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 LewRockwell.com (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.