A recent article provides a good analysis of Abraham Lincoln's position on slavery and race: What Did He Really Think About Race? by James McPherson New York Review of Books 03/29/07 issue. (The New York Review puts its articles behind subscription after a few weeks, but this one is accessible at the time of this writing.)
McPherson is reviewing The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics, a new work by James Oakes, one of the leading Civil War historians. He opens with this illustration of why this is a challenging subject:
Abraham Lincoln was "emphatically, the black man's President," wrote the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass in 1865, "the first to show any respect for their rights as men." A decade later, however, in a speech at the unveiling of an emancipation monument in Washington, Douglass described Lincoln as "preeminently the white man's President." To his largely white audience on this occasion, Douglass declared that "you are the children of Abraham Lincoln. We are at best only his step-children." Later in the same speech, Douglass brought together his Hegelian thesis and antithesis in a final synthesis. Whatever Lincoln's flaws may have been in the eyes of racial egalitarians, he said "in his heart of hearts he loathed and hated slavery." His firm wartime leadership saved the nation and freed it "from the great crime of slavery.... The hour and the man of our redemption had met in the person of Abraham Lincoln."We'll let McPherson slide for confusing Kantian dialectics with Hegelian. But this contradictory image has given rise to various interpretations of Lincoln's positions over the decades, not all of them sound or honestly offered. Neo-Confederates have tried to argue that Lincoln was as much a racist as anyone else, as part of the Lost Cause mythology that slavery had nothing to do with the war. The idea being that a racist President would never have fought a war to abolish the Peculiar Institution.
The fundamental reality in a republic for whites that also maintained large-scale chattel slavery for most blacks, virtually no politician in the 1850s could have come to power with a straight-out abolitionist and equal rights program and hoped to be elected to Congressional office, much less the Presidency.
In any case, "sincerity" is a greatly overrated virtue in politics. Sure, I would prefer to have a Congress full of saints - who agree with me on the important issues, of course! But especially in our present-day situation, if we can't get politicians who are law-abiding and effective in getting constructive things done, I'm willing to have sainthood and sincerity take lower priorities until some Golden Age when settling for merely human government is no longer necessary. I expect it to be a long wait.
A main point of McPherson's in this essay is, in fact, the differing roles of reformers, in this case the abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass, and of politicians:
James Oakes believes that Lincoln possessed as much "anti-slavery conviction" as Douglass himself. "I have always hated slavery," said Lincoln in 1858, "as much as any Abolitionist." The difference between the two men was one of position and tactics, not conviction. Douglass was a radical reformer whose mission was to proclaim principles and to demand that the people and their leaders live up to them. Lincoln was a politician, a practitioner of the art of the possible, a pragmatist who subscribed to the same principles but recognized that they could only be achieved in gradual, step-by-step fashion through compromise and negotiation, in pace with progressive changes in public opinion and political realities. Oakes describes a symbiosis between the radical Douglass and the Republican Lincoln: "It is important to democracy that reformers like Frederick Douglass could say what needed to be said, but it is indispensable to democracy that politicians like Abraham Lincoln could do only what the law and the people allowed them to do." (my emphasis)To state the obvious, pleading "the art of the possible" is far more often an excuse for not doing something that a real reason for tactical maneuvering. But it makes a good excuse because it is a reality.
But what is true of a democracy is not always true of less participative forms of government. And in the 1850s, the United States had a democracy for white men, not for women or blacks or Native Americans. Not even close. Some women had been able to vote around 1800, but that enlightened practice had largely faded by the 1850s.
That's why, even in these days where the extra-legal violence of terrorism is deeply suspect for good reasons, from today's perspective we can't dismiss the goals of old John Brown out of hand and write him off as a simple fanatic. John Brown did stand for something very much like the concept of equal rights for all people in the sense that we know it today. In actual practice, we only got to some like Brown's understanding for freedom and equality by going through the process that made Lincoln, not Brown, the Great Emancipator. But Brown also is a reminder that it's not entirely an "anachronism" (reading present standards into the past) to evaluate politics of the 1850s from the standpoint of racial and gender equality, however low either of them were on the nation's list of priorities then. The 13th and 14th Amendments did establish racial equality for men in the Constitution in a basic sense, though that reality has yet to be fulfilled today. There's an argument to be made that the 14th Amendment establishes legal equality for women, as well, though the Supreme Court has never accepted that interpretation (although I believe they came within one vote of doing so on one occasion.)
And Douglass, who was a great admirer and partial co-conspirator of Brown's who also shared his general view of human freedom, was not willing at critical moments to be pure rather than effective:
But in Douglass's view, Lincoln backslid after issuing the proclamation. Just as the President had seemed too slow in 1862 to embrace emancipation, he seemed similarly tardy in 1864 to embrace equal rights for freed slaves. For a time Douglass even supported efforts to replace Lincoln with a more radical Republican candidate for president in the election of 1864. In the end, however, when the only alternative to Lincoln was the Democratic nominee George B. McClellan, whose election might jeopardize the antislavery gains of the previous two years, Douglass came out for Lincoln. "When there was any shadow of a hope that a man of more anti-slavery conviction and policy could be elected," he wrote, "I was not for Mr. Lincoln." But with the prospect of the (miscalled) Democratic party ... clearly before us, all hesitation ought to cease, and every man who wishes well to the slave and to the country should at once rally with all the warmth and earnestness of his nature to the support of Abraham Lincoln.And as a contemporary of Lincoln's who long survived him, Douglass' placing of Lincoln in the context of his times - "context" also being a favorite excuse of the reactionary and the complacent - is hard to ignore:
Looking back in 1876, Douglass acknowledged that while from the standpoint of the abolitionists "Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent," he was considerably to the left of the political center on the slavery issue. "Measure him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult," and Lincoln "was swift, zealous, radical, and determined." Oakes carries this point a step further. Lincoln the politician was a master of misdirection, of appearing to appease conservatives while manipulating them toward acceptance of radical policies. Douglass and many other contemporaries failed to appreciate or even to understand Lincoln's political legerdemain. Many historians have similarly failed. But Oakes both understands and appreciates it, and he analyzes with more clarity and precision than anyone else the "typically backhanded way" in which Lincoln handled slavery, which "obscured the radicalism of his move." (my emphasis)Douglass was the leading African-American abolitionist of his time. The fact that he regarded Lincoln as compared to most whites as "swift, zealous, radical, and determined" to abolish slavery says a lot.
McPherson, citing Oakes, brings up a wrinkle that I've never seen mentioned before. When Lincoln reversed the local emancipation action by the flamboyant and mercurial John Charles Fremont in Missouriearly in the war, he also used that action to established the practice and principle that the "confiscation" of slave property by the Union Army meant that the human being so confiscated were thereby liberated from slavery.
This doesn't get at the question of whether Lincoln's motivation in that case, fear that the border slave states would go over to the Confederacy, was well-founded. But it does give an important perspective on Lincoln's view of slavery.
McPherson provides other examples that give similar glimpses into Lincoln's thinking on this issue.
While it doesn't resolve all the questions around it, Lincoln did use white racism as a way to, as McPherson puts it, "separate the issue of bondage from that of race." That is, to reassure white voters that they could hate both slavery and black people. He gives this as one example:
Lincoln's racial attitudes were also a target of Douglass's criticisms until 1864. On this subject, Oakes offers some original and incisive insights. The main charge of racism against Lincoln focuses on his statements during the debates with Stephen A. Douglas in 1858. Lincoln rejected Douglas's accusation that he favored racial equality — a volatile issue in Illinois that threatened Lincoln's political career if the charge stuck. Goaded by Douglas's repeated playing of the race card, Lincoln declared in one of the debates that "I am not, nor have ever been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races." It would be easy, comments Oakes, "to string such quotations together and show up Lincoln as a run-of-the-mill white supremacist." But in private, Lincoln was much less racist than most whites of his time. He was "disgusted by the race-baiting of the Douglas Democrats" and he "made the humanity of blacks central to his antislavery argument." In a speech at Chicago in 1858, Lincoln pleaded: "Let us discard all this quibbling about...this race and that race and the other race being inferior, and therefore they must be placed in an inferior position," and instead "once more stand up declaring that all men are created equal."Whether that approach of partially using white racism to oppose slavery - for many and probably most whites, absence of slavery meant the absence of blacks or at least no more than a small presence - was the best political strategy is a meaningful argument. But it's also important to recognize that there was more to Lincoln's public pronouncements on race to an all-white electorate than simple racism or bigotry.
McPherson puts Lincoln's public support of colonizing American blacks to Africa, a scheme which was always a crackpot idea though it had wide support among white abolitionists, in a similar light:
After issuing the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, Lincoln never again mentioned colonization. He also stopped using racism as a strategic diversion. By March 1863 he strongly endorsed the recruitment of black soldiers to fight for the Union, and in response to prodding by Douglass and other abolitionists he supported passage of legislation to equalize the pay of black and white soldiers. In the last year of the war, the President also endorsed giving the right to vote to two overlapping groups: literate African-Americans and all black veterans of the Union army.Tags: abraham lincoln, civil war, emancipation proclamation, frederick douglass, james mcpherson, slavery, stephen oakes, us civil war
When Lincoln came under enormous pressure in the summer of 1864 to waive his insistence on Southern acceptance of the abolition of slavery as a precondition for peace negotiations, he eloquently refused to do so. "No human power can subdue this rebellion without using the Emancipation lever as I have done," he insisted. By that time more than one hundred thousand black soldiers and sailors were fighting for the Union. "If they stake their lives for us they must be prompted by the strongest motive," the promise of freedom. "And the promise being made, must be kept." To jettison emancipation would ruin the Union cause itself.... Why should they give their lives for us, with full notice of our purpose to betray them?... I should be damned in time & in eternity for so doing. The world shall know that I will keep my faith to friends & enemies, come what will. (my emphasis)