….

    J.R. says all of the following, but contests not one word of DiLorenzo:
    “nuance if a five year-old”
    “out-of-context use of […] sources”
    “building strawmen”
    “he makes lots and lots of money pushing the Libertarian interpretation of Lincoln”.

    Mr. Dick says all of the following, but contests not one word of DiLorenzo:
    “the American dumbass is the target audience”
    “perpetuating the image of the American South as a land of idiot rednecks”
    “made up stuff”.

    Mr. Shelley says that he will (someday?) read DiLorenzo “so that I can demolish it” — but contests not one word till that glorious dawn.

    Thus, since you are all unable to put up, you’d best shut up. Go find a profession where axe-grinding pays, where you don’t have to envy Mr. DiLorenzo.


    • While subsequent posts in this series deal with the specific assertion by DiLorenzo that Lincoln was an inveterate racist, I haven’t felt it necessary to do a blow-by-blow takedown of The Real Lincoln–partially because one already exists here.

      I’m sure how you could confuse my motivation as envy. I don’t envy intellectual dishonesty.


    • Jimmy Dick says:

      Unable to put up? Uh, putting up involves using facts. Please come back when you have some to support DiLorenzo’s trash. That’s your biggest problem. Facts don’t support DiLorenzo.


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