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 LewRockwell.com 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.