Image: Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln Discussing Emancipation. 1942-1943 Hale Woodruff
When examining the subject of racism within the context of North American slavery, it is necessary to make a couple of crucial distinctions. First, we must differentiate between racism and bigotry, and second, between racism and abolitionism.
The word “racism” is used loosely to the extent that its meaning has somewhat diminished. Racism as we use the term can manifest in various ways. On one hand, it may involve simply recognizing differences among certain groups of people, such as variances in entertainment preferences, culinary tastes, or the utilization of an unfamiliar language. On the other hand, it can indicate genuine and sometimes violent animosity between groups with identifiable dissimilarities. Despite our conscious efforts to avoid overtly offensive behavior, thereby enabling self-claims of non-racism, every single person—without exception—harbors implicit racial biases.
It is important to note that not all biases are racist. For the purpose of this discussion, I will rely on Professor Fredrickson and designate the term “racist” to refer to someone who believes in the inherent and inescapable inferiority of another group based on an innate characteristic like skin color.1George M. Fredrickson, Racism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015), 5. Aversions based on acquired attributes, such as language, religion, or country of origin I will refer to as bigotry. The key distinction between racism and bigotry lies in the fact that racism inherently denies the possibility of equality with the perceived “other,” while bigotry leaves that possibility open. I can choose to change my religion, language, or renounce loyalty to my ancestral group, but I can never alter the color of my skin.
Abolitionism, the movement aimed at ending the institution of slavery, gained momentum in the United States during the first half of the nineteenth century. Many individuals, for various reasons, had come to believe that slavery, both in the United States and as a global practice, was immoral, even sinful. However, due to the racism defined earlier, numerous people who opposed slavery could not envision true equality with the black race.
In a typical introductory course on US History today, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution are referred to as the “Civil War Amendments,” implying an air of collective inevitability. However, as mentioned earlier, many staunch opponents of slavery who supported the Thirteenth Amendment harbored doubts or actively opposed granting citizenship and voting rights to former slaves through the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. One can be opposed to slavery and still hold racist beliefs. Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, Lincoln’s Vice President and successor, was an early advocate of the Thirteenth Amendment but vociferously opposed the Fourteenth. “This is a country for white men,” he wrote, “and by God, as long as I am President, it shall be a government for white men.”.2Quoted in Christopher Petrella and Ameer Hasan Loggins, “‘This Is a Country for White Men’: White Supremacy and U.S. Politics ..,” accessed July 19, 2023, https://www.aaihs.org/this-is-a-country-for-white-men-white-supremacy-and-u-s-politics/.
Now, let us explore the question at hand: Did Abraham Lincoln believe that black people were inherently and irredeemably inferior? The answer is complex. In the beginning we must consider the time period in which Lincoln lived. Regardless of our personal inclinations, each of us inherits a fundamental worldview from our culture. This concept is essential to grasp if we are to understand historical actors—individuals who shaped history—and even one another.
The ontological framework of a particular historical period profoundly influences our perception and understanding of all aspects of life, including race relations. Ontology refers to the fundamental beliefs, values, and assumptions about the nature of reality that underpin a society’s worldview. In the context of race relations, the ontological lens through which people perceive and interpret differences in human characteristics plays a crucial role. For example, during times when racial hierarchies were institutionalized, such as the era of slavery, the ontological understanding of race as a determinant of social status and power shaped the prevailing attitudes, policies, and interactions within society. Therefore, recognizing and analyzing the ontological foundations of a specific historical period is essential in understanding the dynamics and complexities of race relations within that context.
In the United States into which Abraham Lincoln was born, the prevailing ontological belief system positioned black individuals as inherently inferior to their white counterparts. The notion of racial equality was not a subject of regular contemplation or debate among the general populace. It existed as an ingrained understanding that permeated society. Lincoln, being a product of his time, likely internalized these beliefs without explicit recognition or reflection. Despite his opposition to slavery, his advocacy for colonization in his early career, which aimed to relocate freed African Americans to Africa, reveals a view that black people were fundamentally incompatible with American society and culture. This perspective was shaped by the prevalent ontological understanding of racial hierarchies and the perception of black individuals as inherently inferior. As late as 1858 Lincoln declared in the opening remarks of his fourth debate with Stephen Douglas,
I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the black and white races — that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold 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 inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.3Abraham Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings Vol. 2 1859-1865 (LOA #46) (New York, NY: Library of America, 1989), 636.
But over the course of Lincoln’s career, his conception of equality with black people evolved. As he navigated the complex landscape of the Civil War and engaged with prominent abolitionists, his perspective began to shift. Lincoln’s interactions with African American leaders and his growing understanding of their humanity challenged his earlier notions of inherent racial inferiority. Over time, he increasingly recognized the intrinsic worth and capacity for equality within the black community. This transformation culminated in significant steps toward racial justice, including the Emancipation Proclamation and his support for the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery.
The assessment of whether Abraham Lincoln was a racist is a nuanced and complex matter. While Lincoln’s early views and support for colonization in Africa reflect the influence of ontological racism, it is crucial to consider the evolution of his beliefs over time. As Lincoln navigated the challenges of the Civil War and engaged with abolitionists, his perspective on racial equality changed. Lincoln’s evolution was not without its limitations and his views on racial equality were shaped by the societal context in which he lived. Ultimately, while Lincoln’s journey demonstrates a progression away from racist ideologies, the assessment of his overall stance on racism remains a subject of ongoing discussion and interpretation among historians and scholars.
On the tenth anniversary of Lincoln’s death, the abolitionist and activist Frederick Douglass had this to say about him:
Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined…. taking him for all in all, measuring the tremendous magnitude of the work before him, considering the necessary means to ends, and surveying the end from the beginning, infinite wisdom has seldom sent any man into the world better fitted for his mission than Abraham Lincoln. 4Frederick Douglass, “An Oration in Memory of Abraham Lincoln | Teaching American History,” accessed July 19, 2023, https://teachingamericanhistory.org/document/oration-in-memory-of-abraham-lincoln/.