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What Did He Really Think About Race?

Abraham Lincoln was “emphatically, the black man’s President,” wrote the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass in 1865, “the first to show any respect for their rights as men.” A decade later, however, in a speech at the unveiling of an emancipation monument in Washington, Douglass described Lincoln as “preeminently the white man’s President.” To his largely white audience on this occasion, Douglass declared that “you are the children of Abraham Lincoln. We are at best only his step-children.” Later in the same speech, Douglass brought together his Hegelian thesis and antithesis in a final synthesis. Whatever Lincoln’s flaws may have been in the eyes of racial egalitarians, he said “in his heart of hearts he loathed and hated slavery.” His firm wartime leadership saved the nation and freed it “from the great crime of slavery…. The hour and the man of our redemption had met in the person of Abraham Lincoln.”

As James Oakes notes in this astute and polished study, Douglass’s speech in 1876 “mimicked his own shifting perspective” on Lincoln over the previous two decades. Born a slave on Maryland’s eastern shore, Douglass escaped to the North and freedom in 1838 and soon emerged as one of the nation’s leading abolitionists. During the Civil War he spoke out eloquently and repeatedly to urge expansion of the war for the Union into a war for black freedom. Because Lincoln seemed to move too slowly and reluctantly in that direction, Douglass berated him as a proslavery wolf in antislavery sheep’s clothing. “Abraham Lincoln is no more fit for the place he holds than was James Buchanan,” declared an angry Douglass in July 1862, “and the latter was no more the miserable tool of traitors than the former is allowing himself to be.” Lincoln had “steadily refused to proclaim, as he had the constitutional and moral right to proclaim, complete emancipation to all the slaves of rebels…. The country is destined to become sick of…Lincoln, and the sooner the better.”1

In Douglass’s dialectical path toward Lincoln, this was the time of his most outspoken opposition. He could not know that at the very moment he was condemning the President as no better than the proslavery Buchanan, Lincoln had decided to issue an emancipation proclamation that would accomplish most of what Douglass demanded. When Lincoln did precisely that two months later, Douglass was ecstatic. “We shout for joy that we live to record this righteous decree,” he announced.2

But in Douglass’s view, Lincoln backslid after issuing the proclamation. Just as the President had seemed too slow in 1862 to embrace emancipation, he seemed similarly tardy in 1864 to embrace equal rights for freed slaves. For a time Douglass even supported efforts to replace Lincoln with a more radical Republican candidate for president in the election of 1864. In the end, however, when the only alternative to Lincoln was the Democratic nominee George B. McClellan, whose election might jeopardize the antislavery gains of the previous two years, Douglass came out for Lincoln. “When there was any shadow of a hope that a man of more anti-slavery conviction and policy could be elected,” he wrote, “I was not for Mr. Lincoln.” But with the prospect of

the (miscalled) Democratic party …clearly before us, all hesitation ought to cease, and every man who wishes well to the slave and to the country should at once rally with all the warmth and earnestness of his nature to the support of Abraham Lincoln.3

James Oakes believes that Lincoln possessed as much “anti-slavery conviction” as Douglass himself. “I have always hated slavery,” said Lincoln in 1858, “as much as any Abolitionist.” The difference between the two men was one of position and tactics, not conviction. Douglass was a radical reformer whose mission was to proclaim principles and to demand that the people and their leaders live up to them. Lincoln was a politician, a practitioner of the art of the possible, a pragmatist who subscribed to the same principles but recognized that they could only be achieved in gradual, step-by-step fashion through compromise and negotiation, in pace with progressive changes in public opinion and political realities. Oakes describes a symbiosis between the radical Douglass and the Republican Lincoln: “It is important to democracy that reformers like Frederick Douglass could say what needed to be said, but it is indispensable to democracy that politicians like Abraham Lincoln could do only what the law and the people allowed them to do.”

Looking back in 1876, Douglass acknowledged that while from the standpoint of the abolitionists “Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent,” he was considerably to the left of the political center on the slavery issue. “Measure him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult,” and Lincoln “was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.” Oakes carries this point a step further. Lincoln the politician was a master of misdirection, of appearing to appease conservatives while manipulating them toward acceptance of radical policies. Douglass and many other contemporaries failed to appreciate or even to understand Lincoln’s political legerdemain. Many historians have similarly failed. But Oakes both understands and appreciates it, and he analyzes with more clarity and precision than anyone else the “typically backhanded way” in which Lincoln handled slavery, which “obscured the radicalism of his move.”

Some examples. In August 1861 General John C. Fremont, commander of Union forces in the border slave state of Missouri, issued an edict freeing the slaves of all Confederate activists in the state. Radicals like Douglass rejoiced, but conservatives and border-state Unionists threatened to turn against the Union war effort if Fremont’s decree was sustained. Lincoln ordered Fremont to modify his edict to conform to federal legislation enacted a few weeks earlier that “confiscated” (but did not specifically free) only those slaves who had actually worked on Confederate fortifications or on any other military projects.

Radicals denounced Lincoln’s action, especially the distinction between confiscation and emancipation. But Lincoln’s main concern was to retain the loyalty of the border slave states. “Without them,” as Oakes recognizes, “the North would probably have lost the Civil War, and the slaves would have lost their only real chance for freedom.” Three months later, in his annual message to Congress (which we today call the State of the Union Address), Lincoln “let slip, as if in passing, one of the most important announcements of the war” when he casually referred to the slaves, now numbering in the thousands, who had been confiscated by coming into Union lines as having been “thus liberated.” From then on, confiscation meant freedom; Lincoln accomplished this momentous step so subtly that nobody complained or even seemed to notice.

By May 1862 the Union government had gained military and political control of the border states, Lincoln had urged them to consider voluntary and compensated emancipation of their slaves (they ultimately rejected his appeal), and Congress had abolished slavery in the District of Columbia. In that month another of Lincoln’s generals, David Hunter, issued an order abolishing slavery not only along the South Atlantic coast where Union forces had secured a foothold but also in the entire states of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida—90 percent of which were under Confederate control.

Lincoln knew nothing of this order until he read it in the newspapers. He promptly rescinded it, stating privately that “no commanding general shall do such a thing, upon my responsibility, without consulting me.”4 Publicly, however, he phrased it differently in his revocation of Hunter’s order: “Whether it be competent for me, as Commander-in-Chief…to declare the Slaves of any state or states, free, and whether at any time, in any case, it shall have become a necessity indispensable to the maintenance of the government, to exercise such supposed power, are questions which, under my responsibility, I reserve to myself” and not to commanders in the field.5 One does not have to read between the lines to discern the hint of possible future action—it is in the lines themselves. As Oakes comments, any diligent reader of Lincoln’s words “might have found it odd that a proclamation ostensibly designed to overturn General Hunter’s emancipation order” contained a paragraph “declaring the President’s authority to free the slaves in the rebel states whenever ‘military necessity’ required it.”

The military necessity argument took on added urgency in the summer of 1862 as Confederate counteroffensives in Virginia and Tennessee reversed earlier Union gains. Slaves made up the majority of the Confederacy’s labor force. They sustained the South’s war economy and the logistics of Confederate armies. A strike against slavery would be a blow against the South’s ability to wage war. Such a strike would have to be justified politically in the North not on abolitionist but on military grounds. The cause of Union united the North; in 1862 the issue of emancipation still deeply divided the Northern people.

In August 1862 the influential New York Tribune published a signed editorial by Horace Greeley urging Lincoln to proclaim emancipation. The President had already decided to issue an emancipation proclamation but was waiting for a propitious moment to announce it. Greeley’s editorial gave him an opportunity to respond with what Oakes describes as “a masterpiece of indirect revelation.” “My paramount object” in this war “is to save the Union,” wrote Lincoln in a public letter to Greeley, “and is not either to save or destroy slavery.” If “I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”6 Here was something for both radicals and conservatives—another hint that emancipation might be coming, but an assertion that if so, it would happen only because it was necessary to save the Union. Lincoln had again cloaked a radical measure in conservative garb. Many people then and since missed the point, including Frederick Douglass, who saw it only “as evidence that Lincoln cared a great deal about the restoration of the Union and very little about the abolition of slavery.”

Lincoln’s racial attitudes were also a target of Douglass’s criticisms until 1864. On this subject, Oakes offers some original and incisive insights. The main charge of racism against Lincoln focuses on his statements during the debates with Stephen A. Douglas in 1858. Lincoln rejected Douglas’s accusation that he favored racial equality—a volatile issue in Illinois that threatened Lincoln’s political career if the charge stuck. Goaded by Douglas’s repeated playing of the race card, Lincoln declared in one of the debates that “I am not, nor have ever been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races.” It would be easy, comments Oakes, “to string such quotations together and show up Lincoln as a run-of-the-mill white supremacist.” But in private, Lincoln was much less racist than most whites of his time. He was “disgusted by the race-baiting of the Douglas Democrats” and he “made the humanity of blacks central to his antislavery argument.” In a speech at Chicago in 1858, Lincoln pleaded: “Let us discard all this quibbling about…this race and that race and the other race being inferior, and therefore they must be placed in an inferior position,” and instead “once more stand up declaring that all men are created equal.”7

Lincoln’s statements expressing opposition to social and political equality, Oakes maintains, were in fact part of his antislavery strategy. Extreme racism was at the core of the proslavery argument: if the slaves were freed they would aspire to equality with whites, therefore slavery was the only bulwark of white supremacy and racial purity. Lincoln “wanted questions about race moved off the table,” writes Oakes, and “the strategy he chose was to agree with the Democrats” in opposition to social equality. Lincoln understood that most Americans—including most Northerners—believed in white supremacy, “and in a democratic society such deeply held prejudices cannot be easily disregarded.” Thus the most effective way to convert whites to an antislavery position, Lincoln believed, was to separate the issue of bondage from that of race.

The same strategy of taking race off the table elicited Lincoln’s proposals for colonization of freed slaves during 1862. On August 14 he invited a delegation of free blacks to the White House, where he urged them to consider emigration to Haiti or Central America. “There is an unwillingness on the part of our people,” Lincoln told them, “harsh as it may be, for you free colored people to remain with us…. I do not propose to discuss this, but to propose it as a fact with which we have to deal…. It is better for us both, therefore, to be separated.”8 Frederick Douglass was outraged by Lincoln’s words. He publicly rebuked the President for his “pride of race and blood, his contempt for Negroes and his canting hypocrisy.”

But again Douglass missed the point, according to Oakes. Lincoln was painfully aware that his forthcoming emancipation proclamation would provoke a racist backlash. By signaling the possibility of colonizing some freed slaves elsewhere, Lincoln hoped to defuse part of that backlash. Some Republicans understood the strategy. “I believe practically [colonization] is a—humbug,” said one, “but it will take with the people.”9 Lincoln’s remarks to the black delegation were a staged performance. The President had invited a stenographer from the New York Tribune to report his words. Lincoln “was once again using racism strategically” to “make emancipation more palatable to white racists,” writes Oakes, who admires Lincoln’s skill but acknowledges that this time he may have overdone the tactic. “It was a low point in his presidency.”

After issuing the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, Lincoln never again mentioned colonization. He also stopped using racism as a strategic diversion. By March 1863 he strongly endorsed the recruitment of black soldiers to fight for the Union, and in response to prodding by Douglass and other abolitionists he supported passage of legislation to equalize the pay of black and white soldiers. In the last year of the war, the President also endorsed giving the right to vote to two overlapping groups: literate African-Americans and all black veterans of the Union army.

When Lincoln came under enormous pressure in the summer of 1864 to waive his insistence on Southern acceptance of the abolition of slavery as a precondition for peace negotiations, he eloquently refused to do so. “No human power can subdue this rebellion without using the Emancipation lever as I have done,” he insisted. By that time more than one hundred thousand black soldiers and sailors were fighting for the Union. “If they stake their lives for us they must be prompted by the strongest motive,” the promise of freedom. “And the promise being made, must be kept.” To jettison emancipation would

ruin the Union cause itself…. Why should they give their lives for us, with full notice of our purpose to betray them?… I should be damned in time & in eternity for so doing. The world shall know that I will keep my faith to friends & enemies, come what will.10

By this time Douglass was convinced that Lincoln was the black man’s genuine friend. The President twice invited Douglass to the White House for private consultations on racial policies and also invited him to tea at the Lincolns’ summer cottage. Douglass discovered in these meetings “a deeper moral conviction against slavery than I had ever seen before in anything spoken or written by him.” Douglass also found that Lincoln in person had none of that “pride of race” he had earlier accused him of possessing. “In his company I was never in any way reminded of my humble origin, or of my unpopular color,” wrote Douglass. The President received him “just as you have seen one gentleman receive another.” Lincoln was “one of the very few Americans, who could entertain a negro and converse with him without in anywise reminding him of the unpopularity of his color.”

Douglass outlived Lincoln by thirty years. In the latter half of that period the nation receded from its Reconstruction promise of racial justice, and Southern blacks were forced into second-class citizenship. As this trajectory spiraled downward, the Civil War president looked better and better in retrospect. If Lincoln were alive today, Douglass said in 1893, “did his firm hand now hold the helm of state;…did his wisdom now shape and control the destiny of this otherwise great republic,” the national government would not be making the “weak and helpless” claim that “there is no power under the United States Constitution to protect the lives and liberties” of Southern blacks “from barbarous, inhuman and lawless violence.”

Having previously written two fine books on slavery and slaveholders, James Oakes has had a growing affinity with those who wanted to put an end to slavery.11 “Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass are among the people I most admire in all of nineteenth-century American history,” he writes. The two men did not meet personally until 1863 even though “they stood together on the same side of an immense historical struggle.” Oakes brings them together in these pages, where they share the honors of victory in that historical struggle. No one has told this dramatic story better than James Oakes.

Letters

Lincoln & Race April 26, 2007

  1. 1

    Douglass’ Monthly, Vol. 5 (August 1862), pp. 692–694.

  2. 2

    Douglass’ Monthly, Vol. 5 (October 1862), p. 721.

  3. 3

    Frederick Douglass to Theodore Tilton, October 15, 1864, Tilton Papers, Buffalo Public Library; Liberator, September 23, 1864.

  4. 4

    The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, edited by Roy P. Basler, nine volumes (Rutgers University Press, 1953–1955), Vol. 5, p. 219.

  5. 5

    The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol. 5, p. 222.

  6. 6

    The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol. 5, pp. 388–389.

  7. 7

    The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol. 2, p. 501.

  8. 8

    The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol. 5, pp. 371–372.

  9. 9

    Quoted in V. Jaque Voegeli, Free but Not Equal: The Midwest and the Negro in the Civil War (University of Chicago Press, 1967), p. 45.

  10. 10

    The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol. 7, pp. 500, 506–507.

  11. 11

    The Ruling Race: A History of American Slaveholders (Knopf, 1982); Slavery and Freedom: An Interpretation of the Old South (Knopf, 1990).

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