A Two Part Essay on Lincoln and Race
A Two Part Essay on Lincoln and Race 1846 - 1865
By Jeff Schneider
Part I: Race in the 1840s and 1850s
Since Abraham Lincoln entered Congress in 1847 and opposed the Mexican War, thinking about his political and moral actions has been fraught with the most powerful emotions for historians and lay people alike. The beliefs in American exceptionalism, liberal democracy, equality, and the newly resurfaced and menacing belief in white supremacy have cohabited in our collective consciousness since the founding. The journalist, Nicole Hannah-Jones, has insisted that 1619, not 1607, 1620 nor 1776 was the proper date for the true beginning of the United States: When 20 Africans, some of whom were sold into slavery by a Dutch trader, stepped on the shore of the James River in shackles. Truth be told, slavery did not become prominent in Virginia until after the last quarter of the 17th century. One American history Advanced Placement textbook, the American Pageant, made a similarly preposterous claim regarding liberal democracy and American exceptionalism in its early editions: The white English invaders were driven "by the hand of destiny (in 1607) to plant the seeds" of liberal democracy and a "mighty nation" just by placing their feet on that same shore.(1) Abraham Lincoln famously called the American experiment the "last best hope of mankind." Finally, as a rough summary of these national themes and obsessions, in his 4th of July Oration Frederick Douglass denounced the American slave trade by describing how "drovers" whipped and and shouted while they forced men, women and children like swine through Washington DC under the cover of darkness befouling the "Grand Illuminated Temple of Liberty!"
Lincoln had to navigate each of those strong American currents as a political and and moral leader during his career. It turns out, however, his evolution, even as president, was characterized by change driven both by the necessity to win the Civil War and to fulfill his "personal wish that every man everywhere could be free." But he was not alone in his zigzag journey toward abolition and then equality. However, His sense of right in the use of American power was a steady through-line in his political evolution. This essay contains a discussion lesson on Lincoln and race in the 1840s and 50s.
When President James Polk provoked the Mexican War in 1846 Lincoln attacked the fake news Young Hickory invented that the US owned the land between the Nueces and Rio Grande Rivers in the Mexican state of Texas. He sent troops commanded by General Zachary Taylor to "defend" the territory. When Mexican soldiers fired on the invaders, Polk claimed they had "shed American blood on American soil." Lincoln later explained to his law partner, William Herndon, on February 15, 1848: "The soil was not ours and Congress did not annex it or attempt to annex it.... Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion... and you allow him to make war at pleasure. Study to see if you can fix any limit to his power in this respect" Honest Abe in 1848. His moral sense was unwavering. The Democrats called him "Spotty Lincoln" for his resolutions in the House of Representatives to determine who owned the "spot" where Zachary Taylor and his troops were fired upon. The Mexican War was the issue that intensified the dangerous slavery controversies which led directly to the turbulent 1850s and the Civil War. We start our discussion of abolitionism with the moral firebrand of abolitionism, William Lloyd Garrison, who also came to a strict moral sense, on slavery supported by what Martin Luther King Jr. called "the beloved community" His route was also a circuitous one.
Garrison was the leader of the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS), which at its peak counted between 150,000 and 200,000 followers maintaining a staunch position calling for abolition in all the states, North and South. He also sponsored or worked with a great number of women's and Black male and female abolition groups, some of which met with the AASS. They were immediate abolition groups like his led by the some of the most famous activists of the middle of the 19th century: the great Lydia Maria Child, Sarah and Angelina Grimke, and Lucretia Mott. The Black women Charlotte and Sarah Forten also worked independently and in concert with Garrison. Yet Garrison began his career advocating that the enslaved should be freed and then go to to Africa in a scheme called colonization. Dropping Colonization in 1831 he founded the Immediate Abolitionist newspaper, the Liberator which became the voice of the AASS. In 1840 there were splits in AASS when women were voted into prominence in the Society and then further disagreements when some who left the organization wanted to run for Congress. In Garrison's view, the Constitution supported slavery. It was a "covenant with death", and Garrison saw the deeply religious character of moral suasion as a key to the policies of a successful movement. This was his beloved community to which some of the politically inclined men also objected. Some men who left the AASS disagreed with Garrison on the Constitution, with some determining at various times thereafter, that the slaves were referred to as "persons" in the famous clauses like the 3/5 Compromise, the International Slave Trade Compromise and the Fugitive Slave Clause. They were called "other persons," "such persons" and "no person" in each of these clauses respectively. Since the word slavery was not in the Constitution, it was possible to use the Constitution to eliminate slavery by running for congress and passing laws to outlaw in the territories or everywhere.
As the anti-slavery movement developed, there were Free Soilers who only wanted to prevent slavery from going to the territories, but they would leave slavery as it was in the South. Some Free Soilers objected to Black people going into the western lands and some did not. Other Free Soilers believed that the Blacks were equal to the whites (which Garrison did for example), but others did not, yet they favored free Blacks going to the territories. Lincoln was right in the middle of these points of view in the 1850s. He opposed slavery in the territories, and believed that Blacks should work for wages and be equal before the law, but in referring to a Black woman in 1857 he said, "In some respects she is certainly not my equal, but in her natural right to eat the bread she earns with her own hands without asking the leave of anyone else she is my equal and the equal of all others."(2) How she "is not my equal" is unclear. Free Soil ideas are an aspect of the "foreign country" of the past, as Natalie Zemon Davis would say.
Now let us see how this works out using examples of Free Soil writing. I introduced the discussion in class by saying how lucky we are that our school is so diverse (we were 70% minority) and that you students deal with race every day. I said that, "You were experts on race. It is wonderful that we never had fights over race. Our analysis will be informed by your daily experience in the halls and in class."
Free Soil Editorial
We are opposed to the extension of slavery because it diminishes the productive power of it's population....It is an obstacle to compact settlements and to every system of public institution. (If slavery goes into the territories) the free labor of all the states will not.... (If) the free labor of all the states will go there, the slave labor of the southern states will not, and in a few years the country will team with an active and energetic population.
New York Evening Post 1847
To begin our discussions of slavery and race, I would ask a student to read the paragraph above out loud. The students would say in response that the ideas reflect the Wilmot Proviso, the lodestone of the slavery controversy. It created havoc in the Congress. Using words of Thomas Jefferson's Northwest Ordinance David Wilmot, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, wrote his Proviso making it apply to the Mexican War: "There shall be no slavery or involuntary servitude in any territory acquired from Mexico." This became an amendment added to bills that were to appropriate money for the expenses of the war. It passed in the House but failed in the Senate preventing the appropriations from going through. The House had a majority of representatives from the North because the white population was much greater than the population of the South, overwhelming the 3/5 Compromise.
This had been the situation since 1818 when Congress was similarly upended by the anti-slavery Northern representatives over the admission of Missouri as a slave state. The vote on the Proviso always failed in the Senate because there were northern Senators who voted with the South on slavery questions. These Senators were northern men with southern views who were called Dough Faces by the anti-slavery congressmen because they had dough on their faces. My teacher, Herbert Gutman, told us that Calhoun's political power relied on counting votes in the Senate to block anti-slavery measures, just as the Republicans are using the filibuster in 2022 against voting rights legislation and the Dixiecrats did in the 1950s and early 60s to prevent Civil Rights legislation. The House was usually anti-slavery, so President Polk had to convince enough northern Democrats not to vote or vote against the Proviso to force appropriations for the war through both houses of Congress.
Now, how do we understand the editorial? It is certainly anti-slavery, but what is the argument? The students quickly find the sentence with the parenthesis to be the key one. It is an economic argument -- as American as apple pie: The West is a place to make money. It is not always easy for the students to find what is missing from this anti-slavery argument. Finally we get to a surprising part of the meaning. The editorial avoids the moral question: It does not say that slavery is wrong. David Wilmot and many of his colleagues were deeply racist. " I have no squeamish sensitiveness upon the subject of slavery, nor morbid sympathy for the slave," he said. "I plead the cause and the rights of white freemen." (3)
Next we discussed a sentence quoted in the New York Tribune in 1851.
"Equality is one thing, familiarity another." (4)
This is obviously a different take on the questions of Free Soil and race. These 6 words would elicit the answers from my students that all could be correct, but might contradict one another. Some of the answers were: It is in favor of equality, or it is racist because it is only in favor of equality before the law, like in the Bill of Rights. The latter refers to equality that is granted by the government, not natural rights. It means separate but equal. Or it does mean there is a natural right to equality like in the Declaration of Independence. In addition students would ask what familiarity means. Then they would come up with being friends, but not close friends, or they could live in the same neighborhoods -- or not, because familiarity is not linked to equality -- or maybe it is! Does it mean that whites can be friends with Blacks. Yes! Do Blacks and whites have to be friends. No! Can whites not have Black friends or can Blacks not have white friends.Yes and Yes!
Drawing this out produces a wide array of feelings and ideas. Then, I ask if people who believe each one of those possibilities can all agree with the "simple" quote from 1851. The answer of course is: Yes! It seems that the minimum you have to believe to agree with the sentence. is equality before the law, but you do not have to believe that Blacks and whites are equal or that you want to live in the same neighborhood as with Blacks or with whites. There were people, like David Wilmot who believed that whites were superior and, truth be told, there were people who believed that Blacks were superior because some of the greatest civilizations were in Africa and Southwest Asia. These peoples were reading Latin and Greek and were educated in mathematics, when the whites who later emigrated to the US were living in the Dark Ages in Europe. The quote takes in a series of positions that Free Soilers could have and still be in the same organization calling for preventing slavery from spreading to the West. It is an algebraic statement: it has many values that could satisfy the Free Soil ideology. A solution to a quadratic equation like + or - 3 cannot hold a candle to this complex of answers. Only pro-slavery was excluded. The disagreements could be worked out later, but by the end of the war most of the North united around anti-slavery, and even David Wilmot, as racist as he was, was a founding member of both the Free Soil Party and the Republican Party in Pennsylvania. The Republicans had essentially the same position as the Free Soilers: Leave slavery where it is and exclude it from the territories.
I must point out that these convoluted positions of most of the anti-slavery men and women were not the only positions in the 1840s and 50s. Frederick Douglass believed in equality of the races and fought with his fists against segregation in Rochester in public transportation for himself and in the schools for his daughter. He married a white woman in the 1880s and believe it or not got grief from some of his friends in the abolition movement. He received a letter of congratulations from his old friend Elizabeth Cady Stanton who bemoaned those who denounced him. Wendell Philips, a Garrisonian and the Radical Republicans, Gerrit Smith, Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens all believed that the races had the same natural right to equality at least by the late 50s and 60s. So a plethora of variations on the questions of race and equality were represented in the 1840s and 50s. The range went from David Wilmot to the Radical Republicans listed just above. Lincoln was somewhere in the middle of all this, as I mentioned before.
This is a wonderful discussion which the students appreciate because they rarely, if ever, get a chance to discuss these questions so frankly. It gives everyone a chance to see the possibilities in a public and interracial setting. Robin DiAngelo to the contrary notwithstanding. And it is instructive because it reinforces one of the keys to historical thinking: the people in the past had ideas that you can agree with or not, but their range commands respect for the people who lived before us.
Now we have entered the world of the anti-slavery movement of the 1850s. It was Lincoln's milieu. He had been a Whig who had followed Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. Therefore he was in favor of the Fugitive Slave Law and the rest of the Compromise of 1850. He also supported their position on colonization of free Blacks to go to Liberia. Which, to be clear, was a voluntary suggestion, not a deportation. Until the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January 1, 1863 he held that position. He mentioned it from time to time before then, as in the Cooper Union speech in 1860, but he never went back to it after he turned the Civil War into a fight against slavery. Anti-slavery northerners from the Democrats and the Whigs had been joining the Republicans since 1854 after the Kansas Nebraska Act passed. Lincoln joined the Republican Party in 1856. The Republicans were founded as a protest against Stephen Douglas's scheme to make Kansas open to slavery by popular sovereignty.
That is a procedure whereby the residents of a new territory could elect a legislature to write a constitution which could be open to slavery or closed to slavery. The problem, of course, was that Kansas was north of the Missouri Compromise Line which had prevented slavery in the territory since 1820. To get the bill passed Douglas made a deal with southerners to repeal the line, thus opening slavery to the whole area west of the Mississippi except for California. This was a disaster for the anti-slavery North and further proof that the slave power had increased it's sway in the federal government. In his Cooper Union speech, which he gave in 1860, Lincoln characterized the mechanism of the Kansas Nebraska Act as that "gur-eat pur-rinciple" that "if one man should enslave another no third man should object fantastically called 'Popular Sovereignty.'"
See the map below from 1856. The territory in green was now open to slavery. (5)
Kansas did not become a state until 1861 because a pro-slavery constitution would be defeated in the House and an anti-slavery constitution would be defeated by the dough faces in the Senate.(6 ) By 1856 the tension had become so great that the slave staters surrounded the free state city of Lawrence, burned the hotel, destroyed the printing press and shot up the town with guns and cannon. This attack was called the Sack of Lawrence which took place on May 21, 1856. Miraculously, no one was killed, but John Brown and his sons brutally murdered sleeping slave staters on May 29,1856 and Bleeding Kansas began. It was a mini civil war, with terrorists on both sides. I have not been able to find a reliable number for the people who died in the fighting which showed a potential for terrorism that we are seeing to- day. The white supremacists on January 6, 2021 are the descendants of the slave-state terrorists in 1856 - 1861.
The Sack of Lawrence was followed the next day by the famous caning of Senator Charles Sumner on the floor of the Senate. Sumner had made a speech which attacked both Senator Stephen Douglas, Democrat of Illinois and Senator Andrew Butler Democrat of South Carolina; He was beaten nearly to death by the repeated blows of a cousin of Butler, Preston Brooks, who was a representative from South Carolina. The brutal attack kept Sumner out of the Senate for three years. It was this that convinced Lincoln to join the Republican Party. Sumner's 5 hour speech was called the "The Crime Against Kansas." Here are two short sections from the speech which are rarely quoted, but they give you a feel for the tension in the politics of the middle 1850s:
It is the rape of a virgin Territory, compelling (Kansas) to the hateful embrace of Slavery; and it may be clearly traced to a depraved longing for a new slave State, the hideous offspring of such a crime, in the hope of adding to the power of slavery in the National Government. ...If the slave States cannot enjoy what, in mockery of the great fathers of the Republic, he misnames equality under the Constitution in other words, the full power in the National Territories to compel fellowmen to unpaid toil, to separate husband and wife, and to sell little children at the auction block then, sir, the chivalric Senator will conduct the State of South Carolina out of the Union! Heroic knight ! Exalted Senator! A second Moses come for a second exodus! (7)
The language is extreme, but the threat of the spread of slavery and the threat of secession were real dangers not just language in debate. Sumner matched the threat with his language. The minority of the South tried to impose their will on the population of the North which was 22 million to 5.5 million whites in the South in 1860. There were 4 million slaves. The tone of the 1850s was more extreme than we have now on the Senate floor, but President Biden did compare the Republicans who oppose the restoration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to Governor Wallace and Jefferson Davis, and a majority of Republicans in Congress and out still support the Big Lie about the 2020 election.
The conflict continued when the Dred Scott decision in 1857 made all the laws prohibiting the spread of slavery unconstitutional. Chief Justice Roger Taney tried to to settle all the conflicts over slavery once and for all attempting to exclude the Republican Party from politics. Taney claimed in addition that Black people had "no rights that a white man was bound to respect." That was a clear falsehood since Black people had voted since the 1780s in New York, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Despite Taney's statement that " the right of property in a slave is distinctly and expressly confirmed in the Constitution..." In the Cooper Union speech Lincoln explained that "neither the word slave nor slavery is to be found in Constitution." The fundamental law makes no connection between property and those "persons" mentioned above. These were precisely the arguments that abolitionists Gerrit Smith, Frederick Douglass and others used as a rationale for leaving the AASS and engaging in political action. Taney claimed the absurd mantle of literalism as a way to interpret the constitution, he called the method using the "plain words." But he was wrong on the the facts. More fake news.
It was such a alarming decision that it became a cause of the Civil War. It denied that Blacks were citizens and therefore could not sue -- So according to Taney Scott had no standing. How could there be a case when the plaintiff was not a citizen? Lincoln also discussed just this point in his Cooper Union speech. The decision was a hodge podge that inflamed the conflict over slavery in the West: Taney was the only justice who voted for all the provisions that comprised the majority opinion. After Lincoln was elected the southern tier of states -- South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas seceded even before he took office: they had no future in the country if the West were to be free territory.
Here is an editorial from after the election of 1860 from a Douglas newspaper in Atlanta:
Let the consequences be what they may whether the Potomac is crimsoned in human gore and Pennsylvania Ave is paved ten fathoms deep with mangled bodies....The South will never submit to such humiliation and degradation as the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln.
Now that we understand the ideas of race and the political solutions that reflected them, we are ready to discuss Lincoln's dramatic change from free soil to complete emancipation and how he expressed that in proclamations, letters and speeches. That will all be discussed in Part II of this essay. Let us end with the dramatic closing of the Cooper Union speech. Truth and moral reasoning force and hope.
LET US HAVE FAITH THAT THE RIGHT MAKES MIGHT AND IN
THAT FAITH LET US DARE TO DO OUR DUTY AS WE UNDERSTAND IT.
1 See American Pageant 14th edition p.30 by Thomas Bailey
2 Quoted in Free Soil Free Labor Free Men by Eric Foner p. 296.
3 Quoted in The Free Soilers by Frederick J. Blue p. 87.
4 Quoted in Free Soil Free Labor Free Men by Eric Foner p.292
5 Open up the pdf of the map which might be better color than the JPEG in the text.
6 The NW Ordinance was the method by which new states came into the union. So the proposed constitutions of Kansas had to be approved by Congress and signed by the president. President Pierce was a dough face from New Hampshire, therefore he favored a pro-slavery constitution.
7 "The Crime Against Kansas" By Charles Sumner May 19 - 20 1856 https://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook.cfm?smtID=3&psid=3915