• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Lincoln’s Black History

Currier & Ives
‘Freedom to the Slaves,’ circa 1865; from Henry Louis Gates’s Lincoln on Race and Slavery

Lincoln showed a surprising tenderness toward slave owners. His own plans for gradual, voluntary, and compensated emancipation in the District of Columbia or in border states provided for payment of the market value of slaves (as determined by a board of assessors) to any owners who “may desire to emancipate” them. Freed slave children “shall owe reasonable service, as apprentices” to their former owners until they reach adulthood. If a border state agreed to compensated emancipation, Lincoln promised further subsidies “to compensate for the inconveniences public and private, produced by such change of system.”


Black Inferiority

Since Lincoln thought blacks less sensitive to wrongs than whites, which made them able to be jolly in conditions insufferable “as we would think them,” he clearly began with a view that blacks were basically different from whites. Even as late as 1862, when he was president, he thought using blacks in the Union army was impractical because they had little ability:

I am not so sure we could do much with the blacks. If we were to arm them, I fear that in a few weeks the arms would be in the hands of the rebels.

While debating Stephen Douglas in 1858, Lincoln doubted that states had the power to declare negroes voting citizens, and “if the state of Illinois had that power, I should be opposed to the exercise of it.” He added:

I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, [applause]—that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will for ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. [Emphasis added.]

Lincoln frankly expressed his solidarity with what he perceived as the racism of society at large. Speaking of the slaves at Peoria in 1854, he said:

Free them all, and keep them among us as underlings? Is it quite certain that this betters their condition? I think I would not hold one in slavery, at any rate; yet the point is not clear enough for me to denounce people upon. What next? Free them, and make them politically and socially, our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this ; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not. Whether this feeling accords with justice and sound judgment, is not the sole question, if indeed, it is any part of it. A universal feeling, whether well or ill-founded, can not be safely disregarded. We can not, then, make them equals. [Emphasis added.]

I mentioned earlier that Lincoln offered as one reason for excluding slaves from the territories that it would reduce the likelihood of miscegenation:

Judge Douglas is especially horrified at the thought of the mixing blood by the white and black races: agreed for once—a thousand times agreed…. A separation of the races is the only perfect preventive of amalgamation but as an immediate separation is impossible the next best thing is to keep them apart where they are not already together. If white and black people never get together in Kansas, they will never mix blood in Kansas. [Emphasis in the original.]

Lincoln changed his mind on the usefulness of blacks in the army when he was given a book by George Livermore that established that Washington had usefully employed black troops during the Revolution. Charles Sumner gave Livermore’s book to Lincoln in August 1862, and in January 1863, Lincoln called for freed slaves to serve in the army, but only “to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts.” He was still against using them in combat. But two months later he could write:

The colored population is the great available and yet unavailed of, force for restoring the Union. The bare sight of fifty thousand armed, and drilled black soldiers on the banks of the Mississippi, would end the rebellion at once. And who doubts that we can present that sight, if we but take hold in earnest? [Emphasis in the original.]

Despite his finally trusting the blacks with guns, Lincoln refused for a year and a half to give black soldiers equal pay with whites, presumably so as not to offend the whites with the suggestion that blacks were their equals. Blacks got only half the pay that went to the lowest ranks of white soldiers. Only after blacks threatened mutiny (and after several were hanged for protesting the unequal pay) did blacks in uniform get their due.

Nonetheless, Professor Gates—whose great-uncle, J.R. Clifford, was a black man serving in the Union army—believes that African-American soldiers gave Lincoln his first suspicion that there were “Noble Negroes.” He did not really know any educated blacks until he became acquainted, near his death, with Frederick Douglass. But he still thought of his “black warriors” as exceptions to the race in general. In the last speech he gave in his life, he proposed that only black veterans and “the very intelligent” black men should be allowed to vote. How to establish that “very intelligent” class he did not specify. But he was clearly still assuming that the majority of blacks were very unintelligent.



The clearest measure of Lincoln’s racism is his dogged devotion to a plan that seems peripheral to us, but was central to him—the plan to send freed slaves to Colombia, Haiti, or Liberia. We cannot appreciate the importance of this idea to Lincoln, so obviously impracticable in our eyes, unless we see that it was the most revered program of Lincoln’s most revered political hero, Henry Clay. Lincoln singled out Clay’s promotion of the colonization of freed blacks as his greatest contribution to political thought. It was what excused the fact that Clay still held slaves—he was only holding them until they could be sent out of the country. Clay said that freed blacks would carry back to Africa the Christianity and civilization they had acquired here. Lincoln quotes with admiration Clay’s words:

May it not be one of the great designs of the Ruler of the universe, (whose ways are often inscrutable by shortsighted morals,) thus to transform an original crime, into a signal blessing to that most unfortunate portion of the globe?

Lincoln fervently endorses this dream: “May it indeed be realized!”

Lincoln had said, against Stephen Douglas:

I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which in my judgment will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality.

Since they cannot live together, they must be kept as far apart as possible. Lincoln admitted the many problems, logistical and economic, to transporting such numbers of men, women, and children; but he thought the task worth an utmost effort. In 1857 he said at Springfield, Illinois:

Let us be brought to believe it is morally right, and, at the same time, favorable to, or, at least, not against, our interest, to transfer the African to his native clime, and we shall find a way to do it, however great the task may be. The children of Israel, to such numbers as to include four hundred thousand fighting men, went out of Egyptian bondage in a body.

After his election as president, Lincoln kept working to bring about his favorite scheme. He brought a deputation of black leaders to the White House in 1862, and told them that both races suffered from their proximity to each other:

But for your race among us there could not be war, although many men engaged on either side do not care for you one way or the other. Nevertheless, I repeat, without the institution of Slavery and the colored race as a basis, the war could not have an existence.

Frederick Douglass held this comment against Lincoln even after his death. Lincoln told the blacks that they owed it to their race to suffer whatever sacrifices leaving America might cause them:

You and we are different races. We have between us a broader difference than exists between almost any other two races. Whether it is right or wrong I need not discuss, but this physical difference is a great disadvantage to us both, as I think your race suffer very greatly, many of them by living among us, while ours suffer from your presence.

Later that year, in his annual address to Congress, Lincoln claimed (on little evidence) that he had found “many free Americans of Africana descent” who “favor their emigration” to Liberia or Haiti. In his last annual message (December 6, 1864), Lincoln asked Congress to supply Liberia with a gunboat to protect freed blacks there.4 Frederick Douglass, though he came to regard Lincoln highly after distrusting him for years, saw that a fundamental racism lay behind Lincoln’s ardent promotion of the colonizing scheme.

Two recent books rightly chart the mutual esteem that was finally formed between Lincoln and Douglass.5 But even at the dedication of the Freedmen’s Monument to Lincoln, Douglass recalled how Lincoln had tested black patience year after year. In one eloquent sentence he recorded the trials of that relationship:

When he tarried long in the mountain; when he strangely told us that we were the cause of the war; when he still more strangely told us to leave the land in which we were born; when he refused to employ our arms in defense of the Union; when, after accepting our service as colored soldiers, he refused to retaliate our murder and torture as colored prisoners; when he told us he would save the Union if he could with slavery; when he revoked the Proclamation of Emancipation of General Frémont; when he refused, in the days of the inaction and defeat of the Army of the Potomac, to remove its popular commander who was more zealous in his efforts to protect slavery than to suppress rebellion; when we saw all this, and more, we were at times grieved, stunned, and greatly bewildered; but our hearts believed while they ached and bled.6

Douglass rightly told Lincoln, after his Second Inaugural, that the speech was “a sacred effort.” But he later gave the most balanced estimate of Lincoln’s performance with regard to blacks:

Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.7

What is the final judgment to be on the great emancipator? Gates, like Douglass, gives him grudging praise. But Gates says that Lincoln’s ultimate service was based on an error. He advanced the cause of blacks by saying, against historical fact, that Jefferson’s “all men are created equal” was meant to include blacks. Gates knows better:

Thomas Jefferson most certainly was not thinking of black men and women when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, and no amount of romantic historical wishful thinking can alter that fact.

The “man” referred to in “all men are created equal” was homo politicus, the person capable of self-government, which in the eighteenth century excluded women, slaves, blacks and other “inferior races,” children, and the insane. Only homines politici have, in the words of the Declaration, “the right of the people to alter or to abolish it [the form of government] and to institute new government.” Certainly no women or blacks exercised such a right in the Revolution Jefferson was defending. Stephen Douglas was correct in his debates with Lincoln:

When Thomas Jefferson wrote that document, he was the owner, and so continued until his death, of a large number of slaves. Did he intend to say in that Declaration that his negro slaves, which he held and treated as property, were created his equals by divine law, and that he was violating the law of God every day of his life by holding them as slaves? It must be borne in mind that when that Declaration was put forth, every one of the thirteen colonies were slaveholding colonies, and every man who signed that instrument represented a slaveholding constituency. Recollect, also, that no one of them emancipated his slaves, much less put them on an equality with himself, after he signed the Declaration. On the contrary, they all continued to hold their negroes as slaves during the Revolutionary War. Now, do you believe—are you willing to have it said—that every man who signed the Declaration of Independence declared the negro his equal, and then was hypocrite enough to continue to hold him as a slave in violation of what he believed to be the divine law?8

Yet thanks to Lincoln, most Americans now think Jefferson’s words did apply to blacks, and Gates claims that this interpretation was “the most radical thing that Abraham Lincoln did.” This is one of those creative misreadings that affect history in a mainly benign way. Other examples are Polybius’ false theory that Roman government was based on a “mixed constitution” that combined monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy; or Jefferson’s adherence to the theory of an original “Anglo-Saxon freedom” that the American Revolution was restoring; or the view that “checks” among “coequal branches” are the essence of the American political system.9 In all these cases, some bad history has made for some good politics. If the Declaration did not actually say that blacks are the equals of whites, it should have said it (or so Lincoln thought), and we go forward assuming that it did. Thank you, Mr. Lincoln, for doing us the favor of fruitfully being wrong.


Lincoln, Jefferson, & Blacks July 16, 2009

  1. 4

    Lincoln Speeches and Writings, edited by Don E. Fehrenbacher (Library of America, 1989), Vol. 2, p. 641.

  2. 5

    James Oakes, The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics (Norton, 2007), and John Stauffer, Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln (Twelve, 2008).

  3. 6

    Douglass, Autobiographies, p. 919.

  4. 7

    Douglass, Autobiographies, p. 921.

  5. 8

    Speech at Galesburg, Illinois, October 7, 1858, in The Lincoln-Douglas Debates, edited by Rodney O. Davis and Douglas L. Wilson (University of Illinois Press, 2008), p. 184.

  6. 9

    The words “checks” and “coequal branches” do not occur in the Constitution, and against the latter idea Madison plainly asserted, “In republican government the legislative authority, necessarily, predominates.” See The Federalist Papers, No. 51.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print