Truth v. Myth: President Lincoln, Slavery, and Racism

One of the most damaging myths about American history is that Abraham Lincoln was a terrible president. That he was a racist who loved slavery, and worked hard to keep the Civil War from ending it. That Abraham Lincoln was a pro-slavery weasel whom black Americans should scorn and whose memory we should all trample in the dust.

I will stamp out this malevolent myth about Lincoln in a series of posts. To help me, I will lean heavily on the great historian David Potter, and his invaluable book The Impending Crisis: 1848-1861, and just about drown in the fantastic, should-be-required-reading-for-all-Americans Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America, by Allen Guelzo.

To get to the truth about Lincoln, we have to go back to his statements and personal thoughts about slavery when he was on the road campaigning in Illinois to win the 1858 senate race against Stephen Douglas.

When Lincoln and Douglas spoke to the people, and debated each other, slavery was a major topic. Douglas had a typical “moderate” position on slavery: since black people were not the equal of white people, black people had to be kept in check somehow. Slavery took that too far; there was no need to enslave black people. But when it came to figuring out exactly what else to do to keep them in line, Douglas had no real ideas. He was willing to grant black people their freedom as a gift, rather than a real right, but he was in no hurry to do so, since there didn’t seem to be a clear way to keep black people in order once they were free. Douglas firmly stated that black Americans were not equal to white, and that black people ought to be treated with the charity one gives to inferior beings. “To a man who, as Lincoln observed, had ‘no very vivid impression that the Negro is a human,’ slavery did not appear either as a great moral issue or as an agonizing dilemma. The most important thing about it was to avoid a violent national quarrel about it…” [Potter, 340-341, 342].

Lincoln knew slavery was wrong. He knew that the reason the Founders didn’t put the word “slavery” into the Constitution was because they were ashamed of it and hoped that slavery would die, or, as Lincoln put it, they “intended and expected the ultimate extinction” of slavery. Lincoln believed black people were the equals of white people. “Let us discard all this quibbling about [this] race and that race and the other race being inferior… Let us discard all these things and unite as one people throughout this land until we shall once more stand up declaring that all men are created equal.” (Ibid., 342-3] Lincoln also believed slavery could not be allowed to spread, and that containing it would indeed set it on a course to die.

But then, like many Americans at the time, Lincoln ran into problems. Like the Founders, he believed that the existence of the United States was crucial to the quotient of good in the world. Lincoln believed he was obligated to live with slavery on this basis, waiting for it to die on its own. He also didn’t know how black people could be integrated into white American society. He did not believe black and white people could live peacefully together, not after hundreds of years of slavery had driven them so far apart. Lincoln felt that black people would never be given their full rights as Americans. He knew that there was no point in “[freeing black Americans] and [keeping] them among us as underlings.” Therefore, he decided the only solution was to send all the black people in America back to Africa, “their own native land.” This despite the fact that America was their own native land.

So Lincoln aspired to high ideals, and knew intellectually that black and white people were equal, but in his daily life and habits he was he was not ready to end slavery or begin the work of racial integration in the United States. And when he was addressing racist audiences during his senate campaign, he ramped up the racism in his own comments, assuring people he would never want to see blacks living equally with whites, and that the U.S. was a nation by and for whites alone.

What makes this man admirable? The fact that he grew increasingly irritated with his own inconsistency, and that he changed. In 1858, he believed that black people were equal to white people, but when it came down to visualizing a truly mixed and equal society, he just couldn’t see it, and didn’t want to risk trying it for fear of civil war. He believed what he said when he told his audiences that black and white people shared a common humanity. But nothing in his life in America had prepared him to live in a truly just, racially equal society.

Unlike Douglas, and most other Americans, however, Lincoln couldn’t rest with this attitude. He struggled with it. In his private papers, he wrote this: “If A can prove… that he may, of right, enslave B.—why may not B snatch the same argument, and prove equally, that he may enslave A? –You say A. is white, and B. is black. It is color, then; the lighter having the right to enslave the darker? Take care. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with a fairer skin than your own. You do not mean color exactly? –You mean the whites are intellectually the superiors of the blacks, and therefore have the right to enslave them? Take care again. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with an intellect superior to your own. But, say you, it is a question of interest; and if you can make it your interest, you have the right to enslave another. Very well. And if he can make it his interest, he has the right to enslave you.”

As Potter points out, “Here, clearly, Lincoln saw blacks and white together, caught indiscriminately in the web of injustice which society often weaves. …it was only random chance which had made him free and made [blacks] slave.” [Ibid., 352-3]

So Lincoln was conflicted between an ideal and reality. The ideal—all people are equal, and brothers and sisters. The reality—he was uncomfortable living that out with actual black people. This is hardly surprising. Think of your own lofty ideals and how you fall short in living them out. Americans believe in justice and democracy, yet very few have done much to stop the imprisonments of Americans and others at Guantanamo Bay, the torture carried out by our soldiers, or the crimes committed in America’s name by private contractors in Iraq. Many Americans who know that racial profiling is wrong, and who would yell if it were applied to them, still can’t quite bring themselves to condemn it when it is applied to others, particularly olive-skinned men wearing turbans at the airport.  We all fall short of living out our ideals.

So do we hand Lincoln a big prize for falling short of his ideals? No. And if he had stopped there, he would not be the great man that he was and the American hero that he is. But he didn’t stop there. What makes Lincoln admirable at this point is what he did next: he kept thinking about his inconsistency, and he changed his position. He started out racist and changed. He started out wishy-washy on slavery and he changed.

We all start out with prejudices; that is part of growing up in any human society. If we live out our lives with those prejudices, we are not admirable. But if we can come to realize that prejudice is unjust, we can change, and become better people, and that is admirable. Lincoln was still racist in 1858. But he was not racist by 1861. That profound change is what makes Lincoln someone we can respect  and, more to the point, emulate.

Slavery mattered to Lincoln. His own inconsistency on race mattered to him. Having to talk publicly in political debates about slavery and race, and hearing himself waffle on both, forced Lincoln to resolve his ambiguity. Potter sums this up so well:

“The difference between Lincoln and Douglas… was that Douglas did not believe that slavery really mattered very much, because he did not believe that Negroes had enough human affinity with him to make it necessary to concern himself with them. Lincoln, on the contrary, believed that slavery mattered, because he recognized a human affinity with blacks which made their plight a necessary matter of concern to him. This does not mean that his position was logically consistent or that he was free of prejudice. …In a very real sense his position was ambiguous. …And, one must add, an ambiguous position is by definition one in which opposing values conflict with one another. It is hard to believe that, in Lincoln’s case, the conflicting values were really of equal force. …By a static analysis, Lincoln was a mild opponent of slavery and a moderate defender of racial discrimination. By a dynamic analysis, he held a concept of humanity which impelled him inexorably in the direction of freedom and equality.” (my italics) [Ibid., 354]

Lincoln had conflicting values, like most of us. Unlike most of us, he came pretty quickly to see that this was completely unacceptable, and he acted decisively to end slavery and to successfully integrate the United States after the war. That was in 1862, when he wrote the Emancipation Proclamation.

Next post: The Emancipation Proclamation WAS the end of slavery in the U.S.

7 thoughts on “Truth v. Myth: President Lincoln, Slavery, and Racism

  1. i think what is most important to understand is that even the most liberal of thinkers in the 1850s/1860s, is a far cry from the most conservative thinking now.

    it is extremely difficult to put the ideas of the 21st century into the thinking of the 19th century. before we can really judge the thoughts of Lincoln, or Douglass, or anybody for that matter, it’s important to know that most progressive thinking of that era, would be seen as ultra-conservative today.


  2. What about Lincoln not freeing the slaves in the NORTH? What about Lincoln asking blacks to relocate to Chiriqui, Panama or Liberia? Or how about the fact that he is quoated many times stating that blacks were inferior. I guess you missed all those facts. The EP wasn’t the end of slavery because it continued to exist in the North, where he had control.


  3. Hello Southern Satirist. Lincoln did not free enslaved people in the North because there were none—all the northern states had abolished slavery themselves before Lincoln took office. So in the states where he had control, there was no slavery to abolish. I note elsewhere that Lincoln did originally want black Americans to leave the country and go “back” to Africa. This was because he believed what many Americans believe to this day: that the legacy of slavery would make it impossible for black Americans to ever be treated equally or to forgive white Americans. But by the time he wrote the EP he had dropped that notion, partly because the black American leaders he invited to the White House to promote the idea told him firmly that they would not leave their country. Finally, Lincoln did make statements about black inferiority. By the time he wrote the EP, he had renounced those statements. To accuse him of prejudice based on those comments that he renounced is specious. One has to allow for real changes of thought, which Lincoln certainly experienced. We all start out with different prejudices, which we hopefully overcome. Once we have done so, it’s unfair to point out what we said before our self-improvement.


    1. thehistoricpresent,

      Not only are your opinions skewed, but so are your facts. There were indeed slaves in the North and Lincoln unequivocally denounced Africa Americans as being equal to white. He did not once waiver on his opinions about slavery and he expressed them clearly in his Emancipation Proclamation. He simply found that abolishing slavery in the Southern states that had seceded was the only way he could ensure a victory in his war of aggression. The Southern states were well within their rights, guaranteed to them by the Declaration of Independence, to secede because of the economic oppression forced upon them by the greedy and tyrannical Federal Government. It is simply undeniable and factual that President Lincoln trampled on the very Constitution he took an oath to uphold by suspending Habeus Corpus, against the direct order of a Supreme Court Judge who declared his act unconstitutional. Since you profess to know the facts, you should be well aware that the President, at that time, had no power to suspend Habeus Corpus, that could only be done by an act of Congress which came many years later. He also trampled the 1st and 2nd Amendments by silencing the press, forbidding telegraphic communications and refusing certain border states the right to bear arms all because they stood in opposition of a war that was completely unnecessary. In what part of the universe do you dare call this man admirable or noble? He used his power to wage war on non-combatants, permitted the rape, pillage and plundering, and burning of entire cities not to mention endorsing the murder of innocent civilians in both the North and the South. He was corrupt in every sense of the word through both his words and actions. He will be forever remembered, but not as the Father of Freedom or Equality, but as the Perpetrator of Injustice and Tyranny. “Big Government” was not the answer then and is certainly is not the answer now. Ironically, it is now the Northern states that are realizing the detriments of Government intrusion into matters that should only be decided by individual states. President Lincoln did not unite a nation with his actions, he forever divided a nation; a nation that would never again, without the disastrous consequences of a second civil war, “be of the people, by the people, and for the people”. I congratulate him on managing to violate every aspect of our Founding Fathers intentions and on dividing a country forever. Rather than singing his praises, you should take a knee and pray that one day the damage he caused to the very heart and soul of what this country once stood for will not remain lost to future generations forever.


      1. Hello; thanks for writing. It’s hard to list all the claims you make that I’d like to see verification of. There were indeed slaves in the north before the northern states passed personal liberty laws outlawing it. What opinion on slavery is expressed in the EP? Of course, the EP did not abolish slavery in the Confederacy, so I’m not clear on how he abolished slavery in the states that seceded. It goes on and on from there; I can only wish you good luck in your further research, which hopefully will include some book that begins to establish some clarity and reality in your view of the past.


      2. None of what you said is true. Lincoln very clearly did not accept slavery. He fell into the trap of obfuscating his true views to get elected. The reality is that his views on slavery never changed; he believe it against nature and against the will of the Founders. Also the President has the power to do whatever is needed to protect the country in a time of war, thus his actions are in line with American tradition. Congress later ratified his choices once they came together. The claim of the “Right of Secession” cannot come from the Declaration of Independence as it is not a law, but a formal break in ties with the English crown.


  4. If Lincoln is condemned as A Racist for believing what almost all white people believed at the time, that they were ‘superior’ to black people, why aren’t the many slaves who believed they were inferior to white people (as many did) also condemned as ‘racist’?
    Judging those in the barrel going over the Niagara Falls of history is very easy, and good fun no doubt, but not history.


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