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.
Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, the U. S. senator from Illinois, were engaged in a series of debates across Illinois in 1858. It was something of an odd exercise, because the voters of Illinois would not be voting for either man, but for members of the state legislature, who would choose the next senator. If you take the time to read the entire debates, you might come away wondering why people point to them as models of political discourse. You can find name-calling, mocking, charges and counter-charges, allegations of corruption and misbehavior, and so on. Very few political issues are discussed at all: only slavery is discussed in any depth. That might seem odd, because Illinois was a free state.
Stephen Douglas wanted to sidestep the issue of slavery’s morality. He said he didn’t care whether it was voted up or down. What got him in trouble, however, was the flawed application of his theory of popular sovereignty in Kansas Territory. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 negated the Missouri Compromise’s prohibition of slavery north of 36 degrees 30 minutes N latitude. Instead, the settlers of the territory would determine whether it would be open to slavery. The problem was simple: when would that decision be made? Would it be made in settling up a territorial government? Would it be made at the point a territory applied for statehood?
In the case of Kansas, that didn’t matter. Long story short, proslavery and antislavery/anti-slavery expansion forces clashed for years in Kansas. Douglas found himself in a difficult position. He had thought that the process of popular sovereignty would remove the issue of slavery’s expansion from Congress and place it in the territories; he thought that he was making an abstract concession to southern interests and pride, but that the practical result of popular sovereignty would be to promote free soil expansion and the rapid organization of territorial governments throughout most of the West. He was wrong. Moreover, in 1857 the Supreme Court ruled in Scott v. Sandford (commonly known as the Dred Scott decision) that Congress could not prohibit slavery’s expansion into the territories, and it could not delegate that power to territorial governments, meaning that it would not be until an application for statehood that it would be determined whether the applicant in question wanted to come into the union as a free or slave state.
That decision put Douglas in a terrible position. If he said that slavery could expand throughout the West, white northerners would be upset. Some would protest slavery as being immoral; more accepted slavery where it was, but did not want to see it expand; there were those who thought that slave labor would overpower free labor, and there were those who simply did not want to move west if that meant living alongside black people. In short, many northern whites, for a host of reasons, did not favor slavery’s expansion westward, and they would reject Douglas. On the other hand, if Douglas proposed ways consistent with the court’s ruling whereby settlers could prohibit slavery or make an area so hostile to slavery that no slaveholder would venture there, then the white southerners whose support he so dearly needed as he pursued the presidency would turn their backs on him.
Given that Douglas’s first objective was to assure the election of a Democratic state legislature to secure his reelection to the Senate, he found himself forced to choose the latter option. At the same time, however, he could not simply concede that Lincoln, too, was against slavery’s expansion. Sure, he could paint Lincoln as a rabble-rousing radical whose view of a house divided sparked sectional conflict and perhaps promised war, but that was not enough. Nor could he respond to Lincoln’s discussion of slavery as immoral by saying it was moral, because that would not gain traction with most Illinois voters: instead, he chose a pose of indifference on the morality question. But what he could do, and do with great effect, was to play the race card against Lincoln. If he could portray Lincoln as not simply someone opposed to slavery but also as someone who favored the equality of whites and blacks across the board — biological, legal, political, and social — he could play to the racist attitudes of many Illinois voters, especially those in the swing portion of the state, the middle third (most voters in southern Illinois, having migrated from slaveholding states, tended to side with Douglas anyway on this issue). Play the race card, accuse Lincoln of advocating racial equality, and that might be just enough to draw enough voters to the Democratic column in this closely contested race. There was no doubt, after all, where the senator stood on this issue:
I hold that this Government was made on the white basis, by white men, for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever, and should be administered by white men and none others. I do not believe that the Almighty made the negro capable of self-government. . . .
Now, I say to you, my fellow-citizens, that in my opinion, the signers of the Declaration had no reference to the negro whatever, when they declared all men to be created equal. They desired to express by that phrase white men, men of European birth and European descent, and had no reference either to the negro, the savage Indians, the Fejee, the Malay, or any other inferior and degraded race, when they spoke of the equality of men.
Douglas would not have made this declaration if he did not find it politically advantageous to do so. He did so in the third debate, at Jonesboro, on September 15. Lincoln’s reply that day did not address the issue of racial equality. He preferred to talk about slavery as a political issue. His lone reference to racial equality, ironically, was to remind listeners that one of Douglas’s own supporters, a newspaper editor from DeKalb, had called for equal privileges for blacks, including the right to vote. That Lincoln had the newspaper column in hand and proceeded to quote from it shows that he had prepared for this moment: it also shows that Lincoln himself was not above making charges when it came to which party favored black equality, although most voters knew better, and the argument did not gain traction.
This, as Lincoln traveled from Jonesboro, in the southernmost part of the state, northwards toward the center of the state at Charleston, east of Springfield, he must have done some pondering about how he would open the next debate. The debate format was simple: one speaker would speak for an hour; the other candidate would speak for an hour and a half, and the the opening speaker would close with a rejoinder lasting a half hour. At Charleston it would be Lincoln’s turn to open.
(continued in part two)