Abraham Lincoln was born into a racist family, in a racist region of our country, during a racist era of our history. It would have been amazing if he had not begun his life as a racist. Piety toward his memory suppressed that fact for generations. Most of us wanted Lincoln to be free of racism, and we read the evidence to arrive at that conclusion. No one wanted that more than blacks. Henry Louis Gates, the Harvard professor, notes that blacks—from Booker T. Washington to Ralph Ellison—did even more than whites to enshrine Lincoln as “the American philosopher-king and patron saint of race relations.” Gates writes of himself (born 1950), “Like most African Americans of my generation, I was raised to believe that Lincoln hated slavery because he loved the slaves.” Black freedmen raised $17,000 for the 1876 statue of Lincoln freeing the slaves that stands in Lincoln Park, Washington.
But historians no longer give Lincoln a pass on the subject of racism, and some of his harshest critics have been blacks—especially Ebony editor Lerone Bennett.1 A less blanket judgment has been reached by other historians. The compromise position is that Lincoln started out as a racist, using the word “nigger,” telling coon jokes, and enjoying minstrel shows, but he became less and less racist, ending up almost entirely free of prejudice by his death—though he could still address Sojourner Truth in 1864 as “Auntie.”
Gates thinks that this quantitative approach—how much racism did Lincoln exhibit at any time?—should be replaced by a qualitative question: What kinds of racism are at issue? He sifts the record skillfully and finds that there are three strands to Lincoln’s thinking about race. (1) There is opposition to slavery, which could (but need not) free him from racism. (2) There is the belief that blacks are inferior to whites in intelligence and “civilization.” (3) There is the belief that blacks must be kept apart from whites, so far as that is legally and logistically possible, which is usually but not necessarily a racist position (some blacks held it).
These three points of view jostled along together through Lincoln’s life, sometimes tugging against each other, sometimes reinforcing each other. After Gates’s long opening essay, all of Lincoln’s statements on slavery are published in the book here edited, with brief introductions to each selection by Donald Yacovone, illustrating the three themes Gates isolated.
Lincoln always held that slavery is wrong (though a wrong perhaps not remediable in the foreseeable future). Opposition to slavery does not of itself clear anyone from the charge of racism. Many abolitionists felt that people should not be held as property, without thinking that blacks are (or should be) equal to whites. Henry Adams, though proud of his family’s record in opposing slavery, held that slaves, once freed, should not be given the…
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