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 (It was on the boat back from this visit that Lincoln saw the twelve chained blacks being so jolly.) 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.”


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.