Sometimes people are prone to group together that which should be kept distinct. For example, then folks often speak of “southerners,” they overlook the fact that such a term should include blacks as well as whites, and that not all white southerners supported the Confederacy, so one should not equate “southerner” with “Confederate.” Much the same can be said about “northerner.” True, there were fewer free blacks in the North, but white northerners were quite divided during the Civil War era, and one must understand those divisions in order to understand what happened. For our purposes, the most important division is partisan: Democrat versus Republican. Even those divisions changed in the years leading up to the war, the war itself, and after the war.
Those divisions in turn had a great deal to do with the politics of race. Simply put, it will not do to say that northerners were as racist as white southerners. Yes, many white northerners shared the deep racial prejudices held by most white southerners, but the vast majority of those white northerners were Democrats. Republicans, on the other hand, were far more diverse in their views on race, and while there were Republicans who were racist, on the whole Republicans were more enlightened (if not always free from racial prejudice) than their Democratic counterparts. Moreover, if we are to heed the warning of those people who ask us to judge people according to the attitudes of their time (a claim most frequently raised by folks who want to see white southern racial attitudes in a more charitable light), then by that standards most Republicans were far more enlightened than their Democratic counterparts and white southerners as a whole.
It’s important to remember that the Republican party was originally a coalition of anti-Democratic forces in the North, united by an opposition to the expansion of slavery. Some of these Republicans were abolitionists; others, although not embracing black equality, opposed slavery (one would find Lincoln in this group); still others were willing to accept slavery where it was so long as it did not expand into areas reserved for free white labor; and others were more anti-southern (or anti-slave power) than antislavery. Joining this coalition before long were the majority of Know Nothings, who saw in the Democratic party a conspiracy of Catholics and immigrants who were bent upon the destruction of the republic, much as other Republicans saw the opposition as the pawn if not the active co-conspirator of the southern slave power.
Given that the Republican party was forged from a coalition of former Whigs and Democrats (as well as third party antislavery and Free Soil forces), one would expect that the members of the party would not always agree on various issues (such as economic policy) and that there would be different views on race. Those divisions would become telling in the years to come, and they would shape how Republicans pushed for black rights given their awareness of the limits of the possible.
But that’s another story for another time.