Abraham Lincoln’s Racism in Context: Reflections on His Era and Ours

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.
Happy 200th Birthday, Mr. Lincoln (Text of Gettysburg Address)
Creative Commons License 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.


  1. GDAWG

    With regard to what you note concerning Lincoln I concur completely. I go further, though, and state that his defeat of the confederacy was the GREATER of the GOOD for me!

  2. Joe

    Actually, those 200,000 Black soldiers and 300,000 Black men and women as support troops are the ones who really defeated the Confederacy. In 1863, when Lincoln finally was forced to accept large numbers of Black troops (which he had opposed, using N-word type language), and when he was running low on white soldiers (they rioted in NYC against his new draft law, for example–in the larger US race riot ever), he got huge numbers of Black volunteers. They suffered high casualties as well. Many others fled or sabotaged in the South, grinding down the Confederate economy……Who freed the slaves? The slaves freed the slaves!

  3. GDAWG

    Joe you are quite correct. But Lincoln was the Commander in Chief during the Civil War, therefore, I wrote the statement to connote such. Obviously, it was not written to belittle or minimize the contribution of Black Americans, like me, and our fight for freedom. After all, there were over 20 Black Medal of Honor winners from the conflict.

  4. Seattle in Texas

    This post left me thinking about a few things and where we are as a nation now–much I will bypass. But will hit on the following. First, I take the personal position that racism cannot be dismantled and genuinely eradicated until capitalism is dismantled and becomes a part of history, as capitalism relies on a hierarchy for survival. In this nation, the systemic hierarchy has been racial. Perhaps capitalism and systemic racism are near synonymous terms in this nation. One of the points that came to mind was the Revolutionary War—the many slaves and Free Black men who fought in this war, for no promises or hopes of freedom. They were drafted in much the same way. Of course the Declaration of Independence came forth, but that was not applicable to slaves and the free black community. Much blood shed and lives lost in this point in history too—which too seems invisible.

    But a dear friend of mine and I were discussing fascism recently and how it works…very slowly…. To bypass much, in short, fascism is antihuman. In current times individualism and competitions of unhealthy sorts reigns, as well as many other antihuman, anti-environmental, and inherently values that are harmful to everybody—including globally. Some of us are raised with alternative values where caring for others, regardless of political positions, racial and ethnic differences, religious orientations, gender, sexual orientation, etc., is a no brainer and second nature. For others, well…. But in a book I read, that I thought fit here, whether we are looking at the U.S. historically with relation to slavery, or Jim Crow, or in current times—what has happened, what is happening, what could potentially happen, and so forth. How passivity and simply selfish values can be harmful. While this was written about Nazi Germany (and currently I am pleased with our President and the hopeful direction this nation will take…), I think is worthwhile for anybody who wishes to take a moment to read and ponder on—published by Sternberg (2003) and written by Pastor Martin Niemoller:

    In Germany first they came for the communists
    And I did not speak out –
    Because I was not a communist.

    Then they came for the Jews
    And I did not speak out-
    Because I was not a Jew.

    Then they came for the trade unionists
    And I did not speak out-
    Because I was not a trade unionist.

    Then they came for the Catholics
    And I did not speak out-
    Because I was a Protestant.

    Then they came for me-
    And there was no one left
    To speak out for me.
    —Pastor Martin Niemoller
    Then there are incredible writings by some enslaved and there after, and in contemporary times, that are so important as well. The point there, is the importance of speaking up and speaking out, regardless, if we do not agree with, or feel as though we don’t belong with, a different group—which historically the white folks in this nation overwhelmingly have failed to do throughout history and into contemporary times…anyway….


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