Racism in America: Lincoln


The election of Barack Obama in 2008 brought with it the utopic notion that racism in the United States of America was over. I certainly do not the doubt the momentous appointment of an African American man to the office of President of a country that was built on racial genocide and slavery. A country that less than a century ago, during the life time of my grandparents, did not allow a white child to attend the same school as a black child simply on the basis of race. The elevation of a black man to the highest office in American politics is symbolically another step on the road to tackling the evils of racism.

This blog isn’t meant as an analysis of Obama. He is essentially part of an establishment that favours financial institutions, oil companies and private health insurers above the lives of the less wealthy, and panders to the apparently widespread American belief that the very wealthy deserve massive tax cuts at the behest of the most vulnerable. He is no different in that respect regardless of his skin colour.

I wanted instead to focus on the beliefs of America’s 16th President, Abraham Lincoln, and his complex and often contradictory approach to slavery. Like Jefferson before him, it is almost impossible to figure out where Lincoln stood on the issue, and conflicting books are widespread. Lincoln’s party politics and his true beliefs seem to be confused much of the time, and yet history tends to stick entirely to his party politics regardless of the motives. I wanted to explore those motives more in depth.

Yesterday I went along to see an hour long lecture by Professor Richard Carwardin, the President of Corpus Christi College Oxford and winner of the Lincoln Prize for his book “Lincoln: A life of purpose and power“, a favourite of George W.Bush. Obviously there is a very limited and narrow version of Lincoln’s life one can present in just an hour, but Carwardin alluded to Lincoln as a great emancipator, as if he had been way a head of his time and the progressive champion for the freedom of black slaves, willing to fight a war for its eradication.
I would argue differently.

Lincoln wasn’t happy with the fact that slavery had become an issue by the time he took office. Lincoln told the esteemed journalist Henry Villard;

“I will be damned if I don’t feel almost sorry for being elected when the niggers is the first thing I have to attend to.”

Lincoln was not prepared to go to war for the abolition of slavery in itself. He had agreed to back an amendment to the Constitution, penned by the Representative from Ohio, Thomas Corwin, that would have made it Unconstitutional for Congress to amend rules or abolish slavery. Lincoln backed it.
The Corwin amendment read:

No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State

In his inaugural address, Lincoln referenced the proposed amendment, stating:

“Holding such a provision to now be implied Constitutional law, I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable.”

Interestingly, the amendment passed Congress by the two-thirds majority needed, but was never fully ratified in the State legislatures, and is still up for ratification, as it was never thrown out. If it had been fully ratified, one must wonder just how different the U.S would look today. The fact remains though that up until the outbreak of Civil War, Abraham Lincoln supported a Constitutional Amendment rendering it impossible to abolish the institution of slavery.

The worry from the Republican Party of the Lincoln years, was not so much the moral implications of ethical dilemma of the owning of slave labour, but the economic problems it creates. They worried that slave labour merely worked to undermine wages of the poor white working classes, and just created a new dominant class known as “Slave Power”. They worried that the Slave owning classes in the South were just violent and expansionist people with a goal of Empire. This paranoia wasn’t without merit, but it was borne out of the relatively new Nation’s deep suspicion of Empire and too much power. Lincoln charged that the Southern Democrats and slave owning classes were out to take over Cuba and the war on Mexico seemed to confirm those suspicions. The Civil War Confederate cry of “States rights!!” was simply the right for the very wealthy land owners in the South to keep and abuse people with darker skin, and the right to centralise power within very few hands. Only the free States were fighting for States rights.

Lincoln’s famous signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. It is doubtful whether the proclamation actually freed any slaves whatsoever. Depending on your source, it was either the greatest achievement of the short Presidency of Lincoln, or it was useless. No one really knows. One thing is for sure, Lincoln signed the proclamation as a further attack on the South (rightfully so). In September 1862, he demanded they return to the Union or he would free their slaves. Not “and i’ll free your slave“. It’s an ultimatum. If you rejoin the USA, you get to keep your slaves… if you don’t, we’re freeing them. He is more concerned here with preserving the Union – an abstract concept – than ending slavery. The Proclamation not only didn’t free slaves in the Confederacy, it didn’t free slaves in the slave holding States in the Union – Kentucky and Maryland.

The Proclamation looked good for Lincoln, as it put real pressure on the Confederacy. France and Britain were very anti-slavery, and he needed support and recognition of the legitimacy of the USA in a war that at the time, no one knew which way it might go. With the support of France and Britain, and so legitimacy, it helped Lincolns case. It was similar in a way, to how old European powers gained legitimacy. When Henry Tudor took the Kingship away from Richard III, he was a nobody on the European stage and England was at civil war, much like America. Tudor needed an air of legitimacy, so he married Elizabeth of York; she happened to be the niece of Richard, and daughter of King Edward IV. This was the legitimacy Henry required, and won. He rather secured himself, by marrying his son – Arthur – off to the daughter – Catherine of Aragon – of the most powerful family in Europe; the King and Queen of Spain. The marriages and alliances were all about protecting himself, and securing his throne, not about love nor about the wellbeing of his Kingdom. Lincoln signed the Emancipation declaration, to protect his Throne by winning the support of the English and the French. Up until the Proclamation was signed, it seemed Britain was on the side of the Confederacy, having been involved in the provision of the British made warships the CSS Alabama and the CSS Florida.

Lincoln knew the Proclamation, which freed black slaves in Confederate States that fell to the Union forces, would compel black slaves and freed slaves to help the Union armies. He stressed in a letter to his friend James C. Conkling:

“I thought that whatever negroes can be got to do as soldiers, leaves just so much less for white soldiers to do, in saving the Union.”

The freedom of the slaves with the passing of the 13th Amendment was a tiny ripple in the water. Saying to a group of people who have had no access to education, to family ties, to survival, to anything other than a system that treated them as less than human for so long, that they are now “free”, is worthless. It is not freedom. It would take another 100 years before the real reforms were introduced. Lincoln was not a head of his time. The abolitionists were calling for equality, not just the ending of slavery. Economically, black Americans would be held down for more than a century in place of White privilege. Lincoln may have given them freedom, but he certainly did not give them anything anywhere near equality, and he knew it.

Even the banning of slavery expanding into new territories was a rather obscure policy that was not designed for the sake of the wellbeing of black Americans, rather it was an attempt to keep black people from being shipped to America full stop. It was a white supremacist policy that today would be deplored as vicious and racist. Lincoln, when talking about the banning of slavery expanding to new territories stated that he did not want the United States:

…….to become an asylum for slavery and niggers

The expansion into the West was an opportunity to spread the white race for Lincoln, who had no desire to see black people live there, stating in 1858 in Illinois, that:

in favor of our new territories being in such a condition that white men may find a home … as an outlet for free white people everywhere, the world over.

Lincoln was therefore using race as an unnecessary social divide. Race had only really became an issue, during the late 1700s and early 1800s. Up until then, nobody really cared what race you were. White slaves existed in the Colonies way before black slaves. The worry was that they would join hands and rise up, so race was used to divide them. Tell a poor white slave that he is more important in God’s eyes than a poor black slave, and suddenly there is no chance they will rise up together and overthrow the economic powers that hold them both down.

In 1853, Lincoln backed the Illinois State law that banned freed black people from moving to Illinois. They weren’t so free afterall. Lincoln it seems, was obsessed with the division of black and white, and even Mexicans, whom he referred to, out of the blue, for no reason, as:

“most decidedly a race of mongrels. I understand that there is not more than one person there out of eight who is pure white.”

He was a power obsessed, white supremacist.

The great emancipators in the Congress and the abolitionist leaders who pressured and pressured for Lincoln to keep to his line on abolition. Thaddeus Stevens, in the House of Representatives, and Chairman of the Ways and Means committee was a committed Abolitionist. This man was ahead of his time. He helped runaway slaves escape to Canada. He protected the rights of Jewish and Chinese Americans and he defended the rights of Native Americans. Stevens was a hero of the Civil War era and should be remembered as such, far above Lincoln. But one man stood out as great, even beyond that of Thaddeus Stevens, and that man was Charles Sumner, the Senator from Massachusetts.

Charles Sumner absolutely hated the institution of slavery. As did his father before him. He argued that freeing the slaves would achieve nothing, unless it was accompanied by a raft of legislation promoting equal rights both politically and economically. This was 100 years before equal rights began to take shape. He is responsible for one of my favourite quotes from history, that I tend to live by when shaping my political thoughts:

“The Utopias of one age have been the realities of the next.”

Sumner argued in a court case, that segregation was an abomination. The year was 1848. The case was Roberts VS Boston. It lead to the ban on segregation on the basis of race in all public schools in Massachusetts. It was over 100 years before the rest of the country would catch up.

Sumner’s extraordinary career taught me that it is okay to think radically, even if the rest of your contemporaries think that you are an idealist living in a dream land. The contemporary Senators did not like Sumner for his radical ideas on racial integration and equality, one Senator suggested that Sumner was unimportant and should be ignored:

“The ravings of a maniac may sometimes be dangerous, but the barking of a puppy never did any harm.”

It is a myth that Lincoln was a great emancipator and forward thinker and it is a great injustice that men like Charles Sumner go unrecognised and ignored by history.
Sumner’s face should be on Mount Rushmore. Not Lincoln’s.

Anyway, as Sumner argued, The Proclamation was meaningless, the 13th Amendment was the result of much pressure put on the administration. Lincoln himself once remarked quite tellingly:

“I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in anyway the social and political equality of the white and black races – that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of 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 forever 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. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied everything.”

He stresses exactly why he felt compelled to free the slaves. It was not on grounds of compassion or freedom or respect for the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal, far from it, he did it for the sake of his own power:

“My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.”

Abraham Lincoln was not a great emancipator. Nor was he one of the great forward thinking abolitionists of the time. He was a racist and a white supremacist who put his own position and power above that of the rights of a group of people who had different coloured skin. It is quite extraordinary that history teaches us that President Lincoln was one of the great Presidents who ended the horrific institution of slavery. The reality is far more ambiguous. It is much like the celebrating of Columbus day as a great day in American history, when in fact it simply marked the beginnings of a mass genocide. History should be taught with equal weight to both interpretations, if the subject is as ambiguous as that of President Lincoln and the question of slavery.

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5 Responses to Racism in America: Lincoln

  1. Black Flag says:

    and add,

    He was a tyrant, dictator, and a war criminal.

    He arrested anyone who disagreed with him, including the entire Supreme Court when it ruled against him.

    He had his detractors shot as traitors.

    He ordered Sherman to march across the South, attack unarmed women and children in their homes, and burn cities.

    Many Americans believe he is their best President.

  2. charles says:

    “He was a racist and a white supremacist who put his own position and power above that of the rights of a group of people who had different coloured skin.”

    Sounds like a republican party (tea party etc)member…

  3. Ed says:

    Lincoln was not a pure racial egalitarian, but neither is he what you portray by means of selective quotation. He probably had some of the racial prejudices of his background, but he seems to have been somewhat skeptical toward racial prejudice and to have grown beyond his own to some significant extent while in office. Lincoln was not the Great Emancipator of legend, but he was an emancipator. He was a politician, however, who had to get elected in a very racist world where only a minority were for full political rights for African Americans. If you look at Lincoln’s statements about race in the Lincoln-Douglas debates, they are hedged around by all kinds of subtle qualifiers, like a lawyer who is trying to sound racist to a racist audience but in the “fine print” as it were of his statement it looks like he is subtly refusing to commit to racist views and actually suggesting that the black man might not be inferior intellectually or morally to the white man. To say that in 1858 Illinois is not insignificant. He makes the statements furthermore only when repeatedly race-baited by an unambiguously racist opponent (Stephen Douglas) before a very racist audience, even for Illinois at the time. Many of the abolitionists were unequivocally racist in their statements about blacks, whereas Lincoln in talking about blacks never made definite statements that they were inferior, even when that was in high demand. It’s clear that he did not share the certainty of the majority of whites that blacks were inferior.

    What is the source for your quote that Lincoln said he did not want the West to become “an asylum for slavery and niggers.” Did you get that from Lerone Bennett’s book? Bennett says that comes from Lincoln’s Collected Works, volume 3, page 487. I don’t find it there, or anywhere in the Collected Works for that matter. Where did Bennett get it? Do you know where it comes from?

  4. Ed says:

    I found the quote. I couldn’t find it before because Bennett and you have misquoted slightly — furthermore, it is not a direct quote, as you represent, and as Bennett represents in his book. It is a newspaper reporter paraphrasing a Lincoln speech the reporter heard, and in the mode of paraphrase, one cannot tell if the paper — as many newspapers did at the time — is using the word “nigger” simply as a chosen vernacular, whereas Lincoln may have used “negro.”

    It was not at all uncommon for newspapers and people in general in that time in the United States to use the word “nigger”. Lincoln certainly did use the word at times, but as Philip Paludan has pointed out, he used the word without malice. Using that word today and its use back then are somewhat different things. When you discover how many newspapers then freely used the word, it can have two results, among others. First, it makes that whole period look a little uglier than it looked before one knew how commonplace the word was. But it also might partly exonerate Lincoln for his use of the word — when a word is so commonplace, almost everyone — not just virulent racists — uses it.

  5. You are correct. You might be pleased to know that I’ve revised my views on Lincoln since writing this a few years back, and agree with your sentiments entirely.

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