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Lincoln & Race

In response to:

What Did He Really Think About Race? from the March 29, 2007 issue

To the Editors:

Following the Civil Rights Revolution, the discrepancy between the modern American ideal of a racially integrated society and some of Abraham Lincoln’s statements and actions came to trouble many historians as well as much of the public. One way to reduce the discrepancy has been to postulate an Evolving Lincoln, whose views on race relations grew more liberal over time so that by his death they were virtually modern. James McPherson, one of our most distinguished Lincoln scholars, has long defended this view. Now, however, he has dropped it in favor of a quite different and incompatible theory that accomplishes the same desired result: the Secret Lincoln. McPherson approvingly endorses the hypothesis of James Oakes in The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics [NYR, March 29] that by the 1850s Lincoln was committed to the ideal of a color-blind society. His occasional racist statements in public and his longtime support for the voluntary colonization of blacks outside of the US were, according to the Secret Lincoln hypothesis, clever misdirection by a politician whose views were the exact opposite of what they seemed to be. Lincoln didn’t evolve, it turns out; he was a secret abolitionist and integrationist all along. The secret was so well kept that it was not noticed by any of Lincoln’s friends, colleagues, and contemporaries, or indeed by any historian before James Oakes in the early twenty-first century.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and there is no new evidence offered for this remarkable hypothesis. According to Oakes and McPherson, when Lincoln insulted a delegation of black leaders in the White House by proposing that they and other black Americans emigrate, he was playacting in order to defuse the likely racist backlash against emancipation. Quite apart from the cruelty involved—couldn’t Lincoln have let his dupes in on the deception?—this alleged public relations strategy makes no sense. If Lincoln’s support for colonization was always a hoax on the white public, designed to avert a racist backlash following emancipation, then wouldn’t raising the hopes of bigoted whites that freed blacks would leave the country make the racist backlash even worse when emancipated blacks remained?

What is more, this hypothesis assumes that when Lincoln first began promoting colonization in the 1850s, he was softening up the public for emancipation and a racially integrated society. But at the time emancipation seemed to lie in the remote future. We are therefore expected to believe that in the 1850s Lincoln, a secret racial liberal, pretended to be racist, in order to prepare his white audiences for the abolition of slavery, not necessarily in their own lifetimes, but in those of their children or grandchildren.

Lincoln did abandon colonization, and in his final days he supported efforts to grant at least blacks the right to vote, so the Evolving Lincoln theory has at least some plausibility. The Secret Lincoln theory has none, however appealing it may be to twenty-first-century Americans embarrassed by some of the attitudes of a great nineteenth-century American.

Michael Lind

James M. McPherson replies:

Michael Lind has misrepresented James Oakes’s analysis of Lincoln’s strategy and my endorsement of it. Perhaps he misunderstood. Neither of us wrote that Lincoln in the 1850s “was committed to a color-blind society.” Quite the contrary; Lincoln admitted that he shared the belief of most white Americans in white supremacy. What he did not share was the racist rhetoric employed by Democrats like Stephen Douglas as a political weapon against antislavery Republicans like himself. To counter this Democratic tactic, Lincoln sought to separate the question of slavery from that of race. You can be against slavery, especially against its expansion into the territories, said Lincoln, without necessarily being in favor of the social and political equality of races.

Nor did Oakes or I write that Lincoln supported colonization in the 1850s with the purpose of “softening up the public for emancipation and a racially integrated society.” Lincoln’s speech at the White House in August 1862 was intended to soften up the Northern public for an emancipation policy that Lincoln had decided to embrace. Neither Oakes nor I admire the way in which Lincoln acted on this occasion; Oakes considered it “a low point in his presidency.” Lincoln’s rhetoric was indeed tactless and insulting to his immediate black audience, however effective it may have been with the larger white audience to which it was really directed.

Lincoln’s racial attitudes and policies did evolve in a liberal direction during the four years of war. Neither Oakes nor I suggested otherwise. He did abandon colonization and move partway toward a program of equal rights for freed slaves. John Wilkes Booth stopped that progress in its tracks.

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