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.”)

Lincoln responded with language establishing that he was no extremist on race, but yet, he stayed true to his own views on slavery and his own concept of racial equality. In the fourth Lincoln-Douglas Debate, in September 1858, he said:

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. I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor 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 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.

But he also said in the last debate in October 1858:

It is the eternal struggle between these two principles — right and wrong — throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time; and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity, and the other the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says, “You toil and work and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.” No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.

Lincoln walked on the tightrope of slavery and racial politics, but he chose to walk that tightrope. He was as aware as anyone of the racial prejudice of the era (including his own), but nonetheless championed his own vision of racial equality – which said that no matter what their race, men were entitled, as the Declaration of Independence stated, to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Befitting the motto of the Republican Party, Lincoln believed in free (non-slave) labor and free men.

It’s useful to compare Lincoln’s views with those of another major politician of his era: Jefferson Davis, who was a US senator from Mississippi before the Civil War, and was the president of the Confederate States of America. When it seceded from the Union, the state of Mississippi explained why: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product, which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun.”

Jefferson Davis elaborated on this in his farewell address to the Senate, January 1861:

…if I had not believed there was justifiable cause; if I had thought that Mississippi was acting without sufficient provocation, or without an existing necessity, I should still… because of my allegiance to the State… have been bound by her action. I, however, may be permitted to say that I do think she has justifiable cause, and I approve of her act.

I conferred with her people before that act was taken, counseled them then that if the state of things which they apprehended should exist when the convention met, they should take the action which they have now adopted…

It has been a conviction of pressing necessity, it has been a belief that we are to be deprived in the Union of the rights which our fathers bequeathed to us, which has brought Mississippi into her present decision. She has heard proclaimed the theory that all men are created free and equal, and this made the basis of an attack upon her social institutions; and the sacred Declaration of Independence has been invoked to maintain the position of the equality of the races.

To Jefferson Davis, the mere articulation of the idea that men of all races were free and equal was an attack on a vital social institution in his state – slavery. It was a cause for secession, and eventually, a cause for war. Davis didn’t walk on a tightrope; he walked the straight line, where white was on one side and black the other. There were no shades of grey in between.

It’s really this simple: Abraham Lincoln believed that slavery was wrong, and Jefferson Davis believed that slavery was right. Indeed, for Lincoln, slavery wasn’t a racial issue: he believed the enslavement of either race was wrong, even if whites were superior to blacks. For Jefferson Davis, it was the very inferiority of blacks which required that whites keep them enslaved; slavery was not merely a way to exploit African labor, it was a necessary institution for ensuring racial control. Their racism was not “the same,” and it’s vital to understand that. Because it was Jefferson Davis’ fear of men like Abraham Lincoln that would lead to the Civil War.

TAKE 3: Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis: two racists compared

These talking points will make you seem quite the knowledgeable person in discussions with friends, family, and co-workers about Civil War race and slavery. They describe the views of Lincoln and Davis before the war started.

United States President Abraham Lincoln:
• was a racist, that is, he believed that the white race was superior to the black race and did not advocate full citizenship rights for blacks
• believed that the Declaration of Independence included blacks as among those who were “equal,” that is, entitled to the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness
• was not an abolitionist
• was anti-slave labor
• believed that the constitution gave states the right to allow or disallow slavery within their borders
• was anti-slave expansion (he believed that slavery should not be allowed in the US territories)
• believed in the gradual end of slavery, accomplished by colonization to the extent practical.

Confederate States President Jefferson Davis:
• was a racist, that is, he believed that slavery was a natural, biblically sanctioned condition for blacks
• did not believe that the Declaration of Independence included blacks among those who were “equal”
• was not an abolitionist
• was pro-slave labor
• believed that the constitution gave states the right to allow or disallow slavery within their borders
• was pro-slavery expansion (he believed that slavery should be allowed in the territories)
• did not believe in the end of slavery


5 thoughts on “Was Abraham Lincoln a Racist? Three Takes

  1. The “Lincoln was racist!” crowd is simply trying to deflect attention away from the institution of slavery and criticism of the South on race generally. It’s also calculated to shock the listener, the assumption being that that listener has no more complex an understanding of Lincoln than, say, a grade-school President’s Day pageant script. It utterly ignores the complexity of modern scholarship and historical analysis.

    • Agreed. And, I think that their strategy works precisely because so many people have a very simplistic view of race and slavery, and because Lincoln is perhaps over-glorified.

      My approach here to compare Lincoln to his contemporaries, like Douglas and Davis. To really understand Lincoln on race and slavery, I think you need the context of how other people at the time felt. If you look at Lincoln in isolation, you miss the big picture.

      • There is – as a result of the aforementioned “simplistic view of race and slavery” the belief that slavery and racism are two sides of the same coin. They are seen as virtually synonymous. Thus,in modern minds, the end of slavery should have meant the end of racism – at least as an institutional force. Ah, were History only to be so tidy.
        It is difficult then to grasp that a person could be racist and vehemently opposed to slavery at the same time. Conversely, I suspect that some Southerners – who had in many ways a more intimate familiarity with African-Americans, might in fact view them in a kindlier light – but still see slavery as a natural and proper condition. (I have admittedly seen too little scholarship on this – so I’m exploring possibilities).
        What fascinates me is the experience of African-American slaves among the native population – particularly the Creek and Cherokee peoples. Their experience is as close as we can come to the third possibility – slavery without the attendant racism. A number of their slave accounts focus on this difference.

  2. I enjoyed this immensely, although I am months too late in chiming in. I have studied Lincoln all of my life, and have always been deeply troubled by these accusations of racism. Indeed, the worst indictment of Lincoln seems to be his comments in the Lincoln-Douglas debates, however, it is obvious, when taken in context, that Douglas was attacking him as a “n” lover, so he was compelled to refute the accusation by voicing the widely held racist views of the time, but he did say that blacks deserved equality under the law, even if as a society whites viewed themselves as superior. To have said otherwise would have been political suicide, and even put himself and his family in personal danger. Was it cowardice? No. Self-preservation? Yes. Manifest Destiny was in full bloom…to be white and not be a supremacist…would have seemed illogical. I attended a Lincoln tour exhibit at the Huntington Library in California back in the early 1980’s…and there was one common theme, and an unintended one, but in looking at his life, there was almost never a time when Lincoln was not voraciously attacking slavery. Many people forget that Lincoln saw slaves being sold in New Orleans when he was a barge captain, and swore that when he had the chance to strike slavery, he would “strike it hard.” He never waivered from this, much to his credit. All the stuff about his mimicking blacks when telling jokes, or enjoying black-faced minstrel shows…this was the pervading form of entertainment in the 19th century! Was it offensive by modern standards? Yes! Was it racist? Yes! Did whites think they were doing harm to anyone by stereotyping African-Americans? No! It is no different than how American Indians were portrayed in Hollywood Westerns in recent memory. Or how blacks were even portrayed in films at the turn of the 20th century. The news is not whether Lincoln held widely accepted racist views…but that he was significantly less racist than most of America during his time! Have either of you read Stacy Pratt McDermott’s article “Lincoln and Race” written for the University of Illinois Press in 2002? It is brilliant, and meticulously researched. There may be some testimony from second hand witnesses that Lincoln made racist comments vocally, but he certainly never wrote anything of a racist nature that I am aware of, and despite his view of white supremacy, he certainly NEVER treated African-Americans as inferior in his personal dealings with them. It is quite evident that African-Americans in Springfield who knew Lincoln personally thought very highly of him. Finally, The Emancipation Proclamation is about as dispassionate a legal document as I have ever read. There is nothing remarkable about it beyond its stated purpose, and the political agenda attached to it is openly stated in the text: utilize free black man to take up arms against the south. Fearing a coup led by General McClellan, Lincoln brilliantly injected the race card to gain the support of the growing abolistionist movement and emotionally galvanize the North to press for the defeat of the south.

  3. Just discovering this blog so please forgive my late entry. The actions or deeds of many people in the 19th century I believe were often in contrast to the sympathies or desires of their hearts. This was especially true with politicians. If we look chronologically at Lincoln’s life actions, from Lawyer to Congressman to President, we see a consistent progression of actions that bear true to a heart and will aligned with liberty and equality for all. We have to also keep in mind that Lincoln was a shrewd opportunist who had a knack for understanding the fears and ignorance of the popular culture. Had he from the earliest days of his political career aligned himself with the abolitionist movement, had he taken a clear and definite stand as a man who believed in true racial equality in every aspect, the fact is he would never have won the Republican nomination and would certainly have never been elected President of the United States. What then was he to do? How can he position himself as to not offend the masses while ensuring his place of real power and influence? The answer was simple, choose his words carefully which is exactly what he did. A president like Martin Van Buren would never have invited free black men like Frederick Douglass to the White House to discuss issues of race and equality. The Emancipation Proclamation was a strategic military move, but why then, after the war was won, after he himself had won a second term, why would he push and fight so tirelessly for the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment? If the notions of true equality and enfranchisement were not within him, then I don’t think we would have seen such a record consistent with these ideals.

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