Great Emancipator didn√t advocate racial equality.
But was he a racist?
by Stacy Pratt McDermott
Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, a racist?
recent years, some writers and scholars have argued that he was.
They have reduced the complexities of his racial views to his brief
support of the movement to colonize blacks in Africa. They have
insisted that the Emancipation Proclamation was merely a military
strategy, which did not become an instrument for social reform.
They have argued that Lincoln was not quick enough to make the abolition
of slavery a primary aim of the Civil War. They have suggested that
abolitionists forced Lincoln to develop a higher moral agenda in
conducting the war. They have argued that Lincoln was a white supremacist
dedicated to the elevation of white society at the expense of the
rights and freedoms of black Americans.
of these arguments are compelling, and some of them are outrageous.
But to address the question of whether Lincoln was a racist, we
need to understand the historical context of race. We need to make
a distinction between evaluating historical actors on their own
terms and evaluating them in terms of our own modern perceptions.
We need to understand not only how Lincoln the politician understood
race, but also how Lincoln the man responded to it in the context
of the society in which he lived.
race within its historical context is the only way to get to the
truth. Such current research projects as the Illinois Historic Preservation
Agencys Papers of Abraham Lincoln make available documentary
evidence of Lincolns interactions with blacks, and an examination
of that evidence enhances our understanding of Lincoln and his era.
some historical truths. In the first half of the 19th century, millions
of blacks were enslaved. Free blacks in the North could not vote,
serve on juries or hold public office. Southern states denied slaves
the right to read, to write and to marry. Northern states, including
Illinois, restricted the settlement of free blacks within their
whites throughout the country held views of racial superiority over
blacks. Public discourse of the period justified these racial constructs
with biological, religious, legal, social and political rhetoric.
Race determined the opportunities available to people in antebellum
America, and only a small number of white individuals such
as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Sumner, John Brown, and William
Lloyd Garrison envisioned, to varying degrees, a free society
that included blacks as the legal, political and social equals of
whites. At no time in American history had political and legal institutions
recognized blacks as fully enfranchised citizens.
racial reality is the context in which Abraham Lincoln lived, practiced
law and politics, and served as president of the United States.
Given this, it is necessary to recognize the enormous odds blacks
faced in a society seemingly dedicated to the preservation of white
superiority. It is equally important to understand how difficult
it was for whites to endorse black freedom and equality. To be identified
as an abolitionist or a proponent of black rights was not socially
or politically expedient. In fact, it was often dangerous. The 1837
murder of Elijah Lovejoy in Alton, and the caning of Charles Sumner
in the U.S. Senate in 1856 are only two sensational examples.
the politician did not recognize blacks as his social or political
equals and, during his years as a lawyer and office seeker living
in Illinois, his opinion on this did not change. Lincoln was opposed
to the institution of slavery during his entire lifetime but, like
most white Americans, he was not an abolitionist. In ante-bellum
America, abolitionists were a marginal, radical group, and most
white Americans did not participate in or endorse abolitionist activities.
Lincolns inability to embrace black equality in the pre-Civil
War era and his failure to become involved in abolitionist activities
demonstrates a weakness in his character. Perhaps it merely exposes
the pervasiveness of inequality in the social, political, legal
and economic institutions of antebellum America. After all, even
most people who were courageous enough to call themselves abolitionists
and participate in abolitionist activities, did not advocate social
and political equality for blacks.
some modern-day observers, this is simple math: Lincoln lived in
a racist society; he did not view blacks as socially or politically
equal to whites; and he was not an abolitionist. Therefore, Lincoln
was a racist. But is there more to Lincoln than this equation?
the 1840s, when Lincoln was establishing himself in Springfields
legal, political and social circles, he was a frequent guest in
the homes of individuals who held slaves. Yes, there were slaves
in Springfield. Though Article VI of the Illinois Constitution banned
slavery, there were slaves living throughout the state. It is likely
communities simply turned a blind eye to these residents. But they
would have been visible to Lincoln and, most likely, he had some
degree of interaction with bondsmen. Unfortunately, there is no
evidence to suggest how Lincoln might have felt about the slavery
he witnessed in Springfield.
were a number of free blacks living in Springfield as well. Abraham
and Mary Lincoln employed two black women as domestic servants in
their home. Many of Lincolns professional and personal acquaintances
employed blacks. By 1860, 311 free blacks lived in Sangamon County.
At that time, there was no structured residential segregation, and
21 blacks lived within a three-block radius of Lincolns home.
One black woman was a member of Mary Lincolns church and another
drove Lincoln to the railroad station when he left for Washington
black Springfield residents were Lincolns neighbors, and Lincoln
was acquainted with many of them. There was a black shoemaker and
at least two black barbers, one of whom was a Baptist elder. Local
blacks owned property and some were activists, participating in
the colonization society and attending an annual Springfield event
that celebrated the 1834 emancipation of slaves in Haiti.
his law practice, Lincoln had black clients and participated in
cases that benefited black Illinois residents, and his third law
partner, William Herndon, defended fugitive slaves. Lincoln defended
a black woman in a criminal trial, helped three individuals escape
convictions for harboring fugitive slaves and handled the divorce
case of a local black couple.
an 1855 slander suit, Lincoln represented William Dungey, a man
with a dark complexion, who was struggling to prove his whiteness
and maintain the privileges of white citizenship. Whether Dungey
was black or mulatto, Lincoln understood
the importance of his clients fight to hold on to his white
identity in a society that would take away his freedoms if his accuser
was successful in proving his blackness.
represented his clients, regardless of their racial identities,
to the best of his legal abilities and took seriously his responsibility
to them. One of Lincolns long-term clients was a Haitian-born
black man, William Florville, a Springfield barber who owned a great
deal of land. Beginning as early as 1847, Lincoln became Florvilles
attorney. During the time of their lawyer-client relationship, Lincoln
represented Florville in three lawsuits. He also handled legal matters
related to Florvilles land holdings, including tax payments.
September 27, 1852, Lincoln sent a letter to his friend and fellow
attorney Charles Welles, asking Welles to help him out of a difficult
situation. Lincoln was at court in Bloomington and was unable to
follow up on a legal matter involving Florville. The letter is not
extraordinary in the context of Lincolns legal practice. There
are dozens of examples of Lincoln correspondence that detail his
concern for his clients.
wrote to Welles:
I am in a little trouble here. I am trying to get a decree
for our Billy the Barber for the conveyance of certain
town lots sold to him by Allen[,] Gridly and Prickett. I made
you a party, as administrator of Prickett, but the Clerk omitted
to put your name in the writ, and so you are not served. Billy
will blame me, if I do not get the thing fixed up this time ...
. The language is interesting. Our Billy the
Barber could be taken as paternalistic and condescending,
but Lincoln clearly does not wish for Florville to be angry with
him. Florville was black and could not vote, so Lincoln wasnt
concerned about alienating a potential voter. Lincoln was in
a little trouble here and did not want to risk his professional
reputation or face the disapproval of a paying client.
letter was respectful of Florville and indicated that he was a prominent
member of the community. Welles also knew Florville because Lincoln
referred to him in a familiar way. In this context, Lincoln and
Florville had a typical lawyer-client relationship, and Florvilles
race did not get in the way. Lincoln wanted Florville to respect
him, but not because Lincoln was white and Florville was black.
like most lawyers, took cases that came to him without regard to
his personal views regarding the clients or the cases and, like
most lawyers, he approached the law from an amoral perspective.
For example, Lincoln personally hated divorce, but he handled numerous
divorce cases, helping clients to end their unsatisfactory marriages.
of Lincolns cases is contained in the Papers of Abraham Lincolns
The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln: Complete Documentary Edition,
a three-volume DVD set with images of Lincoln legal documents. It
provides examples not only of Lincolns willingness to advocate
for black clients, but his willingness to take cases that harmed
free blacks and slaves.
Lincolns first law partnership with John Todd Stuart, Stuart
wrote an indenture for a young black girl. And in a debt case, the
partners represented a client who had failed to pay for a black
female servant the client had purchased. In 1841, Lincoln handled
a case in which one of Lincolns clients paid a debt by delivering
a slave woman and her child to the creditor.
1847, Lincoln defended Robert Matson, a Kentucky slaveholder, who
had brought five of his slaves with him to Illinois. While in Illinois,
Jane Bryant, her son and her three daughters escaped from Matson
and petitioned for their freedom. Matson retained Lincoln, who used
the doctrine of comity, arguing that property owners could take
their property (including their slaves) anywhere in the country
as long as they were in transit and not in permanent residence in
a free state. Fortunately for Jane Bryant and her children, the
court disagreed with Lincoln, arguing instead that bringing slaves
into the state was a contravention of the Constitution of
Illinois, and declared the family free.
1857, after the U.S. Supreme Court delivered its opinion in the
famous Dred Scott case, Lincoln publicly decried the outcome. In
the 7-2 decision, the court upheld the federal case in Missouri
in which a black man had petitioned for his freedom. Interestingly,
Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney supported the opinion of the court
by citing the doctrine of comity, making the same argument that
Lincoln had made when he defended the slaveholder Matson 10 years
earlier. The courts decision not only denied Dred Scott his
freedom, but it declared that blacks were not eligible for citizenship.
decision sent a shockwave across the country, as proponents of slavery
celebrated the high courts protection of the institution and
as opponents of slavery, like Lincoln, denounced it.
opposition to the Supreme Courts decision provided a target
for Stephen A. Douglas in the Illinois senatorial debates the next
year. Douglas argued that by rejecting the Dred Scott opinion, Lincoln
had declared warfare on the Supreme Court and was advocating
black citizenship and equality.
the first of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates in Ottawa in August
1858, Lincoln countered Douglas accusation by stating: I
have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between
the white and the black races. There is physical difference between
the two, which in my judgment will probably forever forbid their
living together upon the footing of perfect equality.
the debates, Douglas repeatedly accused Lincoln of advocating racial
equality, and Lincoln repeatedly refuted this charge, sometimes
with stronger language than he had used in Ottawa.
the 1858 campaign for the U.S. Senate, Douglas was a vocal proponent
of white supremacy, and he was Illinois proslavery candidate.
Abraham Lincoln did not advocate black and white equality, but he
was Illinois antislavery candidate. Douglas won the election,
but two years later the political climate had changed. In 1860,
when Lincoln was the Republican Partys candidate for president,
he was, essentially, the same candidate he had been during his campaign
for the Senate. He was still opposed to slavery, and he still did
not embrace racial equality. This time, however, the party with
the antislavery platform won the election.
his lifetime, Lincoln had contemporaries who were more radical on
the question of race than he was, and he had contemporaries who
were more conservative. Lincoln enjoyed meaningful personal and
professional connections with individual black people, yet it took
four years of bloody Civil War to begin to change his attitudes
about the possibilities for black freedom and equality. Did these
attitudes make Lincoln a racist? Or do they reveal complexities
in his character?
we employ our modern definitions of race and racism, we cannot see
the complexities of Lincolns character and we cannot examine
the contradictions within the man. If we dismiss Lincoln as a racist,
then that is the end of the story because he was no different from
the proslavery Douglas, for example, and there is no point in investigating
the matter any further.
is important to remember that human beings in the present
as well as in the past are flawed, complicated and contradictory.
was not immune from the complexities of human nature. In the end,
the limitations of Lincolns own racial perspectives were an
indictment of the larger society.
of American history was not pretty, but the complexities and the
contradictions of the various historical experiences of the human
condition provide a much more truthful picture of our racist past
than does boiling down the details into one word with which we are
only beginning to come to grips.
Pratt McDermott, an assistant editor for the Papers of Abraham Lincoln,
was a contributor to In Tender Consideration: Women, Families,
and the Law in Lincolns Illinois, which was published by
the University of Illinois Press in 2002.
Issues, February 2004
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