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.

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)

11 thoughts on “What Lincoln Said at Charleston … in Context (part one)

  1. John Stoudt January 29, 2011 / 7:14 pm

    After reading this entry I wondered why do Confederate heritage folks say nothing (let alone nothing bad) about Stephen Douglas? By April, 1860, at the DNC in Charleston, SC, Douglas was one of — if not the most — vilified and hated Northerners in the South (after John Brown, of course).

    But, Douglas has been forgotten, and those who could hate him may not know enough about him to care. Too bad, that.

    Your thoughts?

    • David Christian Newton May 16, 2016 / 6:07 pm

      My side lost two brothers from the 96th Volunteer Infantry Regiment of Pennsylvania. We also lost five on the Confederate side of eleven who served in the military. There were nine others who served in middling to somewhat high civilian positions.
      We, with a few exceptions, despise both Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas to this day, as do my children and grandchildren. The War Between the States was a useless exercise in human derangement and had little to nothing to do with Slavery or the Negro condition or position.

      Politicians have used the Black Man and all about him for a political ping-pong ball for lo these many years, and to no avail for either race. The Indians, at least, wound up with their Casinos. A way, perhaps of saying…,.”Everybody loses.”

  2. A.J. Hadley January 8, 2013 / 12:33 pm

    It was a different time. Part of that difference was the availability, dissemination, and control of information and its vastly different evolution to today’s almost instantaneous acquisition. While he vanished from popular culture he certainly didn’t vanish from history and we are lucky to have people like yourself to bring forth these sometimes almost incredible realities and replace them where they belong in our collective knowledge. Thank you for your efforts.

  3. Z Y Dezelle March 28, 2014 / 10:57 pm

    OK, so Lincoln was a white supremacist. He was no different than many white people in 19th century America. We don’t have the same perspective now of the two races that he had but all acknowledgment should be made, that during his time he was not alone in his views.

    Any attempt to vilify him for commonly held opinions of the time, demands that we vilify everyone who held the same sentiments, lest we be inconsistent and therefore hypocrites. The same can also be said in the reverse. If there be those who want to condemn anybody BUT Lincoln for racist views, they lend themselves out to be hypocrites or at the very least ignorant. They may even be inclined to show outright obstinate denial because of their admiration for the man. Denial of his racist views are futile, as there is evidence enough to admit to it.

    Whatever kind of cat and mouse game Douglas used to entice Lincoln to speak on the subject, was not to “out” him as a racist. That kind of tactic would be far too advanced for a society that had not intellectually evolved beyond where they were, as it pertains to opinions of race and any hopes for equality there of. That kind of strategy is a contemporary one. A strategy that would have better traction today, to frame a candidate as “un-electable”.

    Douglas wanted to gain a response from Lincoln. It worked. Lincoln responded. I doubt it was the intent of Douglas to instigate a debate with Lincoln about his racist views, with the hope of ruining him politically. Douglas himself would be ruined during he same debate. That political strategy would have to wait over 100 years before it would have any followers. Nor was Douglas such a visionary, that he would conduct such a debate solely for the entertainment of unborn future historians (it has been a result). I doubt he could be so clairvoyant as to lay down such a trap for Lincoln to walk into. Douglas could not foretell, that the social norms of their day would change and by using Lincoln’s own words, could create such historic rhetoric, that would ruin the man in the government school system of today. Lincoln is safe, it will never make it there anyway. Those types of facts are reserved for adults to find on there own. They won’t be gifted to the children of our nation. Douglas had no such futuristic plot to ruin Lincoln as any kind of a civil rights leader or abolitionist for us now to adore.

    Although American history as taught to children since the war, does allow us do admire and even adore Lincoln into adulthood, in conflict, the furtherance of ones understanding beyond the government school version, does not allow us to consider him an abolitionist or cilvil rights advocate. It’s only when one becomes an adult and only by forage, will you find testimonies by William Lloyd Garrison and Horace Greeley, that Abe Lincoln WAS NOT their man for abolition. A testimony from Frederick Douglas, that Lincoln WAS NOT HIS MAN for civil rights, is kept from the student reader of today as well. As a child and only being offered certain, limited and hand picked facts with which to past a history test, does not do American history any justice or the child. It does however do the North and Abe Lincoln every conceivable good.

    The debate that Douglas brought about, was an attempt to show Lincoln as being an inconsistent, hypocritical, “flip flopper”, willing to walk both sides of the fence, depending upon which side the people lived that he was pandering to. Typical politician. Douglas is accusing Lincoln of being insincere and disingenuous, therefore not worthy of the people’s trust. In his taunting of Lincoln, some thoughts and or expressions from Lincoln came forth. Lincoln indulgently responded to Douglas and in doing so, could allow the politically correct thought police of our day, to cast Lincoln down the death drain of condemnation. It will never happen, as this action is almost exclusively reserved for Southerns, even those of the slave-less majority of the South.

    Racism, slavery, slave owners nor the New England – Trans Atlantic Save Trade, was ever mentioned in our school, therefore it did not exist, so there is nothing to tell. What a different dimension our nation’s history takes when one gathers up the omitted facts as adults.

    Lincoln is a protected species in the government version of American history. He most certainly was protected from any involvement pertaining to the subject matter in this forum when I was growing up. It was never even approached, let alone any documented quotes from the man being offered, that would enable the American student to have a more comprehensive understanding of their own American God, Abe Lincoln.

    It’s a good thing we were kept ignorant, his falling from grace could undermine our pride in the section of the country that took over the country. We wouldn’t want a country full of malcontents now would we? I doubt this will be posted.

    • Brooks D. Simpson March 29, 2014 / 12:34 pm

      Well, Thomas, this statement needs a bit of explication from you:

      Douglas wanted to gain a response from Lincoln. It worked. Lincoln responded. I doubt it was the intent of Douglas to instigate a debate with Lincoln about his racist views, with the hope of ruining him politically. Douglas himself would be ruined during he same debate. That political strategy would have to wait over 100 years before it would have any followers. Nor was Douglas such a visionary, that he would conduct such a debate solely for the entertainment of unborn future historians (it has been a result). I doubt he could be so clairvoyant as to lay down such a trap for Lincoln to walk into. Douglas could not foretell, that the social norms of their day would change and by using Lincoln’s own words, could create such historic rhetoric, that would ruin the man in the government school system of today. Lincoln is safe, it will never make it there anyway. Those types of facts are reserved for adults to find on there own. They won’t be gifted to the children of our nation. Douglas had no such futuristic plot to ruin Lincoln as any kind of a civil rights leader or abolitionist for us now to adore.

      Douglas knew exactly what he was doing. He played the race card on Lincoln. He wanted Illinois voters to see Lincoln as a racial egalitarian. That would not play well with voters from Illinois, especially in the southern part of the state. Lincoln’s response differentiated between his hatred of slavery and his views about race. Most people who quote (only part) of his response want to demonstrate that because Lincoln harbored racial prejudices (true) the conflict was not somehow over slavery (false). Lincoln’s comment did not hurt him at the time nearly as much as it did in some corners down the road.

  4. Z Y Dezelle March 30, 2014 / 7:02 pm

    I again read the background information that you posted on the subject and I have a better understanding of your overview response to my post. Yes, I would have to agree that Douglas knew what he was doing and was on him TIGHT! He just wouldn’t let it go. I think that both gentlemen were quite gifted in the “art of politics” and I can’t make a distinction who’s the more wily. What a wrestling match. For every move there is a countermove. How these guys ever got any sleep is beyond me. Maybe they didn’t. That jus too much stress. That’s no kind of a life. Fielding accusations and giving the best calculated response possible, is too much drama to suite my preferred lifestyle. It’s fun as an occasional pastime on a forum such as this but to do it full time? No, I’d rather just do it here semi-part time. Thanks Mr. Simpson.

  5. bkeating51 April 5, 2016 / 8:26 pm

    As I look back upon my early education in the 60s, it has become increasing clear to me that we did not learn of the great men who were responsible for the creation and preservation of this Republic. We learned only of their myths that had been preserved over the years.

    I found it very hard to read Mr. Lincoln’s statement supporting the idea of white supremacy, but there it is and it must be dealt with. The only excuse, if it can be called one, lies with the possibility that Mr. Lincoln was saying without sincerity what had to be said to give him electoral success.

    There is here also a parallel with the Emancipation Proclamation. We are initially taught that with this document Mr. Lincoln freed the slaves. Sometime after that we come across the fact that this noble document only freed the slaves in the Confederate States and not in the Union.

    Further down the road, we may discover that the proclamation did not even free the slaves in the border states of Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky and Missouri. Mr. Lincoln could not afford to lose their political backing in the upcoming election.

    To excuse such behavior because it was commonly believed at the time is to do injustice to all the abolitionists who thought otherwise. Even Alexander Hamilton some eighty years before had documented in his voluminous writings that he did not believe the race to be inferior to the white.

    So our imperfect teachers never gave us the knowledge of the imperfections of our country’s founders. Do I think that we should demolish the Lincoln Memorial? No, not at all.

    • Brooks D. Simpson May 2, 2016 / 10:30 am

      Interesting that you’ve just discovered what most of us knew all along about the Emancipation Proclamation. What this has to do with the subject of the post is another issue. Given that elsewhere you think that challenging white supremacy harms race relations, and you deplore that, we have a really good idea where you’re coming from.

      • bkeating51 May 2, 2016 / 12:04 pm

        We’re sorry, but the Statute of Limitations on responses to this Comment has been run.

        • Brooks D. Simpson May 2, 2016 / 2:06 pm

          Good try. Ain’t your blog. Bye. Take your white privilege and enjoy Hicksville.

          But you are right about one thing … you’re sorry. Pathetic, even.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s