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

(here’s part two)

Stephen A. Douglas returned to attacking Lincoln’s views on race in the fifth debate, held at Galesburg on October 7, 1858, emphasizing once more the charge of inconsistency:

Fellow-citizens, here you find men hurraing for Lincoln and saying that he did right, when in one part of the State he stood up for negro equality, and in another part for political effect, discarded the doctrine and declared that there always must be a superior and inferior race. Abolitionists up north are expected and required to vote for Lincoln because he goes for the equality of the races, holding that by the Declaration of Independence the white man and the negro were created equal, and endowed by the Divine law with that equality, and down south he tells the old Whigs, the Kentuckians, Virginians, and Tennesseeans, that there is a physical difference in the races, making one superior and the other inferior, and that he is in favor of maintaining the superiority of the white race over the negro. Now, how can you reconcile those two positions of Mr. Lincoln? He is to be voted for in the south as a pro-slavery man, and he is to be voted for in the north as an Abolitionist. Up here he thinks it is all nonsense to talk about a difference between the races, and says that we must “discard all quibbling about this race and that race and the other race being inferior, and therefore they must be placed in an inferior position.” Down south he makes this “quibble” about this race and that race and the other race being inferior as the creed of his party, and declares that the negro can never be elevated to the position of the white man.

Douglas was playing a shrewd game.  Lincoln distinguished between different sorts of equality.  Douglas did not.  Lincoln did vary in his emphasis according to his audience, although the overall message was the same, taken as a whole: slavery was wrong, blacks and whites should enjoy an equality before the law (civil rights), but when it came to citizenship, office holding, and what people called “social equality,” he did not advocate that, nor did he believe in what one might call a natural equality in physical and mental skills.  He did not pursue those points as Douglas did, because he knew that Douglas was trying to shift the argument away from slavery and onto racial equality.  That’s not all that different from the tactics employed by some modern critics of Lincoln who quote the portion of his remarks at Charleston that suit their agenda.  Lincoln himself highlighted what Douglas was attempting to do during the Galesburg debate:

But the Judge will have it that if we do not confess that there is a sort of inequality between the white and black races, which justifies us in making them slaves, we must, then, insist that there is a degree of equality that requires us to make them our wives. Now, I have all the while taken a broad distinction in regard to that matter; and that is all there is in these different speeches which he arrays here, and the entire reading of either of the speeches will show that that distinction was made. Perhaps by taking two parts of the same speech, he could have got up as much of a conflict as the one he has found. I have all the while maintained, that in so far as it should be insisted that there was an equality between the white and black races that should produce a perfect social and political equality, it was an impossibility. This you have seen in my printed speeches, and with it I have said, that in their right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” as proclaimed in that old Declaration, the inferior races are our equals. And these declarations I have constantly made in reference to the abstract moral question, to contemplate and consider when we are legislating about any new country which is not already cursed with the actual presence of the evil-slavery. I have never manifested any impatience with the necessities that spring from the actual presence of black people amongst us, and the actual existence of slavery amongst us where it does already exist; but I have insisted that, in legislating for new countries, where it does not exist, there is no just rule other than that of moral and abstract right! With reference to those new countries, those maxims as to the right of a people to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” were the just rules to be constantly referred to. There is no misunderstanding this, except by men interested to misunderstand it.

Give Douglas credit for his persistence as you read his response:

Here I understand him to reaffirm the doctrine of negro equality, and to assert that by the Declaration of Independence the negro is declared equal to the white man. He tells you to-day that the negro was included in the Declaration of Independence when it asserted that all men were created equal…. Mr. Lincoln asserts to-day as he did at Chicago, that the negro was included in that clause of the Declaration of Independence which says that all men were created equal and endowed by the Creator with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. If the negro was made his equal and mine, if that equality was established by Divine law, and was the negro’s inalienable right, how came he to say at Charleston to the Kentuckians residing in that section of our State, that the negro was physically inferior to the white man, belonged to an inferior race, and he was for keeping him always in that inferior condition. I wish you to bear these things in mind. At Charleston he said that the negro belonged to an inferior race, and that he was for keeping him in that inferior condition. There he gave the people to understand that there was no moral question involved, because the inferiority being established, it was only a question of degree and not a question of right; here, to-day, instead of making it a question of degree, he makes it a moral question, says that it is a great crime to hold the negro in that inferior condition.

Douglas knew what he was doing.  In the 1850s a majority of northern whites did not believe in racial equality.  That was especially true in places such as Illinois and Indiana.  Much like slaveholders to the south, he wanted his listeners to understand that should slavery end, whites would find themselves dealing with black people on an everyday basis.  Unlike Lincoln, he did not offer the alternative of colonization as a way to rid the republic of both slavery and an emancipated population of African Americans.  Rather, he believed that the issue of slavery should be left to popular vote (by whites, of course) in each state or territory which aspired to be admitted as a state.  That adherence to local decision-making removed the issue from Washington, and would allow someone like Douglas to claim that he didn’t care whether slavery was voted up or down, so long as it was done democratically.  Douglas was unabashed in his racism, and he saw no problem in broadcasting it.  He would not have done so if he did not believe it was politically advantageous for him to do so, whether it be for an Illinois audience, a southern audience, or a national audience.

(continue to part four)

6 thoughts on “What Lincoln Said at Charleston … in Context (part three)

  1. Richard McCormick February 12, 2011 / 7:25 am

    “blacks and whites should enjoy an equality before the law (civil rights), but when it came to citizenship, office holding, and what people called “social equality, he did not advocate that”

    I’m enjoying this series of posts, but what is the difference between “civil rights” and “citizenship?” Forgive me if I’m missing something obvious.

    • Brooks D. Simpson February 13, 2011 / 11:54 pm

      Lincoln drew this distinction: I think that when they were using the term citizenship, that included full equality on the political process. After the war, people would draw distinctions between civil rights and political rights, as well as state versus federal citizenship.

  2. Mark February 12, 2011 / 12:25 pm

    Very good blog, but Douglas was not playing just a “shrewd game” he was play a murderous one, as he would later figure out. He sold his soul to the devil, and he bought the ticket during the debates against Lincoln.

    To say Lincoln distinguished between different sorts of equality is misleading. Lincoln’s goal was to stop the SPREAD of slavery, as mandated by Dred Scott’s corrupt and vile “decision.” Lincoln’s first task was to show that blacks were human.

    We forget this today, but in effect, the Dred Scott decision, and the sentiment behind it, stated that blacks were not even human — they were property, and nothing but property. Dred Scott justice Taney wrote that blacks were SO inferior, that not only could no reasonable person possibly suppose they where “men” in the sense of “all men are created equal” — but they could not be given rights of men, by any state, by any Congress.

    Its astonishing — and telling — that NO US text book even mentions that Dred Scott decision says blacks are SO inferior, that NO one could possibly imagine that they were “men” in the sense of “all men created equal”. Instead of this putrid corruption, we tell our children that Dred Scott was about “citizenship”. Talk about a sick white washing -this is it.

    The goal of this vile decision was not merely to declare blacks as non-human in eyes of the law (which it did), but to make it impossible to prevent the spread of slavery into the territories (it did that too). That was the big enchilada, to Lincloln, that was the whole issue. Will slavery spread or not. The Dred Scott decision made it literally impossible, short of a war or a Constitutional Amendment, to stop the spread of slavery.

    In the end, it took both — a war AND a Constitutional Amendment, to undo the worst corruption of judicial power in US history — the Dred Scott decision.

    SO every sentence, every word, spoken by Lincoln and Douglas were impacted by this issue — the spread of slavery. When Lincoln said blacks may not be equal in all things (he mentioned color as one that we are not equal in) he ceded to the bigots and racist that IF we can not admit to being equal in all things – we ARE equal in all the rights of the Declaration of Independence, which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

    In a very real since, Lincoln’s entire life after the Dred Scott decision, was his own tenacous fight against it — and he won. The country won. And the world won. But it was a very, very tough fight, one that started in the Lincoln Douglas debates.

    Slaves were not human in eyes of the law — they were property, no different than a pile of lumber or a cow.

    Pandering to this mind set is how Douglas adhered to for his own selfish ambition. He made excuses for this vile corruption, claiming “states will decide”. In the end, of course, the Southern leaders even abandoned any pretense of states rights, when they issued their Ultimatums that states and territories could NOT decide for themselves — but that was yet to come.

    Lincoln’s first job was to establish the humanity of the slave. If Lincoln could not establish that, all was lost. He had to raise the consciousness of the public.

    The non- humanity of blacks was the mind set adopted by Slave owners and their representatives in Congress and the judiciary. In fact, the President, Buchanan, also adopted this foul reasoning. All of them, including Douglas, backed the “logic” of Dred Scott decision. Lincoln had to fix that.

    By the way, Jefferson Davis wrote that Lincoln speaking out against the Dred Scott decision was “the intolerable grievance” that mandated secession and the civil war. THAT is how powerful and important the Dred Scott decision was to the South — to even speak against it, meant secession and war.

    So when Lincoln spoke, he could not show contempt and hatred for the sentiments of most of the public he was speaking to. He was trying to win votes. He was trying to get elected. He could not say “You vile evil mindless sheep — wake up to the evils of slavery and the the goal of slave power — to spread slavery”

    Lincoln would have likely been shot much sooner had he been candid and honest much sooner. No, he had to play word games with men like Douglas. Lincoln had to pacify the general belief at the time, that blacks were deeply inferior, but he also had to appeal logically and emotionally that they had rights of all men.

    Unless we realize that, we don’t understand not just the Lincoln Douglas debates, but the whole question of slavery, and the entire history of our country from 1876 -1865.

    • Kevin February 12, 2011 / 6:49 pm

      You said: “Its astonishing — and telling — that NO US text book even mentions that Dred Scott decision says blacks are SO inferior, that NO one could possibly imagine that they were “men” in the sense of “all men created equal”. Instead of this putrid corruption, we tell our children that Dred Scott was about “citizenship”. Talk about a sick white washing -this is it.”

      Do you realize how ridiculous you sound? I can point to scores of high school and college textbooks that cover the Dred Scot decision in detail and emphasize the ruling in the case. Instead of making generalization after generalization how about trying to find one piece of evidence for your claims. Your comments are way off the deep end.

    • lunchcountersitin February 14, 2011 / 2:19 pm

      Dred Scott justice Taney wrote that blacks were SO inferior, that not only could no reasonable person possibly suppose they where “men” in the sense of “all men are created equal” — but they could not be given rights of men, by any state, by any Congress.

      Technically, this is incorrect. The Dred Scott decision declared that blacks could not be recognized as citizens of the United States. However, blacks could be recognized as citizens of any one of the several states.

      Thus, blacks could be given any range of citizenship rights that were given to whites in a particular state, if the state so wished. However, those rights were particular to a specific state; there were no US citizen rights that a black person could claim, and the rights granted to a negro in his prior state of residence could not be claimed if he moved to a different state.

  3. srogouski October 30, 2015 / 6:26 pm

    Douglas was a race baiting asshole but I also find that Lincoln’s strategy in the Charleston debate (to amplify Trumbull’s accusations about Douglas and the Toombs Bill) obfuscated more than it clarified.

    Lincoln was being too clever by half in this debate. He knew that Douglas helped killed the Lecompton Constitution and actually was as good as his word on “popular sovereignty.”

    Let Lincoln also didn’t want to come out as an abolitionist, or even a radical Republican. So he concentrated on a very narrow conspiracy theory from 2 years before the Charleston debate and hammered away.

    I think the real issue, to take a Marxist view, is that Douglas and Lincoln were both petty bourgeois democrats. They both wanted to defend the rights of the small capitalist, not the working class (which at the time in the United States was mostly black).

    So they both wound up saying some pretty nasty stuff about black people.

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