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Lincoln’s Black History

Lincoln on Race and Slavery

edited and with an introduction by Henry Louis Gates Jr., and coedited by Donald Yacovone
Princeton University Press, 343 pp., $24.95
Meserve-Kunhardt Collection/Library of Congress
Abraham Lincoln, circa 1864; Frederick Douglass, circa 1866

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 vote or other political rights. He was a critic of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and a strong supporter of President Andrew Johnson’s Reconstruction policies. So Lincoln cannot be called nonracist just because he opposed slavery.

In his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln said that the wrong of slavery is that it exacted from blacks “unrequited toil” by which men were “wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces.” An equal right to the fruits of one’s labor is the first (sometimes the sole) equality for Lincoln. As he said in 1858:

Certainly the negro is not our equal in color—perhaps not in many other respects; still, in the right to put into his mouth the bread that his own hands have earned, he is the equal of every other man, white or black.

At Hartford in 1860, Lincoln put the matter starkly: “God gave man a mouth to receive bread, hands to feed it, and the hand has a right to carry bread to his mouth without controversy.” The right to ownership of one’s labor was so important to Lincoln that he found traces of it even in the animal world:

The ant, who has toiled and dragged a crumb to his nest, will furiously defend the fruit of his labor, against whatever robber assails him…[and] the most dumb and stupid slave that ever toiled for a master, does constantly know that he is wronged. [Emphasis in the original.]

The slave was not only deprived of the immediate products of his labor, but was denied the right to work toward owning the means of production, which was at the heart of Lincoln’s vision of America. In the free states, “the man who labored for another last year, this year labors for himself, and next year he will hire others to labor for him.”

So deep was Lincoln’s belief in a free market of labor that he condemned slavery for impinging on the free whites’ right to the fruits of their work. The slave owners’ profits from the unrequited toil of their slaves gave them an advantage over those who paid their workers, making the latter less competitive than they would otherwise be. One of the reasons Lincoln wanted to keep slavery from the territories was to protect the opportunities of free white workers (another was to decrease opportunities for miscegenation). Speaking at Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 1856, he said that the territories “should be kept open for the homes of free white people.” Even his cherished plan of sending freed blacks to Liberia was looked at from the economic vantage of free white labor. In his 1862 annual address to Congress, he said: “With deportation, even to a limited extent, enhanced wages to white labor is mathematically certain.”

Slavery not only diminished the white worker’s economic equality, it eroded his political equality. The constitutional provision by which the slave states counted blacks as three fifths of a person in the census meant that “three slaves are counted as two people” in Congress, with the result that “in all the free States no white man is the equal of the white man of the slave States.” Lincoln repeatedly argued against slavery as violating the interest of white workers. This is what Frederick Douglass meant in 1876, when he said of Lincoln:

He was preëminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men…. He came into the Presidential chair upon one principle alone, namely, opposition to the extension of slavery. His arguments in furtherance of this policy had their motive and mainspring in his patriotic devotion to the interests of his own race.2

Though Lincoln always opposed slavery, he did so on rather cold economic grounds. He showed little indignation at the degradation and cruelty of slavery. The passage most often cited to prove the opposite of this hardly does so. In 1841 he famously saw twelve slaves chained together on the boat he was taking back from a visit to the slaveholding Speed family in Kentucky, and he wrote of the sight to Mary Speed;

They were being separated forever from the scenes of their childhood, their friends, their fathers and mothers, and brothers and sisters, and many of them, from their wives and children, and going into perpetual slavery [in the Deep South] where the lash of the master is proverbially more ruthless and unrelenting than any other where.

Was this an implied criticism of Mary Speed for holding slaves? Far from it. That sentence is the middle part of a three-stage argument, and it dwells on the sad plight to give greater force to the concluding stage. He begins by giving the moral he means to draw from the sight: “A fine example was presented on board the boat for contemplating the effect of condition upon human happiness” (emphasis in the original). Then, after describing the pains of slavery in the second step of his argument, he draws the conclusion about “condition” in the third step:

Yet amid all these distressing circumstances, as we would think them, they were the most cheerful and apparantly [ sic ] happy creatures on board. One, whose offence for which he had been sold was an over-fondness for his wife, played the fiddle almost continually; and the others danced, sung, cracked jokes, and played various games with cards from day to day. How true it is that “God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb,” or in other words, that He renders the worst of human conditions tolerable, while He permits the best, to be nothing better than tolerable. [Emphasis added.]

God providentially has made blacks not think things as bad “as we would think them.” This is the exact opposite of the moral that Mark Twain drew when he made Huck realize with amazement that Jim loves his daughter as a white father would. Lincoln relativizes slavery here, and trivializes it.

The Quaker John Woolworth, when he traveled south on evangelizing missions a century before Lincoln’s time, paid house slaves what they would receive if they were free when they served him meals or did other household chores. Lincoln, by contrast, accepted when his friend Joshua Speed gave him the services of a slave as his personal attendant for a month at Speed’s Kentucky home.^3 Lincoln and Speed remained fast friends, though Speed wrote him in 1855 that he would see the union dissolved before he gave up the right to own his slaves.

Lincoln did not show a personal revulsion at slavery. Sometimes, rather, he was personally repelled by abolitionists. In the 1852 eulogy to his political hero Henry Clay, he wrote:

Those who would shiver into fragments the Union of these States; tear to tatters its now venerated constitution; and even burn the last copy of the Bible, rather than slavery should continue a single hour, together with all their more halting sympathizers, have received, and are receiving their just execration…. [Emphasis added.]

Lincoln was bitterly critical of abolitionists who did not vote for Clay for president because he was a slaveholder, and equally critical of those who did not vote for him as a protest against annexation of Texas as a slave territory: “I never was much interested in the Texas question.” In 1837, while he was serving in the Illinois legislature, Lincoln and one fellow delegate would not go so far as to outlaw abolitionist societies, but they declared “that the promulgation of abolition doctrines tends rather to increase than to abate its [slavery’s] evils.”

Admittedly, Lincoln had to distance himself from abolitionism or his political career in Illinois would have been doomed. But he did not seem to do this reluctantly. He was always for energetic enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act. In 1859, when the Republican Party in Ohio denounced fugitive slave enforcement, Lincoln said this could be the death blow to Republicans, and took urgent steps to keep Illinois from a similar move: “I assure you the cause of Republicanism is hopeless in Illinois, if it be in any way made responsible for that plank.” In 1854 he had said, “I would give them [Southerners] any legislation for the reclaiming of their fugitives.”

  1. 1

    Lerone Bennett, Forced into Glory (Johnston, 2000).

  2. 2

    Frederick Douglass, “Oration at the Dedication of the Freedmen’s Monument,” in Autobiographies, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. (Library of America, 1994), pp. 921–922.

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