Truth v. Myth: President Lincoln, Slavery, and Racism
One of the most damaging myths about American history is that Abraham Lincoln was a terrible president. That he was a racist who loved slavery, and worked hard to keep the Civil War from ending it. That Abraham Lincoln was a pro-slavery weasel whom black Americans should scorn and whose memory we should all trample in the dust.
I will stamp out this malevolent myth about Lincoln in a series of posts. To help me, I will lean heavily on the great historian David Potter, and his invaluable book The Impending Crisis: 1848-1861, and just about drown in the fantastic, should-be-required-reading-for-all-Americans Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America, by Allen Guelzo.
To get to the truth about Lincoln, we have to go back to his statements and personal thoughts about slavery when he was on the road campaigning in Illinois to win the 1858 senate race against Stephen Douglas.
When Lincoln and Douglas spoke to the people, and debated each other, slavery was a major topic. Douglas had a typical “moderate” position on slavery: since black people were not the equal of white people, black people had to be kept in check somehow. Slavery took that too far; there was no need to enslave black people. But when it came to figuring out exactly what else to do to keep them in line, Douglas had no real ideas. He was willing to grant black people their freedom as a gift, rather than a real right, but he was in no hurry to do so, since there didn’t seem to be a clear way to keep black people in order once they were free. Douglas firmly stated that black Americans were not equal to white, and that black people ought to be treated with the charity one gives to inferior beings. “To a man who, as Lincoln observed, had ‘no very vivid impression that the Negro is a human,’ slavery did not appear either as a great moral issue or as an agonizing dilemma. The most important thing about it was to avoid a violent national quarrel about it…” [Potter, 340-341, 342].
Lincoln knew slavery was wrong. He knew that the reason the Founders didn’t put the word “slavery” into the Constitution was because they were ashamed of it and hoped that slavery would die, or, as Lincoln put it, they “intended and expected the ultimate extinction” of slavery. Lincoln believed black people were the equals of white people. “Let us discard all this quibbling about [this] race and that race and the other race being inferior… 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.” (Ibid., 342-3] Lincoln also believed slavery could not be allowed to spread, and that containing it would indeed set it on a course to die.
But then, like many Americans at the time, Lincoln ran into problems. Like the Founders, he believed that the existence of the United States was crucial to the quotient of good in the world. Lincoln believed he was obligated to live with slavery on this basis, waiting for it to die on its own. He also didn’t know how black people could be integrated into white American society. He did not believe black and white people could live peacefully together, not after hundreds of years of slavery had driven them so far apart. Lincoln felt that black people would never be given their full rights as Americans. He knew that there was no point in “[freeing black Americans] and [keeping] them among us as underlings.” Therefore, he decided the only solution was to send all the black people in America back to Africa, “their own native land.” This despite the fact that America was their own native land.
So Lincoln aspired to high ideals, and knew intellectually that black and white people were equal, but in his daily life and habits he was he was not ready to end slavery or begin the work of racial integration in the United States. And when he was addressing racist audiences during his senate campaign, he ramped up the racism in his own comments, assuring people he would never want to see blacks living equally with whites, and that the U.S. was a nation by and for whites alone.
What makes this man admirable? The fact that he grew increasingly irritated with his own inconsistency, and that he changed. In 1858, he believed that black people were equal to white people, but when it came down to visualizing a truly mixed and equal society, he just couldn’t see it, and didn’t want to risk trying it for fear of civil war. He believed what he said when he told his audiences that black and white people shared a common humanity. But nothing in his life in America had prepared him to live in a truly just, racially equal society.
Unlike Douglas, and most other Americans, however, Lincoln couldn’t rest with this attitude. He struggled with it. In his private papers, he wrote this: “If A can prove… that he may, of right, enslave B.—why may not B snatch the same argument, and prove equally, that he may enslave A? –You say A. is white, and B. is black. It is color, then; the lighter having the right to enslave the darker? Take care. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with a fairer skin than your own. You do not mean color exactly? –You mean the whites are intellectually the superiors of the blacks, and therefore have the right to enslave them? Take care again. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with an intellect superior to your own. But, say you, it is a question of interest; and if you can make it your interest, you have the right to enslave another. Very well. And if he can make it his interest, he has the right to enslave you.”
As Potter points out, “Here, clearly, Lincoln saw blacks and white together, caught indiscriminately in the web of injustice which society often weaves. …it was only random chance which had made him free and made [blacks] slave.” [Ibid., 352-3]
So Lincoln was conflicted between an ideal and reality. The ideal—all people are equal, and brothers and sisters. The reality—he was uncomfortable living that out with actual black people. This is hardly surprising. Think of your own lofty ideals and how you fall short in living them out. Americans believe in justice and democracy, yet very few have done much to stop the imprisonments of Americans and others at Guantanamo Bay, the torture carried out by our soldiers, or the crimes committed in America’s name by private contractors in Iraq. Many Americans who know that racial profiling is wrong, and who would yell if it were applied to them, still can’t quite bring themselves to condemn it when it is applied to others, particularly olive-skinned men wearing turbans at the airport. We all fall short of living out our ideals.
So do we hand Lincoln a big prize for falling short of his ideals? No. And if he had stopped there, he would not be the great man that he was and the American hero that he is. But he didn’t stop there. What makes Lincoln admirable at this point is what he did next: he kept thinking about his inconsistency, and he changed his position. He started out racist and changed. He started out wishy-washy on slavery and he changed.
We all start out with prejudices; that is part of growing up in any human society. If we live out our lives with those prejudices, we are not admirable. But if we can come to realize that prejudice is unjust, we can change, and become better people, and that is admirable. Lincoln was still racist in 1858. But he was not racist by 1861. That profound change is what makes Lincoln someone we can respect and, more to the point, emulate.
Slavery mattered to Lincoln. His own inconsistency on race mattered to him. Having to talk publicly in political debates about slavery and race, and hearing himself waffle on both, forced Lincoln to resolve his ambiguity. Potter sums this up so well:
“The difference between Lincoln and Douglas… was that Douglas did not believe that slavery really mattered very much, because he did not believe that Negroes had enough human affinity with him to make it necessary to concern himself with them. Lincoln, on the contrary, believed that slavery mattered, because he recognized a human affinity with blacks which made their plight a necessary matter of concern to him. This does not mean that his position was logically consistent or that he was free of prejudice. …In a very real sense his position was ambiguous. …And, one must add, an ambiguous position is by definition one in which opposing values conflict with one another. It is hard to believe that, in Lincoln’s case, the conflicting values were really of equal force. …By a static analysis, Lincoln was a mild opponent of slavery and a moderate defender of racial discrimination. By a dynamic analysis, he held a concept of humanity which impelled him inexorably in the direction of freedom and equality.” (my italics) [Ibid., 354]
Lincoln had conflicting values, like most of us. Unlike most of us, he came pretty quickly to see that this was completely unacceptable, and he acted decisively to end slavery and to successfully integrate the United States after the war. That was in 1862, when he wrote the Emancipation Proclamation.