Was Abraham Lincoln Racist? The Evidence of His Own Words
Most Americans think of Abraham Lincoln as the Great Emancipator, an American saint who laid down his life to bring black people, and the nation as a whole, out of the wilderness of slavery.
But there are people today who see him very differently. For example, in his book historian and journalist Lerone Bennett, a former executive editor of Ebony magazine, attempts to make the case that “Lincoln was no friend of black people.” In fact, declares Bennett, “To say that he was a racist is to understate the case.” Forced into Glory
Which of these two views of the author of the Emancipation Proclamation comes closest to the truth? When it comes to his attitude toward African Americans, was Abraham Lincoln a saint, or was he the worst kind of sinner? An egalitarian or a white supremacist? The reality is that there are parts of Lincoln’s record, both as a man and as president, that can be read as supporting either conclusion.
Of course, the only person who could really know what was in Lincoln’s heart was Lincoln himself. So, in this article we’ll let him speak for himself. It is his own words and actions that will reveal whether the charge that Abraham Lincoln was a racist and white supremacist holds water.
A Definition of Racism
If we are going to decide whether Abraham Lincoln was a racist, we need to first know what racism is. One online dictionary defines racism this way:
Racism is a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human racial groups determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one's own race is superior and has the right to dominate others or that a particular racial group is inferior to the others.— Dictionary.com
But racism is defined not only by what a person believes about other races, but most importantly, by how he or she puts those beliefs into action. Dr. Nicki Lisa Cole, a sociologist who has taught at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has addressed this dimension of racism:
“Racism exists when ideas and assumptions about racial categories are used to justify and reproduce a racial hierarchy and racially structured society that unjustly limits access to resources, rights, and privileges on the basis of race. Racism also occurs when this kind of unjust social structure is produced by the failure to account for race and its historical and contemporary roles in society.”
Taking these definitions together, for our purposes we can define racism this way:
A person is racist if they not only believe that their race is superior to others, but they seek, by their words, their actions, and their votes, to maintain a state of society in which their racial group always has the upper hand.
The White Supremacist Lincoln
There’s no denying that some of the things Abraham Lincoln said, especially in the heat of a political campaign, come very close to meeting our definition of racism.
Lincoln Spoke Against Blacks Being Equal With Whites
Lincoln made it clear that if there had to be a racial hierarchy in the United States, he wanted whites to always be on top. In a speech he made in Charleston, Illinois during his 1858 campaign for the U. S. Senate, he said this:
"I will say, then, that 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 -- 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."
Lincoln Used the N- Word
History records at least two occasions when Lincoln used the worst of racial slurs to describe black people. One such instance is related by journalist and Abolitionist James Redpath, who met with Lincoln in April of 1862 after returning from a trip to the black republic of Haiti. When Redpath informed him that the Haitian president, in deference to American prejudices, was offering to send a white man as Haiti’s envoy to the United States, Lincoln replied, "You can tell the President of Hayti that I shan't tear my shirt if he sends a n- here!"
Two things stand out about this episode. On the negative side, the n- word, then as now, was considered extremely derogatory and was rarely used in public discourse, even by pro-slavery Southerners. Lincoln must have been well aware of the offensiveness of the term, but used it anyway, at least in private.
On a more positive note, Lincoln was indicating his approval of Haiti sending as their representative in Washington a black man whom American officials would have to honor as a full member of the diplomatic community.
Lincoln Favored Sending Blacks to Africa
In 1854 Lincoln gave a speech in Peoria, Illinois in which he combined his desire to free the slaves with the hope of removing them from the country. His only hesitation was that the scheme of colonization simply wasn’t practical at the time:
“My first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia-to their own native land. But a moment's reflection would convince me, that . . . its sudden execution is impossible.
Even as late as December of 1862, just a month before the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, Lincoln was still trying to convince Congress to back a plan in which the slaves would be freed and then sent to Africa or the Caribbean.
Lincoln Represented a Slave Owner Trying to Return a Black Family to Slavery
In 1847 a black woman named Jane Bryant, along with four of her children, ran away from the Illinois farm of Robert Matson, who claimed to own them. When the fugitives were caught and incarcerated in the local jail, Abolitionists hired a lawyer to press the case that when Matson brought them to live in the state of Illinois, where slavery was illegal, they automatically became free. The attorney who represented Matson in his attempt to have the Bryant family returned to slavery was none other than Abraham Lincoln.
Thankfully, this was one case that Lincoln (an otherwise extraordinarily successful lawyer) lost. Despite what were presumably Lincoln’s best efforts in support of his client’s attempt to get his “property” back, the court declared that Jane Bryant and her children were indeed free.
Lincoln and Slavery
The Egalitarian Lincoln
Notwithstanding incidents such as these that seem to support the idea of Lincoln having racist and white supremacist views, many of his words and actions paint a different picture.
Lincoln Was Sincerely Horrified by Slavery
Lincoln made his feelings about slavery clear in an 1864 letter to Albert G. Hodges, a Kentucky newspaper editor:
“I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel.”
It’s probably literally true that Lincoln could not remember a time in his life when he didn’t hate slavery. He was born in the slave state of Kentucky, where his father and mother were founding members of a Baptist church so opposed to slavery that it split from its parent church and from its denomination over the issue. In fact, as Lincoln later recalled, his father moved the family from Kentucky to the free state of Indiana "partly on account of slavery.”
Lincoln’s personal discomfort with slavery dates at least to 1828 when, at the age of 19, he witnessed a slave auction in New Orleans. As he watched male buyers pinching and prodding an enslaved young woman as if she were a horse, he was horrified. “That's a disgrace,” he said to a friend. “If I ever get a lick at that thing I'll hit it hard.”
He had a similar reaction during an 1841 steamboat trip from Louisville to St. Louis. Also on board were about a dozen slaves shackled together with irons. Lincoln was dismayed. “That sight was of continual torment to me,” he would later say.
At various times Lincoln publicly described slavery as a “moral wrong,” a "terrible wrong," a "gross outrage on the law of nature,” and “the greatest wrong inflicted on any people.” In 1858, during his series of debates with Stephen Douglas, he summed up his feelings about slavery this way:
I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself.— Abraham Lincoln in 1858
Lincoln Insisted Blacks Had the Same Human Rights as Whites
Lincoln’s antagonist in the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 was Stephen Douglas, a self-proclaimed racist and white supremacist. Douglas believed that black people were inferior to whites in every way, and that the statement in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” was never intended to include the black race.
In the first debate, held at Ottawa, Illinois on August 21, 1858, Lincoln emphatically refuted Douglas’s argument:
“There is no reason in the world why the Negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man. I agree with Judge Douglas he is not my equal in many respects-certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment. But in the right to eat the bread, without the leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man.”
Lincoln never publicly expressed an opinion about whether blacks were morally and intellectually equal to whites (note the “perhaps” in the above statement). But for him that was not the issue. He maintained that black people deserved equal human rights simply because they were human.
Lincoln Understood That Slavery Itself Made Blacks Seem Inferior
In an age in which most whites, North and South, considered blacks to be inferior by nature, Lincoln realized that it was inevitable that enslaved people would appear to be inferior because of the degradation imposed on them by the slave system. In a speech at Edwardsville, Illinois on September 11, 1858, he put the case this way:
“Now, when by all these means you have succeeded in dehumanizing the Negro; when you have put him down, and made it forever impossible for him to be but as the beasts of the field; when you have extinguished his soul, and placed him where the ray of hope is blown out in darkness like that which broods over the spirits of the damned; are you quite sure the demon which you have roused will not turn and rend you?”
Lincoln certainly believed that the oppression suffered by individuals who had been enslaved left them on a lower intellectual level than most whites. Speaking to a group of black leaders he invited to the White House in 1862 to seek their help in colonizing freed blacks to Africa, Lincoln gave his assessment of how the degradation of slavery had affected its victims:
“If we deal with those who are not free at the beginning [that is, newly freed ex-slaves], and whose intellects are clouded by Slavery, we have very poor materials to start with. If intelligent colored men, such as are before me, would move in this matter, much might be accomplished. It is exceedingly important that we have men at the beginning capable of thinking as white men, and not those who have been systematically oppressed.”
Note that in wanting blacks to rise to the level of "thinking as white men," Lincoln was not asserting the intellectual superiority of the white race. Rather, he was comparing the capabilities of people whose opportunities for intellectual growth had been intentionally and systematically suppressed (many Southern states had laws making it illegal to teach slaves to read and write) with those of whites who, even if poor (as Lincoln had been), had the opportunity to educate themselves.
Lincoln Treated Black People With Dignity and Respect
Almost without exception, blacks who knew Lincoln were convinced he was entirely free of race prejudice.
Frederick Douglass was a fiery Abolitionist who initially had nothing but disdain for Lincoln’s seeming lack of anti-slavery fervor. But after the president welcomed him to the White House several times, always treating him with the greatest respect, Douglass gained a new appreciation for Lincoln’s character:
In all my interviews with Mr. Lincoln I was impressed with his entire freedom from popular prejudice against the colored race. He was the first great man that I talked with in the United States freely, who in no single instance reminded me of the difference between himself and myself, of the difference of color.— Black Abolitionist Frederick Douglass
[For more on Douglass’s view of Lincoln, see Why Frederick Douglass Despised, Then Loved Abraham Lincoln].
Sojourner Truth, the former slave who was renowned as an abolition activist and conductor on the underground railroad, had a similar experience. In October of 1864 Lincoln invited her to the White House and showed her a Bible the free black people of Baltimore had given him as a token of their high regard. Sojourner Truth concurred, telling Lincoln she considered him the best president ever. She later commented, “I never was treated by any one with more kindness and cordiality than was shown me by that great and good man.”
There’s another aspect of this incident that highlights the necessity of judging Lincoln’s actions and words not solely by today’s standards, but also by taking into account the historical context. In writing a note in her autograph book, Lincoln addressed his visitor as “Aunty Sojourner Truth.” That would be seen as intolerably condescending and overtly racist today. But Truth didn’t receive it that way. Aware that Lincoln was following the custom of the time and did not intend any disrespect, she was not offended.
Lincoln Advocated Black Suffrage
Having started by declaring in 1858 that he had never been “in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes,” by the end of the Civil War Lincoln was publicly advocating permitting at least some African Americans to vote. In the last speech he ever gave, on April 11, 1865, he declared:
“It is unsatisfactory to some that the elective franchise is not given to the colored man. I would myself prefer that it were now conferred on the very intelligent, and on those who serve our cause as soldiers.”
That change of mind may have cost Lincoln his life. In the audience that day was actor and fervent Confederate sympathizer, John Wilkes Booth. When he heard Lincoln advocating that blacks be allowed to vote, he exclaimed to a companion:
“That means n- citizenship! Now, by God, I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make.”
Four days later, on April 15, 1865 Booth carried out his threat. In a very real way, Abraham Lincoln was murdered because his killer believed he was not a white supremacist.
Do you think Abraham Lincoln was a racist?
Reconciling the Two Lincolns
Does the man who once said he did not want blacks to have social and political equality, who sometimes referred to them using the n- word, and who actively worked to remove them from the country and ship them to Africa deserve his place on the nation’s highest moral pedestal? How can that Lincoln be reconciled with the larger-than-life humanitarian so revered by most Americans today?
One thing that’s clear from the historical record is that the Lincoln of 1865 was not the Lincoln of 1858. Over that span, his attitude toward African Americans and their place in the life of the nation changed significantly. Let’s take a brief look at some of the factors that contributed to that change.
Being President Changed Lincoln's View of African Americans
As we all do, Abraham Lincoln started life as a person of his time. His early attitudes toward black people were necessarily shaped in large part by those of the people among whom he lived. Most whites thought blacks were inherently inferior. And since most of the black people Lincoln came in contact with in his youth had been degraded by slavery, he initially had little reason to dispute the common view.
But as President, Lincoln got to know African Americans like Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, his wife’s seamstress and confidant Elizabeth Keckley, and the black ministers who called on him in the White House. It was clear that these individuals were morally and intellectually inferior to no one, and Lincoln responded by treating them with the dignity and respect they deserved.
Another factor that helped change Lincoln’s thinking about African Americans was the bravery black soldiers displayed on the battlefield. Most whites had thought them too cowardly to fight. But when the Emancipation Proclamation finally opened the door for black men to enlist in the military, the valor of units like the 54th Massachusetts conclusively exploded that myth.
The Lincoln of 1858 Was Constrained By Political Reality
Many of Lincoln’s statements about race that we find most problematic today were made in the heat of his 1858 senatorial campaign against Stephen Douglas. Had he run as the committed crusader for the rights of African Americans many of his critics, then and now, wanted him to be, he almost certainly would never have become president. As Lincoln scholar Phillip Shaw Paludan notes,
“Lincoln had to skirt very carefully accusations that he was an abolitionist. His constituents would punish him for abolition views . . . He had to avoid sounding like an abolitionist.”
Given the deep-seated prejudices of the voters he sought to persuade, Lincoln felt it necessary to deny that he favored full political and social equality for blacks. But at the same time, he pushed against those prejudices by asserting that black people had the same rights as whites to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Lincoln Came to Believe Blacks and Whites Could Live Together
The reason Lincoln initially advocated colonizing free blacks out of the country was his conviction that rabid racial prejudice on the part of whites would forever preclude the two races living together harmoniously as equals. He explained that belief to a group of black leaders he invited to the White House in August 1862:
"Your race are suffering, in my judgment, the greatest wrong inflicted on any people. But even when you cease to be slaves, you are yet far removed from being placed on an equality with the white race. You are cut off from many of the advantages which the other race enjoy. The aspiration of men is to enjoy equality with the best when free, but on this broad continent, not a single man of your race is made the equal of a single man of ours."
But by December of 1863 Lincoln had given up the colonization idea – he would never again publicly endorse it. And when in 1865 he advocated giving some blacks the right to vote, he was tacitly admitting that African Americans were here to stay, and must be included in the political life of the nation.
Lincoln Came to Respect Black People, But Never Identified With Them
The words Lincoln used in that 1862 meeting with black leaders show a very revealing aspect of his attitude toward African Americans:
“not a single man of your race is made the equal of a single man of ours . . . There is an unwillingness on the part of our people, harsh as it may be, for you free colored people to remain with us.”
Lincoln insisted that in terms of basic human rights, blacks were people and must be treated as such. But it’s also clear that he didn’t consider them his people. Whenever he spoke about African Americans, however respectful he might be, his words and manner always put emotional distance between himself and them.
Lincoln's Attitude Toward Blacks Was What It Had to Be
Frederick Douglass recognized Lincoln’s standoffishness toward African Americans as necessary for him to accomplish what he did. After acknowledging Lincoln in 1865 as “the black man’s President” for his pivotal role in the destruction of slavery, Douglass went on to say in an oration he delivered in 1876:
“Abraham Lincoln was not, in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model. In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man. He was preeminently the white man’s President.”
Douglass did not intend this as a criticism. He understood that for Lincoln to be effective at the task of not only preserving the Union, but also of bringing slavery to an end, he had to identify primarily with the white people he sought to lead. Douglass put it this way:
“I have said that President Lincoln was a white man, and shared the prejudices common to his countrymen towards the colored race. Looking back to his times and to the condition of his country, we are compelled to admit that this unfriendly feeling on his part may be safely set down as one element of his wonderful success in organizing the loyal American people for the tremendous conflict before them, and bringing them safely through that conflict.”
Was Abraham Lincoln a Racist? Yes and No
By the standards of the 21st century, any politician who said some of the things Abraham Lincoln said about African Americans would immediately and rightfully be vilified as the worst kind of white supremacist and racist. But is that the standard by which this man of the 19th century should rightfully be judged? Frederick Douglass, the greatest spokesman for African Americans in that time, would say that it is not.
Douglass believed that Lincoln had to be evaluated not just as a man of his time, but as a man who, in his devotion to the cause of freedom for all people, rose high above most people of his time. Here is Douglass’s summary of how African Americans of Lincoln’s time judged him:
“We saw him, measured him, and estimated him; not by stray utterances to injudicious and tedious delegations . . . not by isolated facts torn from their connection; not by any partial and imperfect glimpses, caught at inopportune moments; but by a broad survey, in the light of the stern logic of great events, and in view of that divinity which shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will, we came to the conclusion that the hour and the man of our redemption had somehow met in the person of Abraham Lincoln.
From the moment the Emancipation Proclamation was announced, African Americans almost universally honored Lincoln as God’s appointed instrument for ending slavery and insuring their freedom. They called him Moses and Father Abraham – some even compared him to Christ – and it would have been beyond comprehension to accuse him of being a racist.
Was Abraham Lincoln a racist? For Frederick Douglass and other African Americans who were Lincoln’s contemporaries and knew him best, that’s the wrong question. For them the only relevant question is, was Abraham Lincoln the man he had to be to accomplish his God-appointed mission of bringing freedom to millions of oppressed people?
And to that question they would most emphatically answer, “yes, he was that man.”
© 2019 Ronald E Franklin