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William Hanchett
Lincoln and Democracy: He Kept the Faith
From Steinfeld's "Our Racist Presidents"

Lincoln color01

The truth is finally catching up with the Lincoln legend, and everyone, especially those who appreciate the true character of the man's greatness, should be grateful. There is profound disillusionment, however, among many black and white Americans who have apparently only recently discovered that during his famous (but not often read) debates with Stephen A. Douglas Lincoln came out strongly in favor of white supremacy, and that as president he did not free the slaves at the first opportunity. As Julius Lester exclaims in Look Out Whitey! Black Power's Gon' Get Your Mama (1968), "Blacks have no reason to feel grateful to Abraham Lincoln. Rather, they should be angry with him. After all, he came into office in 1861. How come it took him two whole years to free the slaves? His pen was sitting on his desk the whole time. All he had to do was get up one morning and say, 'Doggonnit! I think I'm gon' free the slaves today. It just ain't right for folks to own other folks.' it was that simple."

Of course it was not that simple. Nor does it make sense to suggest that because Lincoln said something in 1858 he would say the same thing today. Lincoln's chief characteristic, as nearly all of his biographers have suggested, was his educability, his ability to grow.

Still, to all Americans nurtured in the myth of Father Abraham, the Great Emancipator, it comes as a shock to read the words he spoke during his fourth debate with Douglas, at Charleston, Illinois, September 18, 1858, and repeated in substance elsewhere

I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of Lincoln02bringing 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 bold 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 in-ferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. 

Through the years this passage has been frequently quoted by rightist organizations anxious to enroll the nation's most beloved hero in the cause of segregation. It is now in vogue among leftists, some of whom are equally determined to distort the American past. But propaganda, for whatever causes, must be rejected by those devoted to the search for truth, and a man's statements and actions (or inactions) must be judged in relation to the time and circum-stances which produced them, not other times and other circumstances.

At the time of the Charleston debate, Lincoln was in the midst of a heated and bitter campaign for the United States Senate against Douglas, who was not only the incumbent but the most popular Democrat in the country. As a Republican who denounced the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision, who held that Negroes were included in the Declaration of Independence's assertion that "all men are created equal" (at least in the abstract), who denounced slavery as a moral wrong and who insisted for that reason, among others, that it be prohibited from the western territories, Lincoln was vulnerable to charges of being pro-Negro, a "nigger lover." Douglas called him as much, repeatedly. After answering some questions which Lincoln put to him at Freeport, during their second debate, Douglas declared that Lincoln would ask others as soon as he had had a chance to confer with his abolitionist advisers, among them the black Frederick Douglass. He then went on to say that he bad once seen a magnificent carriage drive up to the edge of a crowd he was addressing. The owner of the carriage was acting as driver, while his wife reclined inside with Frederick Douglass. "All I have to say of it is this," cried the Little Giant with a demagogue's mock tolerance, "that if you Black Republicans think that the negro ought to be on a social equality with your wives and daughters, and ride in a carriage with your wife, whilst you drive the team, you have a perfect right to do so. . . ." He then proceeded to make the association of Lincoln and racial equality complete and explicit: "Those of you who believe the negro is your equal and ought to be on an equality with you socially, politically, and legally, have a right to entertain those opinions, and of course will vote for Mr. Lincoln.

But it does not follow that he was pro-slavery, or like so many other northern whites, indifferent to the institution. "I am naturally anti-slavery," he wrote in an important but relatively unknown letter to Albert G. Hodges, a Kentucky editor, in 1864. "If slavery is not wrong nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel." But slavery was recognized and protected by the Constitution, and Lincoln could not simply sit down at his desk the first chance he had, and pick up his pen and free the slaves without violating his oath of office. Even if he could have done so, it would have been a foolish and irrational thing to do. Public opinion in the North would not have supported such an action at any time before he actually took it. A premature emancipation would have been fatal to the Union war effort by outraging many thousands of citizens who were willing to fight, die, and make sacrifices to save their country, but not for the sake of black slaves. It also might have driven into the Confederacy one or more of the four slave states which did not secede. In that case, too, there would have been no union, and no freedom, either.

But it does not follow that he was pro-slavery, or like so many other northern whites, indifferent to the institution. "I am naturally anti-slavery," he wrote in an important but relatively unknown letter to Albert G. Hodges, a Kentucky editor, in 1864. "If slavery is not wrong nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel." But slavery was recognized and protected by the Constitution, and Lincoln could not simply sit down at his desk the first chance he had, and pick up his pen and free the slaves without violating his oath of office. Even if he could have done so, it would have been a foolish and irrational thing to do. Public opinion in the North would not have supported such an action at any time before he actually took it. A premature emancipation would have been fatal to the Union war effort by outraging many thousands of citizens who were willing to fight, die, and make sacrifices to save their country, but not for the sake of black slaves. It also might have driven into the Confederacy one or more of the four slave states which did not secede. In that case, too, there would have been no union, and no freedom, either.

by William Hanchett, Emeritus Professor of History, San Diego State College.- Used by permission.

   

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