Lincoln’s Evolving Racial Views
presented by Edna Medford, Ph.D.
at the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library
February 14, 2010
Three days before he met his destiny, Abraham Lincoln stepped through a door where no president had gone before—he openly supported the granting of political rights to African Americans. In this his last public address, the president commented on the Reconstruction of Louisiana and its impact on the newly emancipated and other persons of color. Despite demands from certain “Radical” Republicans in Congress and appeals from black elites in the state, in spite of a gentle and clandestine suggestion from the president himself, Louisiana had rejected the idea of African American inclusion in the body politic. Lincoln took the opportunity provided by those assembled in celebration of Lee’s surrender, to convey his belief that the right to vote be “now conferred on the very intelligent, and on those who serve our cause as soldiers.” Although disappointed by the state’s decision to deny suffrage, he remained hopeful that black men would soon be allowed to join their white counterparts in the exercise of one of the most sacred duties and rights of citizenship. Skulking in the crowd that night was John Wilkes Booth, who upon hearing Lincoln offer support for black voting rights supposedly exclaimed: “That means nigger citizenship. No, by God! I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make.”
Lincoln’s comments that night represented an extraordinary departure from the position he had held just seven years earlier in Charleston, Illinois when he had sought to deflect accusations by Senate incumbent and political rival Stephen A. Douglas that he was a supporter of black equality. Knowing that he had to counter Douglas’s charge with unmistakable clarity, the future president joined Douglas in appealing to the racial prejudices of the audience. “I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races,” he assured them.
…I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of
negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office…there is a physical
difference between the white and black races which I believe will for
ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and
The journey from the Charleston debate to the qualified support Lincoln offered on the eve of his assassination had required the president to overcome views dating from childhood, prejudices that had been shaped less by personal experiences than by long-held and rarely disputed American thought. In no region of the nation did white men in general consider black men worthy of the tiniest measure of citizenship and justice—certainly not in the South, where enslavement and oppression were nearly universally accepted (at least by white men) as the normal condition for black men and women; certainly not in the North and Midwest, where fears of economic competition made whites simultaneously anti-slavery and anti-black. As Chief Justice Roger Taney declared in the infamous Supreme Court decision Scott v. Sandford, African Americans “had no rights which white men were bound to respect.” But expediency and an appreciation for black wartime service to the Union cause (especially after the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation), compelled Lincoln to alter his attitudes regarding race. While he was by no means an egalitarian at the time of his death, his thinking had progressed to the point that he could acknowledge the rights and aspirations of all Americans to enjoy equally in the nation’s promise.
A son of the nineteenth-century South and Midwest, Lincoln shared the idea of white superiority that his contemporaries embraced. It would have been surprising had he felt otherwise. If we had evidence only from Charleston, we might be able to dismiss his words as good politics. But given his propensity for recounting racially insensitive jokes and his fondness for pejorative language, one can only conclude that he was thoroughly a man of his times in the matter of racial views. What distinguished him from his neighbors, however, was his fervent belief in the rights of all people to the products of their labor and their natural right to freedom.
Lincoln spent his childhood primarily in Indiana and his adulthood in Illinois, where ostensibly all people were free. But loopholes in the anti-slavery laws made it possible for residents to circumvent such legislation. It was not unusual for enslaved laborers to be domiciled in the state for the better part of a year and removed just in time to comply with the law that allowed temporary residence. It was just such a case with which Lincoln became involved in 1847 when slave owner Robert Matson attempted to retrieve a family of fugitives who claimed that he had kept them in the state continuously for two years. Despite his aversion to slavery, Lincoln represented the slave owner, a decision he apparently found perfectly acceptable since enslaved people were property, and every free man had a constitutional right to claim what was his.
Even those African Americans fortunate enough to be legally free did not enjoy equal or fair treatment. As members of a perceived inferior race, they were subject to “black codes” which required them to present certificates of freedom to local authorities, who then registered them and recorded their physical description. Failure to produce these freedom papers exposed individuals to arrest as suspected runaways. If after six weeks no owner came forward to claim his property, the alleged fugitive could be hired out. If no owner appeared within one year, the man or woman would be issued a certificate of freedom and sent on his way. Those persons whose status was not in question were nevertheless required to post a bond in the amount of one thousand dollars—an enormous sum for anyone, but especially for free blacks—as insurance against becoming indigent and hence a burden to the community.
Moreover, free people of color could not testify in court against whites, or serve on juries, or vote in political elections. Illinoisans acquiesced in these disabilities placed on their fellow residents. And while Lincoln had established himself as an anti-slavery man early in his career, he did not offer any robust objection to the laws that kept free black men and women perpetually marginalized. In fact, when H. Ford Douglas, a young black firebrand attempted to secure Lincoln’s signature on a petition in support of the right of black men tot testify against white men in court, the future “great emancipator” allegedly declined.
Even more egregious, perhaps, was the effort to prevent blacks from entering the state altogether. In 1853, Illinois imposed a fine on those who immigrated with the intention to reside permanently in the state. Those who broke the law were fined fifty dollars; if unable to pay (and most could not), they risked having their labor auctioned off to the highest bidder. I have found no evidence that Lincoln openly objected to this, either.
It was not that Lincoln failed to comprehend the burden that race placed on black men and women. While few African Americans resided in Springfield, he was hardly unacquainted with people of color. A black woman, Mariah Vance, worked in the Lincoln home, where she laundered the family’s clothes and sometimes helped to prepare meals. But it is unlikely that he had much if any direct contact with the domestic. His interaction with the successful Springfield barber, William Fleurville, was both professional and cordial. He represented the Haitian émigré in at least three land transactions, and there is some indication that a friendship developed between the two men. But Billy, as he was known, was not the product of American slavery, and it may have been easier for Lincoln (and other white Americans) to accept him and acknowledge his capacity for growth more readily than they could native blacks.
Lincoln would learn a great deal more about African Americans in the four tumultuous years of his presidency. When he entered the White House in March 1861, he embraced one aim—to restore the seceded states to their proper place in the Union. Contrary to southern fears, he did not take office expecting or prepared to emancipate enslaved people. In fact, in the opening months of the war, our 16th president was willing to view America’s black population as expendable. In an attempted appeasement of the Confederacy, and out of fear that he might lose the Border States to their rebellious sisters, he clandestinely suggested that runaways be returned to their owners. Much to the exasperation of abolitionists, he rescinded the emancipation attempts of a general in the field. He supported Ward Hill Lamon, a friend who had been appointed Marshal of the District of Columbia against charges that he was illegally detaining free blacks and fugitives from slavery in the city jail. And he brought great frustration to African Americans when he (and Congress) denied black men the opportunity to serve the Union cause. It took a while for Lincoln, the anti-slavery man who believed in black inferiority to become Lincoln the abolitionist president who could openly advocate extending certain rights of citizenship to black people.
Despite his rather conservative approach to securing the Union early in the war, Lincoln recognized the role that slavery played in dividing the nation. Before the first year of the war had passed, he sought to coax the Border States into voluntarily dismantling the institution in their jurisdictions. Even with the incentive of compensation, none of them heeded his warning that the “friction of war” would eventually destroy slavery.
In the meantime, the “Negro Problem” was becoming acute, as the First Confiscation Act (passed by Congress in the late summer of 1861) drew increasing numbers of blacks into the Union and created a crisis in how to provide for them. That the situation occupied his attention is evident in Lincoln’s first annual address to Congress in December 1861. It is here that the new president introduced the idea of voluntary deportation for enslaved people who were released from obligation to serve their owners by the provisions of the Act. Lincoln recommended that Congress make provisions for the colonization of this group of people and others that the states themselves might consider releasing from slavery. For good measure, he thought “it might be well to consider, too, whether the free colored people already in the United States could not, so far as individuals may desire, be included in such colonization.”
Of course, the idea of colonizing African Americans was nothing new to Lincoln. His early views on the subject were influenced by Henry Clay, Lincoln’s “beau ideal of a statesman” as he referred to him. Clay, a slaveholder, had argued that colonization would right the original sin of slavery. “There is a moral fitness in the idea of returning to Africa her children, whose ancestors have been torn from her by the ruthless hand of fraud and violence,” he had declared. “Transplanted in a foreign land, they will carry back to their native soil the rich fruits of religion, civilization, law and liberty.” Clay saw the hand of God at work in colonization. “May it not be one of the great designs of the Ruler of the universe, (whose ways are often inscrutable by short-sighted mortals,) thus to transform an original crime, into a signal blessing to that most unfortunate portion of the globe?” he asked.
Lincoln agreed. In his eulogy of Clay in July 1852, he expressed the hope that the nation would ultimately eradicate slavery; and if “at the same time, in restoring a captive people to their long-lost father-land, with bright prospects for the future; and this too, so gradually, that neither races nor individuals shall have suffered by the change, it will indeed be a glorious consummation.” Note here while there is a humanitarian component to Lincoln’s support of colonization, there is also concern that the slave owner not be disadvantaged by the liberation of his property. It is a theme that reemerges throughout his presidency.
As his first annual address to Congress reveals, Lincoln’s interest in colonization was coupled with support for diplomatic recognition of the black republics of Haiti and Liberia. Since the success of the revolution in 1804, Haiti had sought recognition among the nations of the world. England had granted it in 1825 with the appointment of a Counsel-General. Other nations followed suit. But the United States remained steadfast in its objection to establishing diplomatic relations. Although certain commercial interests were in favor of recognition, the southern states, in particular, objected to even attending hemispheric meetings where Haitian recognition was the topic of discussion. Despite petitions and memorials presented to Congress in regard to Haiti, the United States failed to officially acknowledge her. By 1860, America stood virtually alone among the major nations of the world in its refusal to accept Haitian independence and sovereignty.
A similar rejection befell Liberia. Established as a colony in 1819, Liberia was founded as a home for free and freed people of color. The American Colonization Society, itself established two years earlier, was responsible for carrying out resettlement. The ACS membership was an odd mixture; on the one hand were northern abolitionists who believed that southern slaveholders would more readily consider emancipation if they could be assured that they would not be burdened by the presence of their former bondmen and women. On the other hand were pro-slavery forces who believed that slavery would be strengthened if free blacks were not present as a constant reminder that freedom was possible. African Americans, unwilling to give up the land of their birth (despite the disabilities under which they lived and labored) and recognizing the duplicitous character of the ACS, declined to assent to resettlement in any significant numbers.
In 1847, the Liberian people voted to establish an independent government. Modeled after the U.S. Constitution, the new nation promptly sought diplomatic recognition from the major nations of the world. Again, England and other powers responded rather quickly, but despite efforts to win American acceptance, even with the support of Henry Clay, Liberia was unsuccessful.
U.S. opposition to recognition of both black republics stemmed in large measure from objections on the part of the southern Congressional delegations. Societies wedded to slavery were unwilling to recognize the legitimacy of nations governed by black men, and in the case of Haiti, one born of a violent slave revolt.
The Civil War afforded an opportunity heretofore unavailable to an American government. After the spring of 1861, 11 of the southern states had left the Union. And while strong southern sympathy remained in Congress, the ability to halt legislation offensive to the slaveholding states was greatly diminished. Lincoln seized upon this opening to do what would have been political suicide just months before. Haitian President Fabre Geffrard had made an appeal to Lincoln in May of 1861 to grant diplomatic recognition to his country. As usual, the U.S. president approached the appeal cautiously; he elected not to respond to Haiti directly, but instead threw the matter into the lap of Congress. Embedded in discussion of domestic and foreign matters in his first annual address, Lincoln gave his tacit approval of a change in American policy. “If any good reason exists why we should persevere longer in withholding our recognition of the independence and sovereignty of Haiti and Liberia,” he remarked, “I am unable to discern it.” But ever aware of public opinion and “unwilling…to inaugurate a novel policy” without Congress’ consent, he suggested that the legislative body consider an appropriation for establishing and maintaining a Chargé d’Affaires in both countries.
Doubtless understanding the broader implications of what Lincoln was proposing, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner quickly introduced a bill that would give the president the authorization he sought. Despite the absence of most of the slaveholding states, objections were vociferous and highlighted the fact that anti-black sentiment was hardly the exclusive domain of a single region of the country. Representing the “southern” view was Senator Garrett Davis of Kentucky. Davis insisted that he did not object to the recognition of Haiti and Liberia as independent nations. Nor did he oppose the establishment of commercial relations. Rather, his objection was to the “sending of ambassadors of any class from our Government to theirs.” Such action, he argued, would “establish diplomatically, terms of mutual and equal reciprocity between the two countries and us.” Davis was repulsed by the idea that diplomats from the two black nations would have to be received by the president and other government officials “upon the same terms of equality with similar representatives from other Powers.” In the most demeaning language, Davis explained what might happen if black diplomats were extended equal rights. Whatever would America do if a “full blooded negro” was sent as representative? Worse still, what if he had a family? Would his wife and daughters accompany him to official social events? Would official Washington be able to tolerate the presence of “negresses” in such gatherings? Moreover, Davis accused the Lincoln administration of attempting to “assail the institution of slavery in the slave States everywhere.” Representative S.S. Cox of Ohio displayed equal candor in outlining his objections. “The object sought by the gentleman from Massachusetts,” he argued, “is not so much to increase the commercial relations of the United States with the countries named as to give a sort of dignity and equality to these republics, because they are black republics. It is, therefore, literally a Black Republican measure.” When pressed for an even more candid explanation of his objections, Cox responded:
Objections? Gracious heavens!...Objection to receiving a black man
on an equality with the white men of this country? I have been
taught in the history of this country that these Commonwealths and this
Union were made for white men; that this Government is a Government of
white men; that the men who made it never intended, by anything they did,
to place the black race upon an equality with the white. It may be, [that]the
gentlemen on the other side intend to carry out their schemes of
emancipation to that extent that they will raise the blacks to an equality in
every respect with the white men of this country. I suppose they want to
approach that object by having a colored representative in the capital at
Washington. Is not that your object? I charge that it is. Do you not want
to begin by giving national equality to the black republics? After having
obtained the equality of black nations with white nations, do you not
propose to carry the equality a little farther, and so make individual,
political, and social equality?
Despite such objections, primarily from the Democratic Party, the bill passed Congress, and Lincoln promptly signed it into law. Shortly thereafter, James Redpath, a white emigrationist who had infuriated many black leaders by insinuating himself into Haitian and African American affairs, indicated to Lincoln that Haitian President Geffrard was willing to assign a white minister to the U.S., if Lincoln wished him to do so. Seemingly confirming the opposition’s worst fears that the administration was attempting to promote equality of the races, Lincoln alleged responded: “Well you can tell Mr. Geffrard that I shan’t tear my shirt if he does send a negro here.” Taking him at his word, Geffrard appointed a man of color, but one who proved to be less offensive to American sensibilities. A gentile socialite described him as of bright copper complexion with fine features and “hair like that of an Indian.” His assistant, on the other hand, gave her pause, as he was “a full-blooded negro” with kinky hair.
African Americans were elated by the official acknowledgement of Haitian and Liberian independence. Echoing the thinking of recognition opponents (but certainly from a more positive perspective) Frederick Douglass predicted that the administrations actions would have “very important social results” as well as significant commercial benefit. A contributor to the black newspaper, The Christian Recorder, offered that recognition was “calculated to elevate us in some degree. We see with all the civil commotion, bloodshed and devastation, the executive Department of this nation has done more for us than has been done heretofore.”
Many were not so pleased with the Lincoln administration when it became apparent that the enthusiastic support for diplomatic recognition came along with increased efforts on behalf of colonization. In August, the president had invited a delegation of black men to the White House for the purpose of seeking their assistance in urging their people to leave the country of their birth. After largely blaming African Americans for the war (at least, this is how it was seen by the African American leadership), Lincoln declared:
You and we are different races…We have between us a broader
difference than exists between almost any other races…this physical
difference is a great disadvantage to us both, as I think, your race
suffer very greatly…by living among us, while ours suffer from your
Alluding to slavery, Lincoln suggested that African Americans had endured a great injustice, but even when freed, discrimination and abuse would remain. Nowhere on the continent could a black man find equal treatment. ‘Go where you are treated the best, and the ban is still upon you,” he reminded them.
Lincoln’s meeting with the Committee of Five preceded by six weeks the extraordinary announcement that the president was prepared to emancipate all enslaved laborers under the control of the Confederate states. It is likely, as some have suggested, that the August meeting was arranged to assure nervous northerners visualizing hordes of black folk descending on the North that they had nothing to fear from emancipation because the black population could be persuaded to leave the country. But Lincoln’s actions subsequently confirmed his commitment to voluntary removal. In the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation issued on September 22, he suggested that Congress appropriate funds to pay for colonization programs. And in his second annual message to Congress in December, he reiterated his support. Curiously enough, the final proclamation that was issued on January 1, 1863, had dropped the idea altogether. By this time, plans to resettle African Americans on allegedly coal-rich lands in Panama had collapsed, as had negotiations for other Latin American sites. Plans for a colony off the coast of Haiti were still underway, and more than 400 colonists were transported to the site in April, 1863. White men more interested in personal gain than assistance to black people, had convinced the administration that they could create a self-sufficient colony off the Haitian coast. Although substantial sums of money were given to them, they failed to supply adequate provisions for those under their care. As a consequence, eighty-five of the colonists died from disease and exposure before Lincoln could send a ship to retrieve them.
Likely, by the time he issued the final Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln already knew that colonization on any grand scale would not work. There had been no groundswell of support from the African American community, and by the end of 1862, the president was already discovering potential uses for the black population, at least of its men. From the very beginning of the war, believing that the conflict afforded them a chance to strike a blow for freedom and equality, black men had sought an avenue by which they might get into the fight. When their services were rebuffed by President and Congress, they kept faith and drilled in preparation for combat. Tens of thousands satisfied their desire to participate by volunteering to perform non-combat military service. Finally, the Emancipation Proclamation facilitated their entry into the war as soldiers. Although the majority was plucked from the ranks of former slaves, free blacks served as well, believing as they did that support of the Union cause would not only free enslaved people, but would elevate all African Americans.
More than 186,000 men served valiantly, despite the discrimination and economic hardship that it placed on their families. Corporal James H. Gooding was one of those who wrote to Lincoln about their situation. “The patient, trusting descendants of Afric’s clime have dyed the ground with blood, in defense of the Union and Democracy,” he reminded the president. “Obedient and patient and solid as a wall are they. All we lack is a paler hue and a better acquaintance with the alphabet. ..we have done a soldier’s duty. Why can’t we have a soldier’s pay?
Lincoln was slow to answer Gooding’s question. And when Frederick Douglass visited the White House in August 1863, he too asked the president to end the practices that disadvantaged black soldiers. Notable among them were pay inequities. African Americans, whether officers or enlisted men, were paid ten dollars a month, with a deduction of three dollars for clothing; white enlisted men received thirteen dollars, and their officers even more. Lincoln reminded Douglass that many Americans had not yet accepted the idea of black men in uniform, even to preserve the Union. He counseled patience and pledged that something would be done to redress black grievances as soon as possible. In June 1864, Congress passed legislation that began to correct this injustice, by making equal pay available to prewar free black men, but not until a month before the war ended, was pay equalized for all black soldiers. Unfortunately, justice came too late for Corporal Gooding, who died after being captured and imprisoned at the notorious Confederate camp at Andersonville.
Contrary to the cautious movement he exhibited in most things involving African Americans, Lincoln exhibited alacrity in dealing with the Confederate practice of treating captured African American soldiers as fugitives or slaves in insurrection. As such, black soldiers were subject to execution or sale, be they free born or runaways. After the unsuccessful assault on Fort Wagner, in which a significant number of African American soldiers were captured, the Union feared that the Confederates would make good on their threats. As a deterrent, Lincoln ordered that a Confederate soldier would be put to death for every Union soldier killed in violation of the laws of war. For every Union soldier sold into slavery, a Confederate prisoner would be put at hard labor.
When African Americans and their supporters first introduced the idea of black fighting men, Lincoln expressed doubt that a people accustomed to oppression would be able to stare down white men on the battlefield. He considered it folly to place weapons in the hands of African Americans, believing that within a few weeks, Union arms would be in the hands of the enemy. Their courage under fire forced Lincoln to reassess his earlier misjudgment of them. In a letter sent to his friend James C. Conkling, Lincoln predicted that when peace returned to the country “there will be some black men who can remember that, with silent tongue, and clenched teeth, and steady eye, and well-poised bayonet, they have helped mankind on to this great consummation; while, I fear, there will be some white ones, unable to forget that, with malignant heart, and deceitful speech, they have strove to hinder it.”
Subtle changes were occurring in the attitude toward the black civilian population as well. Small but significant signs encouraged African Americans in the belief that Lincoln was beginning to accept them as something other than America’s unwanted stepchildren. Well-publicized meetings with the black abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass, swelled the pride of a people who heretofore had entered the White House generally in their capacity as domestic servants. Douglass’ report that the president had treated him with respect and manliness convinced African Americans that they just might be able to live in peace and prosperity in postwar America. Douglass’ reception by Lincoln doubtless gave encouragement to a group of black Washingtonians who sought the use of the White House grounds for a Fourth of July picnic and fund-raiser in 1864. The St. Matthew’s Colored Sunday School initially sought permission from Benjamin B. French, Commissioner of Public Buildings, who agreed to the request but insisted on the concurrence of the president. A committee of three was assembled and dispatched to the White House, where they were received by Lincoln and their request approved.
Still, advocating political rights required a giant leap from receiving black leaders at the White House or granting permission to use the White House grounds for a picnic. What, then, was Lincoln’s motivation for such an uncharacteristic move? There were likely several interrelated factors spurring him on. As the Conkling letter and the last public address confirm, Lincoln believed that the nation owed a debt of gratitude to the black men who fought to preserve the Union. Doubtless, he believed as well that they would be invaluable allies in the future in the effort to protect “the jewel of liberty”, as he put it. It is reasonable to assume as well, as some have suggested, that in granting African Americans voting rights, the president was anxious to secure the South for the Republican Party, and he recognized that black voters could help in that regard. An argument can also be made for the influence of black elites such as Frederick Douglass or the well-educated, rather wealthy men of color of Louisiana, who petitioned Lincoln for assistance in securing their rights. Perhaps such men enabled him to appreciate the capacity of certain groups of black men for citizenship. And finally, perhaps, once it became clear that black people were destined to stay in America, he saw the need to assist them in becoming productive, full-fledged members of the society.
Historians are fond of saying that Lincoln “grew” in the presidency. Perhaps so. If the war taught him anything, it taught him the value of all Americans, even those degraded by slavery and whose lives had been circumscribed by discrimination. He had recognized their right to benefit from their own labor early on. Perhaps the war taught him that the ability of a man (or woman) to eat the bread he earned was only part of what made America strong. Perhaps he was beginning to understand that freedom without the protections afforded by a political voice made the idea of American liberty a hollow promise. It is unwise to speculate about how far and how fast he might have been willing to travel along this road of racial equality had he lived, but we can be assured that the men and women who stood to be the beneficiaries of that equality would have been a constant reminder to him of his and the nation’s obligations to them.