Abraham Lincoln’s complex views on race and slavery

In the US, Abraham Lincoln has reached the status of secular saint so that even in these partisan times, no member of either major party will dare criticize him. In fact, Republicans will point to the fact that he was a Republican to deflect the charge that they are racists or at least racist-adjacent.

Although I was generally aware of the story of Lincoln and his role in ending slavery, I had never actually read a detailed treatment about the man himself. I really did not know much about Lincoln apart from the bits and pieces that I gathered here and there but there was one thing that I knew about him that bothered me, and that was what he said during one of his debates with Stephen Douglas when they were competing in 1858 for the US Senate seat in Illinois. It was jarring, utterly at odds with what people commonly think about him, that he was a believer in equality for Black people that resulted in him being given the title of The Great Emancipator

He said:

“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, not 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 racial 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 as much as any other man I am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.” (Meacham, p. xxxii)

That is unequivocally racist in sentiment. And it was not some youthful position that he later outgrew, since he was 49 years old at the time, just two years before he was elected president. And although his views did evolve, there is no evidence that he ever repudiated those sentiments. There were many white political contemporaries of Lincoln, such as senators Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner, who were unequivocal in their support of Black equality, so Lincoln was definitely backward on this issue.

In trying to understand Lincoln better, I read the new biography of Abraham Lincoln And there was light: Abraham Lincoln and the American struggle by historian Jon Meacham. The biography covers his entire life and is far too extensive to summarize here. I want to focus here on Lincoln’s views about Black people and slavery. I also read Forever Free and Reconstruction, both by historian Eric Foner.

From these treatments, it is clear that throughout his life, starting from a young age, Lincoln abhorred slavery and wanted it eliminated. For example, he also said in that same year during the fifth debate with Douglas: “I have only to say, let us discard all this quibbling about this man and the other man – this race and that race and the other race being inferior, and therefore they must be placed in an inferior position” and “Let us discard all these things, and unite as one people throughout this land, until we shall once more stand up declaring that all men are created equal.”

These contradictions also showed up in his work as a lawyer.

In 1847, Lincoln unsuccessfully represented a slave owner who tried to hold several enslaved people in bondage after bringing them from Kentucky to work on a property of the slave owner’s in Illinois… On another occasion he won an 1845 case defending “an abolitionist who had been charged with aiding fugitive slaves.” (Meacham, p. 115)

How does one square the two seemingly contradictory positions, that he hated slavery but did not think that Blacks were the equal of whites in every sphere of life? As Meacham says:

“That he did not seek political or social equality between whites and Blacks , and his occasional use of the N-word including in the debates with Douglas, raise difficult questions about Lincoln’s own views on race. However deep his antislavery commitment, he was a white man in a white-dominated nation shaped by anti-Black prejudice that he to some extent shared. As his defenders have noted, Lincoln had respectful dealings with free Black people in Springfield, including representing Black clients, and he would welcome Black callers to the White House – details that suggest more of an egalitarian attitude than many of his white contemporaries shared.” (p. 164)

Lincoln also forcefully challenged the basis for slavery, saying that any argument that justified the owning of one person over another (such as color, intellectual superiority) could be turned around to make the enslaver into a slave. If color was the marker of who was superior, then a person of lighter color could make any darker person his slave, even if both were white. If intelligence was the criterion, then anyone with a superior intellect to yours could make you his slave. Any argument made by someone in favor of slavery could be turned around to make them the slave. (Meacham, p. 166)

He could be forceful in his assertions about the right of slaves to be free. His abhorrence of slavery was not due to a grand belief in the equality of all people (which we have seen he did not fully share) but in his feeling that it was wrong to deny anyone the fruits of his labor, as indicated in this passage.

“There was, Lincoln said in Ottawa, “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 that 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, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas and the equal of every living man.” (Meacham, p. 165)

The power of this limited argument should not be discounted. In Chapter XI of his memoir Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, the escaped slave and fierce abolitionist talks of the joy of keeping to himself the money that he had earned by his own efforts.

I found employment, the third day after my arrival, in stowing a sloop with a load of oil. It was new, dirty, and hard work for me; but I went at it with a glad heart and a willing hand. I was now my own master. It was a happy moment, the rapture of which can be understood only by those who have been slaves. It was the first work, the reward of which was to be entirely my own. There was no Master Hugh standing ready, the moment I earned the money, to rob me of it. I worked that day with a pleasure I had never before experienced. I was at work for myself and newly-married wife.

The South had been threatening to secede if the North sought to abolish slavery. The main concern of Lincoln during his campaign for the presidency in 1860 was to preserve the Union and thus he took great pains to reassure the slave states that he would not forcibly end slavery, because he feared that it would cause them to leave the Union. He later explained that his main priority was to preserve the union, that everything else, including the abolition of slavery, was subordinate to that primary goal and he would do whatever it took to do so.

“If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help the Union…. I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free.” (Letter to New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley, August 22, 1862, Meacham p. 277-8, italics in original)

But despite his reassurances that he would not force his anti-slavery views on the slave states, his strong views against slavery were so well known that when he was elected to the presidency in 1860, the slave states in the South began their secession from the Union even before he took office in March 1861.

It is not that well-known that the Civil War was not exactly between the free states in the North and the slave states of the South. There were also four border states (Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri) that had slavery but did not secede along with the South and remained part of the Union. Lincoln was concerned that taking too strong a stance against slavery might result in these states leaving the Union and joining the Confederacy thus weakening the Union side and causing them to lose. Even his famous Emancipation Declaration issued on January 1, 1863 did not result in all slaves being freed. It was careful to only declare free those slaves who lived in states that had seceded. But since the Union had not as yet defeated those states, they could not enforce the decree, and the slaves there remained captives. The slaves in the four Union slave states, since they had not seceded, were also not freed by that Proclamation. The decree also excluded Tennessee and parts of Virginia and Louisiana that had been captured by Union forces.

The only slaves who were actually freed on that day were 10,000 who lived in the South Islands off the coast of South Carolina that was occupied by Union forces early in the Civil War in 1861. But the process had been set in motion and the actual freeing of slaves took place gradually over time as Union forces steadily gained ground, capturing more and more Confederate territory and freeing the slaves there. Even though the Confederate general Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union general Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865, the process of freeing the slaves was not ended at that moment. It was completed on what is now known as ‘Juneteenth’ (June 19, 1865) when Union forces finally reached Galveston, Texas and ordered the enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation, completing the actual freeing of all slaves in the Confederacy.

But even by then all slaves were not freed. While the Union slave state of Maryland abolished slavery on November 1, 1864 and Missouri did so in January 11, 1865, Kentucky and Delaware held out longer and slavery only ended there with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution abolishing slavery (that was passed by Congress on January 31, 1865) and was ratified on December 6, 1865.

However, Lincoln did not live to see the end of slavery, having been assassinated on April 15, 1865, shortly after taking office for his second term. But his enduring legacy is that he preserved the Union and ended slavery, which entitles him to the high regard with which he is now held, even if his views on racial equality were not as enlightened as one would have liked.


  1. birgerjohansson says

    I knew that and I am not even an American. But our history books are not burdened by the need to describe some historical figure as a saint (and certainly not our own warlords that happened to be Swedish kings).

    Real history is not a Disney story. Most historical leaders were assholes, but some were not quite as bad as the rest.

    And realistically, the highest praise for an American president would be “he made less mistakes than most of his peers”. It would work for non-US leaders, too.

  2. sonofrojblake says

    the highest praise for an American president would be “he made less mistakes than most of his peers”

    The highest praise for an English leader would be “they made fewer mistakes than most of their peers”. Because (a) we’d get the grammar right and (b) the leader might be a woman. 😉

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    But despite his reassurances that he would not force his anti-slavery views on the slave states, his strong views against slavery were so well known that when he was elected to the presidency in 1860, the slave states in the South began their secession …

    Lincoln (in 1860) explicitly opposed the expansion of slavery, which the slave-owners knew quite well their prosperity needed. (Just imagine any capitalist’s response to no-growth policy ideas.) They could well have kept the system going for another generation or longer, but -- like oppressors anywhere -- maintained such high-temperature and -pressure politics that they whipped themselves into frenzies leading to secession.

    And thereby, starting with South Carolina, created conditions that led straight to their own worst fears coming to reality. Abolition of slavery was a fringe position in 1860; five years later it became part of the Constitution.

  4. Allison says

    Lincoln’s disavowal of the equality of black and white reminds me of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

    Both are IMHO an example of the saying, “politics is the art of the possible.”

    If Clinton had insisted on completely removing the ban on gay and lesbians in the US military, then the ban would have remained. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was the compromise that squeeked through, and set up the conditions which eventually made it obvious that the ban was unnecessary.

    If Lincoln had campaigned on a platform of equality, he would have been dismissed as a radical fringe candidate and would never have gotten elected to anything, and slavery would have continued unopposed. As it was, he ended up being elected because the main opposition party — the Democrats — had splintered into 2 groups, each with its own presidential slates.

  5. Pierce R. Butler says

    Allison @ # 4: … he ended up being elected because the main opposition party — the Democrats — had splintered into 2 groups…

    Worser than that: in 1860, Lincoln won by a nose (39.8%) in a four-way race.

  6. birgerjohansson says

    sonofrojblake @
    My bad. English not first language is. Error I make.

    Also, yes, women can, and should be leaders. And would have been in 2016 if the election system had granted victory to the candidate with most votes (the first woman president was Vigdis Finbogadottir in Iceland. Come on, America, you can catch up).
    BTW -another fan of Blake’s 7 ! (a series made by Terry Nation, and deserving of more attention)

  7. birgerjohansson says

    The Southern states were de facto oligarchies, their leaders must have lived in a ‘bubble’ and thus did not see the very real risk of a civil war, nor would they have appreciated how badly outgunned they were by the industrial states they despised.
    Gore Vidal wrote a historical novel (“Lincoln”) mentioning Lincoln’s cunning during that election campaign.

  8. Mano Singham says

    Allison @#4,

    There is no evidence to suggest that Lincoln’s publicly stated view on the idea that Blacks were inferior to whites in many respects was merely a tactical move on his part. He said so many times and seemed to have really believed it. After all, he was unequivocal in his statements that slavery was wrong and did not feel the need to hide that, even though it was the threat of abolishing slavery that alarmed the slave states, not any reason that Lincoln might have had for wanting to do so.

  9. Matt G says

    I seem to remember reading that Frederick Douglass wrote that he had only met two men who treated him as an equal: Abraham Lincoln and Robert G. Ingersoll (aka, The Great Agnostic). Ingersoll was WAY ahead of his time and deserves to be better known by us freethinkers.

  10. JM says

    @7 birgerjohansson: The southern leaders saw the risk of a civil war, it had been in the air for some time by the time Lincoln was elected. The southern political and military leaders understood they were unlikely to win an extended war. They thought that if they could get some quick significant wins they could get the northern states to the negotiating table. The north population and leaders were too determined to keep the union together and abolish slavery. The south won a lot of battles early but never managed the decisive victory or capture of land that would have given them a chance.

  11. John Morales says

    Abraham Lincoln’s views on race and slaveryDoesn’t seem so complex to me; he thought Blacks were inferior, but that slavery was bad.


    How does one square the two seemingly contradictory positions, that he hated slavery but did not think that Blacks were the equal of whites in every sphere of life?

    Since the two are distinct things, I don’t see why there’s supposedly any issue with holding both views.

  12. Silentbob says

    Can we stop saying “Blacks”? I’m white as the driven snow but in my country calling people “Blacks” has seriously racist overtones. Black people is fine.

  13. John Morales says

    What, the euphemism treadmill? Bah.
    It’s the current term, Silentbob. USA based blog. Topic is the USA.
    cf. #8.

    (Been discussed here before, the capitalisation for Blacks but not for whites, all that)

  14. Silentbob says

    The following extract from a publication by Crikey.com in the midst of a 2012 uproar over the use of the descriptor “blacks” in a headline by the Australian Financial Review, in reference to indigenous people, is illustrative:

    But to many indigenous Australians the “blacks” descriptor is offensive. So says Jeanie Bell, a community linguist specialising in Australian Aboriginal languages. “I believe that most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people would find the use of the word ‘blacks’ in this context on the front page of such a prestigious paper like the Financial Review quite insulting, and somewhat derogatory,” Bell told Crikey. It’s not just about the word itself, it’s the history behind it, according to Bell: “In my mind when you hear someone using the work ‘blacks,’ I, as an Aboriginal person, associate it with colonial language generally spoken in harsh tones with a sense of utter dismissal and bordering on hatred or strong resentment, such as ‘the dirty blacks’ or ‘drunken or lazy blacks,’ etc. All of which I find extremely offensive and know many others who would also.”


    I can only speak from an Australian perspective because that’s the only perspective I have, but I’m pretty sure African Americans wouldn’t be utterly thrilled about being referred to a “Blacks” either, just sayin’.

  15. John Morales says


    I’m pretty sure African Americans wouldn’t be utterly thrilled about being referred to a “Blacks” either, just sayin’.

    Whence your certitude? I sure don’t know, and it’s not really relevant here, is it?
    This is about Lincoln’s purportedly complex view, which I think is a conflation of two different views. Views are not vectors. (Oh, I did screw up formatting above)

    But sure, I get your concern. Your white-knighting effort.

    ‘Black people’ good, ‘Blacks’ bad, is your proposition.
    I personally can’t see the semantic difference, just the extra word.

    And for you, ‘Black people’ is synonymous with ‘African-American’. Not for me.

    Anyway, again: Lincoln’s stance seems pretty clear and pretty simple to me. Slavery bad but racial superiority real. The former a moral stance, the latter an uninformed perception. The moral stance at least is admirable.

  16. birgerjohansson says

    The British main figure of abolitionism (as described in a historical TV drama 30 years ago) also had a ‘paternalistic’ view of the black people he successfully sought to liberate, but the important thing is that slavery was abolished.

  17. says

    Foner is an excellent source. I also like, and strongly recommend, W.E.B. Du Bois’: Black “Reconstruction in America.
    You touch on one of my favorite talking points when you write:

    If color was the marker of who was superior, then a person of lighter color could make any darker person his slave, even if both were white.

    Who qualifies as “white” has been a moving target in the United States as Western/Northern Europeans have become a smaller percentage of the U.S. population. Not that long ago in our history Southern and Eastern Europeans were not included under the fluid category of “white” as many more are today.

  18. Matt G says

    Interesting that so many countries were able to abolish slavery (officially…) without a civil war. I wonder what’s different about the United States.

  19. sonofrojblake says

    @Matt G, 18:

    What’s different about the United States is that they haven’t abolished slavery. Slavery is explicitly legal under the Constitution. The 13th Amendment is very clear and unambiguous on this matter.

  20. anat says

    Matt G, what was special about the antebellum US south was that owning people was the main form of wealth of the dominant class and those aspiring to join it. Liberating slaves would be the equivalent of abolishing home ownership and savings and investments all at once.

  21. birgerjohansson says

    Sonofrojblake @ 20
    So this is why it is legal to exploit prisoners on a large scale? I had heard about those prison-operated factories but did not know the context.

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