What Lincoln Said at Charleston … in Context (part one)

People anxious to portray Abraham Lincoln as a racist quote with gusto a portion of his remarks during the fourth Lincoln-Douglas debate at Charleston, Illinois, on September 18, 1858, where he said:

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.

There it is, plain as day. Lincoln asserts that “there is a physical difference” between whites and blacks that he believes “will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality,” and, given that fact, he is “in favor” of assigning “the superior position … to the white race.”  (By the way, Harold Holzer’s edition of the debates notes no difference between the accounts of these remarks offered by the Democratic Chicago Times or the Republican Chicago Tribune.)

Now, if we left it there–as so many people do–one would easily conclude that Lincoln harbored racial prejudices and believed in white supremacy, although the last sentence is a fairly roundabout way of saying that.

And that would not be very good history, although it would be an incomplete history and at best a partial understanding.

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