When Abraham Lincoln died, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton proclaimed, “Now he belongs to the ages,” Stanton probably did not guess that Lincoln’s racial views would be the subject of so much controversy. In the days of Jim Crow, Lincoln was revered, on the one hand by African Americans and white supporters of racial equality and on the other hand by mainstream politicians who tended to believe in white supremacy. The NAACP attempted to have its founding coincide with the centennial of Lincoln’s birth, while Woodrow Wilson, the most anti-black president since James Buchanan, also admired the sixteenth president. Franklin Roosevelt, who generally favored appeasing Southern racists except when backed into a corner, invoked the memory of Lincoln to justify his own civil liberties violations. Eleanor Roosevelt, who was a staunch advocate of racial justice, arranged for African American singer Marian Anderson to perform under the Lincoln Memorial after Anderson was snubbed by the racist Daughters of the American Revolution. The lawyer Samuel Leibowitz made the decision to begin defending the “Scottsboro Boys,” a group of black youths falsely accused of raping white women in 1930s Alabama, after he heard that they had initially been found guilty and called the verdict, “an act of bigots spitting upon the tomb of the immortal Abraham Lincoln.” In essence, Lincoln was, just as he continues to be, something of a Rorschach test. When Jim Crow fell, Lincoln’s racial views became a major subject for debate. On both the Right and Left, people have described him as anything from a pseudo-abolitionist who dreamed of an America free of racism to a rabid, proslavery white supremacist. I recall watching Barbara Walters interview the Obamas for Thanksgiving and noticing that Michelle Obama seemed to look displeased as Barack spoke of his great admiration for Lincoln, making me wonder if even our nation’s First Family can’t agree on Old Abe’s racism or lack thereof.
New life has been breathed into the controversy thanks to the discovery that Abraham Lincoln was in possession of a book entitled, Types of Mankind, which argued that whites were a superior race and that different races had different origins. The book was used to justify slavery. Author Thomas DiLorenzo, who has in the past approvingly cited fellow authors opposed to Brown v. Board of Education, is, apparently without any sense of irony, using this discovery as another opportunity to try and eviscerate Lincoln for racism. Obviously, owning a book does not automatically mean that one agrees with its premise. An argument has been made that Lincoln purchased the book to be more informed about the views of his opponents. Given the use of Types of Mankind by some Southerners to justify slavery, this certainly seems possible. But it should be noted that Lincoln never attacked slavery with arguments based on racial equality. When accused by Stephen Douglas of wanting a society with racial integration and equal rights, Lincoln denied the charge. His argument was that superiority did not give someone the right to enslave someone else. So it is highly unlikely that he ever planned to try and publicly refute scientific racism. The fact that he was in possession of a book that promoted scientific racism is not particularly earth shattering precisely because there has never been compelling evidence that he regarded blacks as equal to whites. There are, however, numerous quotes from him that are clearly racist.
To what extent can Lincoln’s racism be chalked up to the era in which he lived? I would caution strongly against completely excusing his racism based on him living in the 1800s but also against viewing him as equivalent to someone like Jefferson Davis or Strom Thurmond. On the one hand, the idea that all white people were racist in the 1800s is a myth that withers under closer scrutiny. Many white abolitionists, such as William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, and Lydia Maria Child, accompanied their denunciations of slavery with denunciations of racism. By attempting to argue that every one of Lincoln’s white contemporaries shared his opinions on race, we malign the small but dedicated group of antebellum whites who insisted on racial equality. Even within the GOP, Lincoln was often at odds with more progressive Republicans, known as “Radical Republicans,” including Senator Charles Sumner and Representative Thaddeus Stevens. At the same time, if one were to make a list of the most racist white Americans of the era, Lincoln would fail to even make the top 100. Most Democrats, North and South, argued that the Declaration of Independence’s statement that all men had certain inalienable rights did not apply to black men. Lincoln disagreed, arguing that people of every race had the right of self-ownership. Even the conservatives in Lincoln’s own party, like Edward Bates, were frustrated by Lincoln’s eventual support for black soldiers and his steadfast insistence that any attempts to resettle ex-slaves in Africa had to be voluntary, rather than acts of forced deportation. Furthermore, as important as it is to remember that Lincoln opposed banning slavery in the South for most of his career, it is also important to remember that he ran for reelection in 1864 on a platform of a constitutional amendment immediately outlawing slavery nationwide. Finally, I would be remiss in failing to point out that many of the same people who castigate Lincoln for his shortcomings on race seem very willing to overlook or make excuses for Founding Fathers like George Washington who owned slaves and drafted a proslavery Constitution. The man who became the first successful presidential candidate to run on a platform of abolition looks a sight better than people like Washington do. We should study Lincoln’s 1860 remark to Alexander Stephens that if Southerners were afraid of the federal government freeing their slaves, “there is no cause for such fears.” We should also study his quote, in the same letter, that, “You think slavery is right and ought to be extended; while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted. That I suppose is the rub. It certainly is the only substantial difference between us.”