Sometimes arguments are best presented in concise style. With that in mind, I’d like to advance three propositions about Abraham Lincoln’s views on race and slavery that folks might want to consider.
First, Lincoln seems to have been fairly consistent in his personal opposition to slavery. He thought it was wrong, simple as that. He did not emphasize issues of political or economic differences. He said it was wrong, period. That said, he recognized that there were limits as to what could be done about slavery where it already existed from a political point of view. He did not see those limits as applying to areas where the federal government exercised primary control, namely the territories and the District of Columbia. So Lincoln drew a distinction between his private feelings and attitudes about slavery as opposed to what he believed could be done through the political system. Over time he also came to believe that in war he as president could do things on the grounds of military necessity that he could not do in times of peace, but even then he recognized that the concept of military necessity limited his ability to strike at slavery. However, he never wavered in thinking that the institution itself was wrong, a violation of his religious principles and American values.
Second, unlike many Republicans in the 1850s, Lincoln did not portray slaveholders as evil. Indeed, he saved his harshest language for political leaders (namely James Buchanan, Franklin Pierce, Roger B. Taney, and, of course, Stephen A. Douglas). I was reminded of this in a round table discussion with Michael F. Holt at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield on Lincoln’s birthday this month. Responding to my comment about Lincoln’s steadfast indictment of slavery’s immorality, Holt pointed out that unlike many Republicans, Lincoln focused on the institution of slavery and not the behavior of the slaveholder. Time and again Lincoln expressed some degree of empathy for the position of slaveholders, although over time I think that declined as he became far more outspoken in his attacks on slavery’s defenders. Nevertheless, in his second inaugural address he reminded his audience that slavery was an American problem, not just a southern one.
Third, if Lincoln saw slavery as an American problem, he also saw racial prejudice as something characteristic of most white Americans, North and South. One reason he advocated colonization was his concern that the intensity of racial prejudice would make it difficult for freed blacks to make their way in American society after emancipation. He said as much when he met with a delegation of black ministers in August 1862. Much has been made of Lincoln’s own racial attitudes, and yet it must be said that, for all his shortcomings (especially as seen from today’s perspective), Lincoln’s mind was flexible enough that he was willing to be convinced that he might be wrong. He was far more open-minded than either his immediate predecessor or successor on that score. However, he was also aware that given the intense feelings of racial prejudice held by many white Americans, the road from emancipation to equality might not be easy.
Ponder these propositions.