Lincoln’s Letter to Conkling: Let’s Make a Deal with the Negro; or, the Emancipation Proclamation as a Grand Bargain

In late August of 1863, Abraham Lincoln wrote a letter to fellow Illinois Republican James Conkling which contained his thoughts on various subjects, most prominently, the emancipation Proclamation. The letter has drawn much interest from historians. Louis Masur provides comments at the New York Time’s Disunion blog, and Brooks Simpson has comments here and here. At the second link from Simpson, he opines as to the most powerful part of the letter.

To me, the most salient passage of the Conkling letter is this:

But negroes, like other people, act upon motives. Why should they do any thing for us, if we will do nothing for them? If they stake their lives for us, they must be prompted by the strongest motive–even the promise of freedom. And the promise being made, must be kept.

There are three things that make this text so notable. First, it explicitly acknowledges the agency of African Americans. Negroes will not do something for nothing; Lincoln recognizes that they must be given good reason to act in favor of the Union. And he feels that if they are given good reason, they will act.

Second, Lincoln is under no illusion that African Americans are fighting for the same thing as white northerners. For African Americans, 90% of whom are enslaved southerners, the idea of preserving the Union – the so-called Union Cause – had limited resonance. A Union preserved with slavery intact was not going to garner the support of the black population. Lincoln understood that the price of black support was the promise of freedom; nothing else would do.

And finally, Lincoln characterizes the Proclamation as, essentially, a transaction. The Union is making a deal with African Americans: it promises freedom to the Negro, in exchange for the Negro’s support in destroying the Confederate regime. And Lincoln says emphatically: we will keep this promise.

And of course, all Lincoln could do is promise freedom. He was the president of the United States, not the Confederate States. The Proclamation infuriated Confederate slaveholders, but it had no legal power over them. It could not compel enslavers to free the enslaved; only a military victory by the Union could provide such compulsion.

As we know, both parties to the deal kept up their side of the bargain. Over 200,000 African Americans served in the Union military. And thousands of black civilians acted as spies, scouts, laborers, servants, and otherwise helped the Union military. African Americans were an integral part of the Union war effort that defeated the Confederate States.

And the United States abided by the deal with the passage of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery everywhere in the United States. On a de jure basis at least, the enslaved were forever free.

Sadly, when I talk to people about the Emancipation Proclamation, they have the notion that the Proclamation, in and of itself, ended slavery. It’s as if Lincoln was god-like; he gave the word, the word was made flesh, and freedom rang throughout the land. But as Lincoln himself suggests, it was nowhere near that simple.

President Kennedy Unveils Stamp to Commemorate the Emanicpation Proclamation, 1963

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President John Kennedy unveils the commemorative stamp for the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. The picture was taken in the White House in May 1963. The persons in the photo are, L-R, Berl Bernhard, Staff Director of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission; Georg Olden, designer of the stamp and Vice President of McCann-Erickson advertising firm; Postmaster General J. Edward Day; and President Kennedy.
Source: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

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President John Kennedy, right, makes remarks after unveiling the stamp. The photo includes Georg Olden, designer of the stamp, and Postmaster General J. Edward Day.
Source: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

In the preceding blog post, I displayed images of two stamps commemorating the Emancipation Proclamation: the 1963 stamp that commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Proclamation, and the 2013 stamp that commemorates the Proclamation’s 150th anniversary.

The 1963 stamp was unveiled on May 1, 1963, in an Oval Office ceremony held with then president John F. Kennedy. This is the draft press release for the unveiling ceremony, which is from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum:

President Kennedy today unveiled the design of an Emancipation Proclamation commemorative postage stamp that marks the 100th anniversary of President Lincoln’s executive action that brought freedom to three million Negro slaves.

The new stamp will first be issued in Chicago next August 16, opening day of the Century of Negro Progress Exposition in that city.

In a proclamation calling for national observance of the centennial, Mr. Kennedy had earlier noted that “the goal of securing equal rights for all our citizens is still unreached, and the securing of these rights is one of the great unfinished tasks of our democracy.”

Georg Olden, of New York City, designer of the stamp, was present as Mr. Kennedy and Postmaster General J. Edward Day drew aside the drapes to display an illuminated color reproduction of the new stamp. Mr. Olden in the first of his race to design a U. S. postage stamp. (Emphasis added.) He is Vice President of the New York advertising firm McKann-Erickson.

Also participating in the ceremony in the President’s office was Ashby G. Smith, president of the National Alliance of Postal Employees and Berl I. Bernhard, Staff Director, Civil Rights Commission.

The 5-cent Emancipation Proclamation commemorative stamp depicts a severed link in a massive black chain, placed against a blue background. The inscription “United States” in red appears top center of the stamp, flanked by “1863-1963″ in blue. At the bottom, also in blue, is “Emancipation Proclamation.”

The designer of the stamp, graphics designer Georg Olden, was an African American pioneer in white corporate America, as an executive at CBS and at the ad agency McCann-Erickson. Olden, who was born in Birmingham, Alabama, was the grandson of a slave; I wonder what emotions he had at that moment, and if he pondered that he himself was a living symbol of how great a distance people of African descent had traveled since the time of the Civil War?

List of Slave-holding Presidents

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Founders, Presidents, Slaveholders: First US President George Washington; third President Thomas Jefferson; and fourth President James Madison

The website “Which U.S. Presidents Owned Slaves” provides a list of slave-holding Chief Executives:

1) George Washington, 1st President, Virginia
2) Thomas Jefferson, 3rd, Virginia
3) James Madison, 4th, Virginia
4) James Monroe, 5th, Virginia
5) Andrew Jackson, 7th, South Carolina/Tennessee
6) Martin Van Buren, 8th, New York
7) William Henry Harrison, 9th, Virginia
8) John Tyler, 10th, Virginia
9) James K. Polk, 11th, North Carolina
10) Zachary Taylor, 12th, Virginia
*) James Buchanan, 15th, Pennsylvania
11) Andrew Johnson, 17th, North Carolina
12) Ulysses S. Grant, 18th, Ohio

Not all of these men owned slaves while they were president. Also, not all of them purchased slaves; they may have inherited them, or obtained them via marriage or gift. See the website “Which U.S. Presidents Owned Slaves” for more details.

President James Buchanan is on the list with an asterisk. According to one account, some time before becoming president, Buchanan purchased two slaves in Virginia from a brother-in-law, and immediately converted them to “indentured servants.” One slave served under indenture for seven years; the other — who was five years old when assumed by Buchanan – was indentured for 23 years. Both servants were female.

Of note is that seven of the persons on the list were from Virginia. Virginia was the most populous, and arguably the most powerful state when George Washington became the first president in 1789. According to the 1790 Census, Virginia had over 747,000 residents, of whom 292,000 were enslaved; the second most populous state was Pennsylvania, with over 434,000 residents. But by 1860, Virginia was only the seventh most populous state, behind New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, and Massachusetts.

The power of the slave states, as reflected in the number of slaveholding presidents as well as the number of congressmen from slave states in the House of Representatives, led to some resentment among people in the free states. The U.S. Constitution allots representation in the House based on population, and states that 3/5ths of a state’s slaves count in the population total. Because electoral college rules for electing presidents are based on Congressional representation, the slave population was a factor in determining the outcome of presidential elections. Some northerners felt that the slave states gained an unfair level of representation due to the use of non-citizens (slaves) in setting the count of House seats; they believed that representation should be based solely on the population of free citizens.

Some in the free states also complained about presidents and other politicians who were “Northern men with Southern principles.” These were men who were from the free states but championed the interestes and policies of southern slaveholders. This included men like president Pennsylvanian James Buchanan, who were derisively called “doughfaces.”

 

Voter Suppression in North Carolina: Then… and Now?

Various news reports have raised the concern that deliberate steps are being taken to suppress the vote of people from low income or minority backgrounds in the 2012 elections. These concerns are discussed in the following video from the group Democracy North Carolina. Democracy NC is a nonpartisan organization that “uses research, organizing, and advocacy to increase voter participation, reduce the influence of big money in politics and achieve a government that is truly of the people, for the people and by the people.”

The video draws comparisons between what some see as today’s voter suppression tactics and those of the post Reconstruction era, when a numbers of methods – including violence – were used to prevent the exercise of black suffrage in North carolina. Those suppression schemes were specifically targeted at the state’s so-called Fusion Movement, in which a coalition of whites and blacks had great success placing its candidates into office in the 1890s. One key event in the backlash against Fusion politics was the so-called Wilmington Insurrection of 1898, also known as the Wilmington Massacre of 1898 or the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898. As noted in wikipedia,

…(the insurrection) occurred in Wilmington, North Carolina on November 10, 1898 and following days; it is considered a turning point in North Carolina politics following Reconstruction. Originally labeled a race riot, it is now termed a coup d’etat, as white Democratic insurrectionists overthrew the legitimately elected local government, the only such event in United States history.

Warning: folks of some political leanings might be off-put by the references to current-day politics, or, by what might be perceived as partisanship leanings by the filmmakers. If you wish only to explore the story of Nineteenth Century voter suppression, go to the 2:20 mark in the video. The video, Forward Together, Not One Step Back, is on Vimeo.

 

Was Abraham Lincoln a Racist? Three Takes

TAKE 1: Quick Take

“Everybody was racist. EVERYBODY!”
– historian Gary Gallagher, expressing his amazement and frustration that so many people don’t realize that everybody in the Civil War era was racist. (See the 29th minute of the video at the link.)

TAKE 2: All racists are not alike; and being racist is not the same as being pro-slavery.

Was Abraham Lincoln racist?

That’s like asking “do fish swim” or “do birds fly.” A distinguishing characteristic of fish is that as a class, they all swim; likewise just about all birds fly. A distinguishing characteristic of the white population in Lincoln’s time is that they were “all” racist – or perhaps 95%+ were. Of course, there are no polls from the 19th century to provide a statistically exact or even estimated number. But most historians agree that the overwhelming number of white (northern and southern) Americans of the era were racially biased against blacks, Asians, and Native Americans – not to mention ethnically biased against Irish Americans.

But it’s important to understand this: all racists are not the same. There is a difference between a racist person who will not vote for an African American, and a racist person who will kill any African American who attempts to vote (and armed attacks were made on blacks seeking the vote during the Jim Crow era). Saying that both people are “equally racist” is ridiculous. It’s much more complicated than that.

What is racism, anyway? As some people see it, racism in not merely an idea or an intent, it is a set of behaviors. Some acts of racism are “relatively” benign (“I won’t vote for blacks”), others are more dangerous (“I will kill black voters”). There is a range of racist behaviors that can be objectively or subjectively classified by the “harm” they do. And views on race change over time: keeping blacks as slaves is understood to be a horribly racist act today, but that was very much in dispute 150 years ago.

Abraham Lincoln is a case study in the complexities of 19th century views on race and slavery. He lived in Illinois, which was the most anti-black of the Northwest Ordinance states. (Most people in the lower half of the state were “butternuts” who came to the state from the South.) Appeals to racial equality, and the possibility of whites competing for jobs with black laborers – free or slave – did not sit well here. Thus, Lincoln’s positions on those issues made him an outlier in the state. In 1854, Lincoln said in Peoria, “When the white man governs himself, that is self-government; but when he governs himself and also governs another man, that is more than self-government — that is despotism. If the negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that “all men are created equal,” and that there can be no moral right in connection with one man’s making a slave of another.” Those kinds of statements were very progressive for Illinois in the 1850s, although Lincoln’s concept of racial equality was extremely limited based on today’s standards.

No wonder, then, that in the famous Lincoln-Douglass Illinois Senate debates of 1858, Democrat Stephen Douglas blasted Lincoln for being what would be called a “nig*** lover” in 20th century language. Lincoln, said Douglas, “believes that the Almighty made the Negro equal to the white man… He thinks that the Negro is his brother. I do not think the Negro is any kin to mine… This government… was made by white men, for the benefit of white men and their posterity, to be executed and managed by white men.” (One commonly used insult of the day was to call Lincoln’s Republican Party the “Black Republicans.”)
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