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)