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

(continue from part three)

Both Lincoln and Douglas reiterated their positions on slavery and race for the remaining two debates.  In the sixth debate, held at Quincy on October 13, Lincoln set forth his position once more:

It was in our first meeting, at Ottawa-and I will say a word about where it was, and the atmosphere it was in, after awhile-but at our first meeting, at Ottawa, I read an extract from an old speech of mine, made nearly four years ago, not merely to show my sentiments, but to show that my sentiments were long entertained and openly expressed; in which extract I expressly declared that my own feelings would not admit a social and political equality between the white and black races, and that even if my own feelings would admit of it, I still knew that the public sentiment of the country would not, and that such a thing was an utter impossibility, or substantially that. That extract from my old speech, the reporters, by some sort of accident, passed over, and it was not reported. I lay no blame upon any body. I suppose they thought that I would hand it over to them, and dropped reporting while I was reading it, but afterward went away without getting it from me. At the end of that quotation from my old speech, which I read at Ottawa, I made the comments which were reported at that time, and which I will now read, and ask you to notice how very nearly they are the same as Judge Douglas says were delivered by me, down in Egypt. After reading I added these words: “Now, gentlemen, I don’t want to read at any great length, but this is the true complexion of all I have ever said in regard to the institution of slavery or the black race, and this is the whole of it; any thing that argues me into his idea of perfect social and political equality with the negro, is but a specious and fantastical arrangement of words by which a man can prove a horse-chestnut to be a chestnut horse. I will say here, while upon this subject, that I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution in the States where it exists. I believe I have no right to do so. I have no inclination to do so. I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which, in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together on the footing of perfect equality, and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a difference, I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position.” … “I have never said any thing to the contrary, but I hold that notwithstanding all this, there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence-the right of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man. I agree with Judge Douglas that he is not my equal in many respects, certainly not in color-perhaps not in intellectual and moral endowments; but in the right to eat the bread without the leave of any body else which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every other man.”

With that out of the way, Lincoln returned to the basic issue:

I have stated upon former occasions, and I may as well state again, what I understand to be the real issue of this controversy between Judge Douglas and myself. On the point of my wanting to make war between the free and the slave States, there has been no issue between us. So, too, when he assumes that I am in favor of introducing a perfect social and political equality between the white and black races. These are false issues, upon which Judge Douglas has tried to force the controversy. There is no foundation in truth for the charge that I maintain either of these propositions. The real issue in this controversy — the one pressing upon every mind — is the sentiment on the part of one class that looks upon the institution of slavery as a wrong, and of another class that does not look upon it as a wrong. The sentiment that contemplates the institution of slavery in this country as a wrong is the sentiment of the Republican party. It is the sentiment around which all their actions, all their arguments, circle; from which all their propositions radiate. They look upon it as being a moral, social, and political wrong; and while they contemplate it as such, they nevertheless have due regard for its actual existence among us, and the difficulties of getting rid of it in any satisfactory way, and to all the constitutional obligations thrown about it. Yet having a due regard for these, they desire a policy in regard to it that looks to its not creating any more danger. They insist that it, as far as may be, be treated as a wrong, and one of the methods of treating it as a wrong is to make provision that it shall grow no larger. They also desire a policy that looks to a peaceful end of slavery some time, as being a wrong. These are the views they entertain in regard to it, as I understand them; and all their sentiments, all their arguments and propositions, are brought within this range have said, and I repeat it here, that if there be a man amongst us who does not think that the institution of slavery is wrong in any one of the aspects of which I have spoken, he is misplaced, and ought not to be with us. And if there be a man amongst us who is so impatient of it as a wrong as to disregard its actual presence among us and the difficulty of getting rid of it suddenly in a satisfactory way, and to disregard the constitutional obligations thrown about it, that man is misplaced if he is on our platform. We disclaim sympathy with him in practical action. He is not placed properly with us.

Then Lincoln set forth his position on slavery and how it differed from that of his opponent in the plainest language possible.  In the end, he argued, the basic division between the two men was over whether slavery was right or wrong.

That is the real issue. That is the issue that will continue in this country when these poor tongues of Judge Douglas and myself shall be silent. It is the eternal struggle between these two principles-right and wrong-throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time; and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity and the other the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says, “You work and toil and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.” No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle. I was glad to express my gratitude at Quincy, and I re-express it here to Judge Douglas-that he looks to no end of the institution of slavery. That will help the people to see where the struggle really is. It will hereafter place with us all men who really do wish the wrong may have an end. And whenever we can get rid of the fog which obscures the real question-when we can get Judge Douglas and his friends to avow a policy looking to its perpetuation-we can get out from among that class of men and bring them to the side of those who treat it as a wrong. Then there will soon be an end of it, and that end will be its “ultimate extinction.”

Many people like to confuse the issues of opposing slavery and advocating racial equality.  Apparently they believe that one cannot oppose slavery without advocating racial equality across the board (as did Stephen A. Douglas), and so they conclude that if one can demonstrate that someone does not believe in racial equality, they must not be opposed to slavery, at least on moral grounds.  Yet in the nineteenth century many white antislavery politicians did not have any problem resolving their opposition to slavery with a belief in black inferiority.  However, they did not see black inferiority as justifying the enslavement of blacks, and on this they differed from many white southerners.

Abraham Lincoln’s racial attitudes will continue to be a subject of discussion and debate, but let’s not confuse those attitudes (and their evolution over time) with his relentless characterization of slavery as morally wrong.  He recognized that the political institutions of the nation, especially the Constitution, restricted him in what he could do in terms of policy, and he was able to distinguish between his personal preferences and what he believed he was empowered to do.  Ironically in war Lincoln found himself empowered to do what he believed he could not do in peace, but that’s a story for another day.

For a text of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, go here.

8 thoughts on “What Lincoln Said at Charleston … in Context (part four)

  1. lunchcountersitin February 14, 2011 / 3:45 pm


    You raise an issue that I hope to discuss on my own blog. I post often on two Civil War forums, and I see the calculation that the North and South were equally bad because both were racist all the time.

    In one discussion, a reference was made to the treatment of blacks in slavery as being an example of “exploitation and debasement.” That led to a follow-up comment/question: How is “exploitation and debasement” different than any other feelings of racism of that time by North and South. He writes as if southerners were the only racists of that time.

    Of course, there was racism in the North and South. But the level of “exploitation and debasement” for free blacks in either section did not match that for enslaved blacks. Yet so many educated, informed people miss that point.

    Now, this misunderstanding is certainly not universal. It does seem more common in people who self-identify as being southern, from what I can tell. But it happens often enough that I am beginning to feel that the way in which racism and slavery are taught to our children is not adequate for them to understand the complexity of it all.

    A big part of the problem is that today’s views on race are so different than those of the antebellum era, children just can’t relate to them. More time, or perhaps, different approaches in instruction, are needed. I say this even as I understand that there is already a lack of time to properly teach the various aspects of history to our kids.

  2. Amillennialist (@Amillennialist) December 1, 2012 / 2:46 am

    Students should be taught:

    -Thomas Jefferson’s sentiments regarding racial equality expressed in correspondence to Benjamin Banneker;

    -Jefferson’s explicit condemnation of slavery in his original draft(s) of the Declaration;

    -Jefferson’s attempts and ending/limiting slavery in Virginia;

    -Washington’s freeing of his slaves in his will; and

    -Patrick Henry’s condemnation of slavery.

    As for Lincoln, his own words show that he was trying to move the American people toward abolishing slavery and fulfilling the promise of equality expressed in the Declaration, fully aware of the prejudice in North and South that stood in the way:

    “even if my own feelings would admit of it, I still knew that the public sentiment of the country would not, and that such a thing was an utter impossibility, or substantially that”

    “he is not my equal in many respects, certainly not in color-perhaps not in intellectual and moral endowments”

    “even if” and “perhaps” say it all.

  3. glennart June 6, 2015 / 4:53 am

    I admire the tenacity with which those historians involved in the “Lincoln Industry” persevere in their mission to portray Lincoln as ‘the great Emancipator’, of which this article is another brushstroke.
    To accuse the revisionists of ‘taking quotes out of context really doesn’t wash. You are after all, simply doing the same here, but using other quotes. However hard you try, whatever quote you select, Lincoln still condemns himself with his own words.
    On the positive side, he condemns slavery as an evil [though will not interfere in the affairs of those states where it exists].
    On the negative side, he opposes voting rights or positions in office for any free blacks. “I am not in favor of negro citizenship.” [Lincoln’s words]
    He assumes that miscegenation will result from social equality; a fear of the dilution of white superiority through sexual activity between the races permeates his racial views.
    “So it seems to me quite possible for us to get along without making either slaves or wives of negroes.” {Lincoln’s words]
    “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.” [Lincoln’s words]
    Evidently Lincoln had not yet met, or disregarded the views of scores of his contemporaries holding office who were visibly striving to produce a perfect equality, social and political, between negroes and white men. Lincoln was a racist even by the standards of his own time.

    Lincoln had not wavered at all in his views on the race issue up to the time of the debates. As he said,
    “I read an extract from an old speech of mine, made nearly four years ago, not merely to show my sentiments, but to show that my sentiments were long entertained and openly expressed; in which extract I expressly declared that my own feelings would not admit a social and political equality between the white and black races, and that even if my own feelings would admit of it, I still knew that the public sentiment of the country would not, and that such a thing was an utter impossibility, or substantially that.” [Lincoln’s words]
    These are the attitudes of a racist. Look at any definition of the word.
    There is no doubt that of the two protagonists in question here, Lincoln’s attitudes on slavery are the more palatable to a modern audience. However, on race, there is little to choose between them. Both are racists. Because one of the politicians is wearing ‘a black hat’ doesn’t preclude the other from sporting a dark grey, rather than white one. History is rarely black and white -even on race relations.

    Why can historians who have chosen to work around the life and work of Lincoln simply not accept him as a flawed human being? He can still take his seat in the pantheon of US greats [if that is required for the needs of politicians, academics and ‘Hollywood’], but it will be occupied as war leader and as saviour of the union, not as a socially enlightened individual. We are not dealing in myth, we are dealing in history. If one mines a seam of facts which lead to an unpalatable rockfall, it must be faced, not side-stepped; utilised, not ignored. If such evidence incidentally leads to contemporaries of Lincoln who were more enlightened but who are currently held in lower esteem by history, embrace the opportunity to place Lincoln in that context . He may no longer be “the Great Emancipator”, but he will still be see to have had a [reduced] role to play in the fight for racial equality in the USA.

    I was further interested in, and not a little disturbed by, a couple of your own comments in this article.

    “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.” [Your words].
    “What one might call a natural equality in physical and mental skills”. Why insert ” what one might call” into the sentence on natural equality? Do you have any doubts? If so, I think you must review your own attitudes to race.

    “Unlike Lincoln, he [Douglas] 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.” [your words].
    Are we to conclude that you yourself agree with Lincoln that the ‘offer’ of colonization was preferable to any attempt at a solution of the race issue on USA soil? If so, I fully understand why Lincoln and his racial attitudes appeal so much to you on a personal level.

    • Brooks D. Simpson June 6, 2015 / 7:51 am

      You protest: “You are using the same tactic you ascribe to the ‘Lincoln haters’ ie: cherry picking quotes out of context.” Then you offer a good example of it while protesting an effort to place Lincoln’s statement in context.

      It amuses me that while you claim that certain language deters the free exchange of ideas, you are not above denigrating those with whom you disagree and implying that they are racists. Seeking to understand and explain Lincoln’s views is not the same as justifying them or sharing them. You appear unable to grasp that simple fact, and it detracts from your already vulnerable argument. You also seem to have a limited familiarity with my work, especially what I’ve said about Lincoln and his views on race. That does not deter you from taking even more quotes out of context. Given your propensity to offer smug insults, I see no need to engage you further. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

  4. Koch Industries for Pres, 2016! January 26, 2016 / 10:50 pm

    Simply expressed, Lincoln maximized the pursuit of lesser evil.
    if Lincoln had expressed least evil, he would have, at best, been known in contemporary politics as a hopeless kook.

    If it is slavery apologists who most misquote @Charleston, then their true belief favoring slavery reveals their lies about those favoring freedom.

  5. bkeating51 December 9, 2016 / 12:38 am

    Mr. Simpson, you are working far too hard to defend Mr. Lincoln from charges of being a white supremacist. He was only indulging in that right given to candidates for election of saying whatever is necessary to be elected, while not being bound after the election.

    Franklin Roosevelt, also considered to be one of the greatest Presidents, provided another illustration of this right during the 1940 electoral campaign. With every mother in America dead set against sending their sons to Europe to fight in the European war as had occurred over twenty years earlier in that insanity known as World War I, Roosevelt simply told them that he had no intention whatsoever of sending American boys back there. The fact that he was already up to his neck in putting the country on a war footing and getting aid to Great Britain was never held against FDR.

    • Kristoffer March 6, 2017 / 8:20 pm

      Sigh. Lincoln was no believer in racial equality, but neither was he a white supremacist. For proof, one only need look at his Peoria speech in 1854: https://www.nps.gov/liho/learn/historyculture/peoriaspeech.htm
      “What next? Free them, and make them politically and socially, our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not.”
      The fact that Lincoln publicly considered the possibility that he could accept racial equality would have been unthinkable for white supremacists then or now. I have also discussed another indicator of Lincoln not being a white supremacist in part 2 of this blog series.

      As for FDR, for all of his words, he and the rest of the USA were already undergoing the erosion of isolationism, even in 1940. The desire to indirectly fight against the evil empire of Nazi Germany was taking hold. That evil empire’s rise also highlighted the embarrassing state of the US military, which was abysmally small in manpower and reduced to simulating anti-tank guns with chunks of wood. So of course rearmament was being done, since inadvertent disarmament had taken place and had gone too far.

      Let me finish with what Brooks told you last year:
      “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.”

  6. Brian McMurray July 16, 2019 / 11:35 pm

    I don’t think quoting that one segment of the debate would be incomplete or bad history. You wrote a 4 part article trying to prove otherwise, but throughout the debates Lincoln reiterated his white supremacist attitudes. I don’t need to get into the minutia of Lincoln’s racism to show that he was a racist. That one passage is enough.

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