Lincoln and Race

Modern detractors of Lincoln often attempt to depict him as a racist.  This of course is certainly at odds with the view of Lincoln’s detractors during his life on the question of race, who usually attacked him as a promoter of negro equality.  This was the tactic used by Stephen A. Douglas during the 1858 Senate campaign.  Douglas constantly played the race card, realizing that most Illinois voters, all white of course, were repulsed at the idea of racial equality between whites and blacks.  While remaining staunch in his opposition to slavery, Lincoln did make defensive statements that have served as ammunition for those today who accuse him of racism.  This is probably the strongest quote in the arsenal of the critics:

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—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 forever 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.”

That is a quote from Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln-Douglas debate held in Charleston, Illinois where Douglas, as always, was using race baiting in the debate to attempt to win the election for the Democrats in Illinois. It was a successful tactic as Douglas was returned to Washington as a Senator by the Illinois legislature. Lincoln realized that most of the white voters in Illinois and around the nation dreaded the idea of negro equality. It was all Lincoln could do to to amass sufficient support in the North to have a plurality of the voters support him for President on a platform of restricting the extension of slavery in the territories. Lincoln was first and foremost a politician and he was not about to lose a campaign fighting for something that the voters were not yet ready to accept. However, during the war when the opportunity presented itself, he acted to destroy slavery, and by the end of his life he was calling for suffrage for blacks. His personal attitude towards blacks is perhaps best typified by Frederick Douglass who wrote: “I have often said elsewhere what I wish to repeat here, that Mr. Lincoln was not only a great president, but a great man — too great to be small in anything. In his company I was never in any way reminded of my humble origin, or of my unpopular color. While I am, as it may seem, bragging of the kind consideration which I have reason to believe that Mr. Lincoln entertained towards me, I may mention one thing more. At the door of my friend John A. Gray, where I was stopping in Washington, I found one afternoon the carriage of Secretary Dole, and a messenger from President Lincoln with an invitation for me to take tea with him at the Soldiers Home, where he then passed his nights, riding out after the business of the day was over at the Executive Mansion. Unfortunately I had an engagement to speak that evening, and having made it one of the rules of my conduct in life never to break an engagement if possible to keep it, I felt obliged to decline the honor. I have often regretted that I did not make this an exception to my general rule. Could I have known that no such opportunity could come to me again, I should have justified myself in disappointing a large audience for the sake of such a visit with Abraham Lincoln.”

Douglass also noted in 1876 “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.”

Lincoln’s racial attitudes would win him few accolades today.  However, Lincoln’s racial attitudes also earned him few accolades in his own time until the very end.  Lincoln was a realist who comprehended that while a handful of abolitionists viewed negroes as political and social equals, that was far from the opinion of a majority of whites.  This made him suspect in the eyes of the abolitionists.  However, his insistence that slavery was evil and that blacks were equal and entitled to freedom in the context of the Declaration of Independence, made his views anathema to many whites in the North and the vast majority of whites in the South.  In the Civil War Lincoln not only destroyed slavery, but set a course so that the franchise would be extended to blacks, the device by which political equality, all too slowly, would be ultimately achieved.  If these were the acts of a racist, may God send us more such racists when great questions of justice to an oppresssed group must be addressed.

Published in: on May 9, 2019 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Lincoln and Race  
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