Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday was last Thursday. He and Darwin were born on the same day, an interesting coincidence. Lincoln was just voted recently by historians as the number one U.S. president of all time. Presumably this is because he presided over the country during the difficult Civil War, and much action he took during that era deservedly gets this high level of praise.
photo credit: Tony the Misfit
Yet, virtually none of the current discussions of Lincoln –in this hagiographic mood the country is in–seriously focuses on Lincoln’s extensive racist framing of U.S. society and what that has meant, then as now. Most historians dealing with Lincoln now touch on his racism, but only a few like Lerone Bennett, Jr., in his much debated but pathbreaking Forced into Glory, get to the heart of the matter. Even left historians seem to lack the conceptual tools to make sense out of Lincoln’s deep racism. Their discussion usually focuses a few of Lincoln’s views and actions, with an argument he got less racist over time–and not centrally on the much bigger picture of racial oppression being the foundation of the nation, then as now, and on the white racial frame that was essential to rationalizing that foundation, then as now. And not centrally on how the war and Lincoln, and the war’s aftermath, were shaped by and shaped that systemic racism and its rationalizing frame. And what it meant that Lincoln stayed very racist in his views to the end.
Lincoln was a willing servant of that foundational racism. Several years before he became president, in his famous debate with Senator Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln demonstrated that he operated out of a strong version of the white racist frame. For example, he argued in that debate that the physical difference between the “races” was insuperable:
I am not nor ever have been in favor of the social and political equality of the white and black races: that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters of the free negroes, or jurors, or qualifying them to hold office or having them to marry with white people…. I as much as any other man am in favor of the superior position being assigned to the white man.
Soon to be called the “Great Emancipator” because of his 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln had made his white supremacist views clear, and his racist framing would later be cited by southern officials many times, including in their 1960s struggle to protect Jim Crow segregation against civil rights demonstrators. They are still quoted by whites, especially in supremacist groups, today. One reason is clear: They reflect in some ways a deeply held white racist framing of African Americans as inferior to whites that is still all too commonplace.
By the time of the Civil War, a majority of whites in most northern areas held to a white-nationalist view of this country. African Americans were routinely seen as dangerous aliens. Across the country, in all regions, the overwhelming majority of whites held an image of this relatively new nation as ideally a “white republic.” Lincoln and other whites unsympathetic to the spread of slavery also saw the nation as fundamentally white. The great 19th century poet of democracy, Walt Whitman, asked in an 1856, “Who believes that the Whites and Blacks can ever amalgamate?” He answered his rhetorical question much as the slaveholding founders like Jefferson did:
Nature has set an impassable seal against it. Besides, is not America for Whites? And is it not better so?
Henry Clay, who enslaved many African Americans, was an influential leader of his day, a border state slaveholder and U.S. Senator, a man whom Abraham Lincoln once said had taught him all he knew about slavery. Lincoln was fond of minstrel shows, where white performers made up in blackface did musical numbers and other comedy skits on the stage. Extreme racist caricatures and mimicking of black Americans were centerpieces of these shows.
As president, Lincoln was willing to support a constitutional amendment making slavery permanent in the existing southern states if that would prevent a civil war. Some members of the Republican Party talked with representatives of the southern planters and proposed a thirteenth amendment to the Constitution that would guarantee slavery in the South. Lincoln was willing to accept this. However, the southern slaveholding oligarchy rejected this compromise proposal, apparently because they thought they could win a war.
December 18, 1865 is arguably the date of the real birth of a United States committed substantially, if still rhetorically and haltingly, to expanding human liberty. That was the day that the actual Thirteenth Amendment freeing all enslaved Americans was finally ratified. This legal action would not likely have taken place without the active resistance to oppression by African Americans, who thereby played a central role in bringing their own liberation. At base, it was not Abraham Lincoln’s famous Emancipation Proclamation that did the most to bring an end to slavery, but rather the active efforts of those who had been enslaved. This included the 200,000 African American soldiers and the several hundred thousand support workers who helped the Union win the war in its most difficult years.
Significantly for the country’s future, the antislavery white legislators who composed and fought for the Thirteenth Amendment in the U.S. Congress understood it to mandate an end not only to slavery but also to the “badges and incidents” of slavery. (“Badges” referred to indicators of racial rank, while “incidents” referred to heavy burdens accompanying enslavement.) Senator Lyman Trumbull, an Illinois Republican, introduced the Thirteenth Amendment in the U.S. Senate in 1864. Two years later, when he and his colleagues sought passage of a comprehensive 1866 Civil Rights Act to eradicate those “badges and incidents” of slavery, Trumbull aggressively defended the view that this Thirteenth Amendment gave Congress the authority to
destroy all these discriminations in civil rights against the black man, and if we cannot, our constitutional amendment amounts to nothing. It was for that purpose that the second clause of that amendment was adopted, which says that Congress shall have authority, by appropriate legislation, to carry into effect the article prohibiting slavery. (This was, interestingly, quoted in the important 1968 Supreme Court decision, Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Co., on racial discrimination in housing.)
That is, he was thinking in systemic terms, and breaking to a significant degree with the white racist framing of Lincoln and others of his day.
Today, the Thirteenth Amendment, as well as the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, should still be read as exerting significant pressure for the eradication of the many vestiges of slavery that appear in the guise of contemporary racial discrimination that is still at the heart of our systemic racism. We have in 2009 not yet ended the “discrimination in civil rights” against African Americans and other Americans of color.