Abraham Lincoln, White Supremacist?

Much of what Abraham Lincoln said and wrote in his own day still resonates with us today because it comports with our ideas of liberty, equality, democracy, etc.  But then there are those few disturbing statements such as the following:

I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races.  There is a physical difference between the two, which in my judgment will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality, and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a difference, I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong, having the superior position.  I have never said anything to the contrary…

Does this statement, made by Lincoln during the first of his great debates with Stephen Douglas in 1858, and which he later repeated and defended, mean that Lincoln was a white supremacist?

To answer this question, we must consider the statement itself and its context, as well as the entire body of Lincoln’s speeches and writings.

In regards to the statement itself, to prefer that one race hold a superior position in society is not the same as saying that that race is actually superior in any particular quality, and it would seem to fall short of what is usually meant today by “white supremacy”.  And we will later see that when it came time for him to compare the races, Lincoln would speak more tentatively.

In regards to the context, Lincoln was attempting to unseat Douglas as one of Illinois’ two Senators in the U.S. Congress.  He was the candidate of the newly-formed Republican Party, a diverse group of people whose unifying cause was their opposition to the spread of slavery into the west and the north of the country.  Some of the Republicans were abolitionists, advocating for the immediate emancipation of the slaves with no compensation paid to their owners, while others, such as Lincoln, were more in favor of gradual, voluntary, compensated emancipation.

Douglas and the Democrats had resorted to race-baiting by making the case that the ‘Black Republican party’ was in favor not only of immediate emancipation, but also of amalgamation, i.e., a mixing of the races, even intermarriage.  Lincoln’s statement cited above was in response to these provocative words by Douglas:

Do you desire to … allow the free negroes to flow in, and cover your prairies with black settlements?  Do you desire to turn this beautiful State into a free negro colony, in order that when Missouri abolishes slavery she can send one hundred thousand emancipated slaves into Illinois, to become citizens and voters, on an equality with yourselves?  If you desire negro citizenship, if you desire to allow them to come into the State and settle with the white man, if you desire them to vote on an equality with yourselves, and to make them eligible to office, to serve on juries, and to adjudge your rights, then support Mr. Lincoln and the Black Republican party.

In a state like Illinois, which didn’t allow slavery but which also greatly discouraged settlement by free blacks, this played well.  No abolitionist could have won a statewide election in Illinois at that time, and an ‘amalgamationist’ would have been run out of town, if not worse.  Lincoln, therefore, who was neither abolitionist nor ‘amalgamationist’, naturally defended himself against these kinds of charges.  Thus his previous statement and others such as: “I do not understand that because I do not want a negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife.  My understanding is that I can just let her alone.

When Lincoln spoke of a physical difference between the races which “will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality”, and of one race having a superior position, he was likely simply stating what an honest review of world history would have taught him.  History is replete of conflicts between peoples of different ethnicities, religions, classes, etc., which inevitably seem to result in the domination by one group over the other; it is likewise nearly devoid of examples of peaceful, equitable coexistence.  Lincoln therefore concluded quite rationally that “inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a difference, I … am in favor of the race to which I belong, having the superior position”.

But did that mean that the black race must serve the white race as slaves?  That would be the conclusion of the leaders of the future Confederacy, clearly stated by Alexander Stephens in his “Cornerstone Speech”.  But it was not the conclusion of Lincoln, who continued as follows:

… but I hold that notwithstanding all this, there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man.  I agree with Judge Douglas he is not my equal in many respects – certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment.  But in the right to eat the bread, without leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man.

As alluded to earlier, we see here that when Lincoln had a clear opportunity to make a case for “white supremacy”, he spoke cautiously and tentatively.  He could say definitively only that the black race was not equal to the white in color, and just perhaps not equal in morality or intelligence.

But where did this kind of thinking lead Lincoln in terms of finding a solution to the “race problem”?  Given that slavery was not an acceptable solution, and living alongside one another in equality seemed an impossibility, Lincoln, following Henry Clay and others, was led to conclude that the best solution was colonization: send the slaves and free blacks somewhere else to live, where they could govern themselves.  This might be back to Africa, or it might be a new colony somewhere in central or South America or the Caribbean.  To Lincoln, only this would be truly consistent with the American ideal of self-government.  As he had said in a speech a few years earlier: “When the white man governs himself that is self-government; but when he governs himself, and also governs another man, that is more than self-government – that is despotism.

Colonization would allow the black man to govern himself, and Lincoln would cling stubbornly to it well into his Presidency.  Thankfully, however, he was a man who was humble enough to change his views; as he wrote to Horace Greeley on the subject of emancipation: “I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views”.  Remarkably, it was Frederick Douglass and other black leaders who finally convinced Lincoln that colonization wasn’t a practicable solution, and so he turned his attention to figuring out how the two races could live side-by-side.  In his last speech, for example, delivered just three days before his assassination, he advocated publicly for the first time giving the right to vote, and therefore also citizenship, to at least certain blacks.

By this time Lincoln had no doubt also given up any notion he might previously have had about the inferiority of the black race.  Frederick Douglass, who discussed the war and emancipation with Lincoln on at least two occasions in the White House, noted that he was received with dignity, “just as you have seen one gentleman receive another … I was never more quickly or more completely put at ease in the presence of a great man”.  Lincoln would later call Douglass his friend, and many years later Douglass would write in his memoirs: “Mr. Lincoln was not only a great president, but a great man – too great to be small in anything.  In his company I was never in any way reminded of my humble origin, or of my unpopular color.

Abraham Lincoln, white supremacist?  Perhaps he was at one point in his life, in a limited sense, but it would be far more accurate to consider him a “human supremacist”, one who believed in and sought to elevate all of humankind to reach their inherent and God-given potential.

Kevin J. Wood

August 17, 2017