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

(here is part one)

Lincoln opened the debate at Charleston, and he wasted little time in addressing what he wanted to say about his views on racial equality.

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.

Those people who quote this passage as indicative of Lincoln’s racial attitudes often leave out what came next:

I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied every thing. I do not understand that because I do not want a negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. My understanding is that I can just let her alone. I am now in my fiftieth year, and I certainly never have had a black woman for either a slave or a wife. So it seems to me quite possible for us to get along without making either slaves or wives of negroes. I will add to this that I have never seen, to my knowledge, a man, woman or child who was in favor of producing a perfect equality, social and political, between negroes and white men.

In short, one could argue against both slavery and racial equality, and the concept of equality had several components.

The remainder of Lincoln’s comments at Charleston, however, proved far less compelling, involving as they did the sort of convoluted charge and counter-charge that the two candidates often indulged in, pertaining to matters of Illinois politics.  Douglas briefly noted Lincoln’s statement about racial equality …

Mr. Lincoln simply contented himself at the outset by saying, that he was not in favor of social and political equality between the white man and the negro, and did not desire the law so changed as to make the latter voters or eligible to office. I am glad that I have at last succeeded in getting an answer out of him upon this question of negro citizenship and eligibility to office, for I have been trying to bring him to the point on it ever since this canvass commenced.

… and then moved on.  He referred to Lincoln’s supporters as “Black Republicans” and made mention of black speakers, including Frederick Douglass, all the while presenting himself as a statesman of compromise.  Finally he returned to his old assertion.

Lincoln maintains there that the Declaration of Independence asserts that the negro is equal to the white man, and that under Divine law, and if he believes so it was rational for him to advocate negro citizenship, which, when allowed, puts the negro on an equality under the law. I say to you in all frankness, gentlemen, that in my opinion a negro is not a citizen, cannot be, and ought not to be, under the Constitution of the United States. I will not even qualify my opinion to meet the declaration of one of the Judges of the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott case, “that a negro descended from African parents, who was imported into this country as a slave is not a citizen, and cannot be.” I say that this Government was established on the white basis. It was made by white men, for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever, and never should be administered by any except white men. I declare that a negro ought not to be a citizen, whether his parents were imported into this country as slaves or not, or whether or not he was born here. It does not depend upon the place a negro’s parents were born, or whether they were slaves or not, but upon the fact that he is a negro, belonging to a race incapable of self-government, and for that reason ought not to be on an equality with white men.

Lincoln started his rebuttal by returning to this issue of blacks as citizens, flatly stating, “I am not in favor of negro citizenship.”

Douglas would repeat what Lincoln said about racial equality at Charleston in debates to come, usually in support of his claim that Lincoln varied his remarks according to location.  There was some truth to this, but far less truth to the ensuing charge of inconsistency.  Douglas knew better, and by the time of the final debate, he had heard Lincoln’s explanation enough times.  He simply chose not to accept it.  He knew that when it came to Illinois voters, shifting the issue from slavery to race tilted the scales in his favor.

(continue to part three)

7 thoughts on “What Lincoln Said at Charleston … in Context (part two)

  1. Mark February 11, 2011 / 8:55 am

    LIncoln spoke in an era when demagogues had inflamed hate and fear to a fever pitch. Stephen Douglas sought fame and fortune by being being part of that demagoguery.

    Lincoln’s goal of course, was to first just stop the SPREAD of slavery. And he had to somehow deflect the hate mongering to do it.

    Douglas and others tried to paint Lincoln as “N-Lover” who wanted chaos, race wars, slave rebellion, and worse — white women to “be with” black men.

    So when Lincoln got up to speak, in Charleston or Quincy or Peoria, or later in Washington, he had to be careful. Lincoln had to placate the crazies, because he was running for office, not giving sermons. He was trying to win votes.

    It is not astonishing that Lincoln had to measure his prose, to be careful how he said things — the astonishing thing is how powerful Lincoln’s speeches were against slavery.

    Lincoln haters today simply pick out the parts where Lincoln would validate his opponent’s position. For example, Lincoln would say “blacks and whites may not be equal.” but then in the next sentence, Lincoln would say what they are not equal in . We are not equal in color, he would say. PERHAPS we are not equal in intelligence- Lincoln haters quote that, often leaving out the “perhaps”.

    But then Lincoln haters never quote the next part — where Lincoln would emphaticallly declare we are ALL equal in the rights in the Declaration of INdpendence, and any black man or woman is equal to Judge Douglas or myself. Lincoln even said slave owners (those who see blacks as merchandise) should be kicked to DEATH.

    Not kicked to unconsciousness, not kicked to stop slavery — kicked to death. An astonishingly brutal metaphor. It’s revealing about Lincoln that as soon as he could — that is exactly what he did, kicked slavery to death. He could have ended the war sooner, he could have left 13th Amendement fail. He could have done what many wanted him to — end the war, and let slavery be decided “later”.

    It is simply cowardly of the Lincoln haters to run away from Lincoln’s full quotes, but that is a routine and well practiced art by the haters.

    Plus — they not only ignore Lincolns full quotes and clear meaning, they naturally are afraid to examine honestly how Lincoln then kicked slavery to death, and would not stop kicking until it was dead.

    For example, they tell you about the EP “not freeing a single slave” (utter nonsense, it freed about 4 million). But they do not tell you that Lincoln simulateously was working as fast as possible on the 13th Amendment AND kicking asp in the war to bring about a permanent end to slavery.

    For a profoundly wise explanation of Lincoln, and what he was up against, see Frederick Douglass speech of 1876. Douglass said ” measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined. ”

    And Lincoln haters know it. That is why they hate Lincoln. He was swift, zealous, determined, and he kicked their asp. They are still crying about it, 150 years later.


    • glennart June 6, 2015 / 5:01 am

      You are using the same tactic you ascribe to the ‘Lincoln haters’ ie: cherry picking quotes out of context. You might also like to clarify what a ‘Lincoln hater’ is. I hope you would exclude revisionist historians who are seeking a balance which is currently difficult to establish, from that derogatory term.

    • Turner July 13, 2015 / 11:37 am

      Trying to gloss over Lincoln’s obvious belief in white supremacy by making it sound like a political tactic to thwart cries that he was sympathetic to “negroes” completely ignores his later discussions on the issue, which are quite clear. He even went as far as to say to a group of prominent African American men “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 our race.” ANd that was AFTER the war had begun, no forget about making this a “political speech.

      He was a racist. Deal with it, and chip his face off Mount Rushmore if you wish, but quit being his apologist.

      • Kristoffer November 2, 2015 / 6:20 pm

        No, he wasn’t. Notice the words “made the equal”. If he believed blacks were inferior, he would have said “the equal”. “Made the equal” clearly indicates that blacks were not being made equals. You can guess why, and you can guess that Lincoln was not being racist. He was describing that the racism of others was denying black equality.

  2. Paul_Revere January 11, 2013 / 2:07 pm

    I still fail to see where any of your excuse-making absolves Abraham Lincoln of being any less racist than David Duke by any standard, today’s or yesteryear’s.

    • Brooks D. Simpson January 11, 2013 / 7:17 pm

      Well, “Paul,” I think you confuse providing context and explanation with making excuses. As you seem to be rather familiar with David Duke’s racial views, perhaps you can elaborate on your point.

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