His Views on Race, Slavery, and Their Implications Towards His War
By: Jonathan Harris
According to Ebony magazine editor Lerone Bennett, Jr., “On at least fourteen occasions between 1854 and 1860 Lincoln said ambiguously that he believed the Negro race was inferior to the White race.” Some of Lincoln’s quotes will sound truly remarkable to the ears of average Americans who’ve been told their whole lives of the anti-racism of Lincoln. In an 1858 debate in Ottawa Illinois with Stephen Douglas Lincoln said these words:
I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and 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.
In another debate Lincoln rhetorically asked, “Free them and make them politically and socially our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this. . . we cannot then make them equals.” So much for the 16th president’s “all men are created equal” reference in the Gettysburg Address. It should be noted that Lincoln’s views were no different than many Americans at the time. Before black codes were ever enacted in the South, many Northern states expressed their racism in state laws. The Revised Code of Indiana for instance, prohibited Negroes and mulattos from even coming into the state.
All contracts with Negroes were null and void; any white person encouraging Negroes to enter the state was subjected to a $500 dollar fine; Negroes and mulattos were not allowed to vote; no Negro or mulatto having even one-eighth part of Negro blood could legally marry a white person – an act punishable by tens year’s imprisonment and a fine of up to 5,000; any person counseling or encouraging interracial marriage was subject to a fine of up to 1,000; Negroes and mulattos were forbidden from testifying in court against white people, from sending their children to public schools, or from holding any political office.
Such laws were common in almost every Northern state as of 1860. No wonder the underground railroad's final stop was Canada and not Massachusetts. Foreign observer Tocqueville noted that “the prejudice of race appears to be stronger in the states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists; and nowhere is it so intolerant as in those states where servitude has never been known.” Lincoln’s home state of Illinois senator Lyman Trumbell summed up this sentiment in the statement, “Our people want nothing to do with the Negro.” The South on the other hand, due to its agrarian cotton economy did want something to do with the Negro. And the coffers of Northeastern capitalists (who almost entirely financed the slave trade from the ports of Boston and New York) were amply supplied by meeting this demand.
Most standard American textbooks highlight the stressing regional differences between the North and South preceding the “Civil War” by crowing the “Free Soil” movement as the most guilty culprit in pitting both regions against each other; however, the motivation behind the Free Soilers is often left either assumed or misrepresented. It is doubtless that many abolitionists, both violent (John Brown and the Secret Six) and non-violent, were in favor of free soil as a way to stop the extension of slavery for noble reasons, but many more including Lincoln had motives which we would not find to be so honorable. Commenting on the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 Lincoln stated:
Whether slavery shall go into Nebraska, or other new territories, is not a matter of exclusive concern to the people who may go there. The whole nation is interested that the best use shall be made of these territories. We want them for the homes of free white people. This they cannot be, to any considerable extent, if slavery shall be planted within them. Slave States are places for poor white people to remove from; not to remove to. New free States are the places for poor people to go to and better their condition.
Inherent in Lincoln's words is a concern for the "free white people." The extension of slavery meant that poor whites would be put out of work due to competition from blacks, a reason which partially helped bring about the demise of the institution in the North. Lincoln's confidant and Secretary of State William Seward explained, "the motive of those who protested against the extension of slavery had always really been concern for the welfare of the white man, and not an unnatural sympathy for the Negro." Other than providing jobs for white laborers, the Free Soil Movement also desired to bring about the demise of Southern representation in Congress by discontinuing the expansion of the slave population in more states (Each slave represented 3/5 of a person according to the Constitution which gave Southern states an edge in Lincoln's mind). Lincoln not only wanted the "free" states untainted by Negroes, but he desired to see the whole United States become a white man's land. In his Cooper Union Speech of 1860, he advocated the peaceful "deportation" of blacks so "their places [would] be filled up by free white laborers."
During the1861 inaugural address Lincoln affirmed: "I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so." This statement would seem to be in contradiction to the "Emancipation Proclamation" issued less than two years later which supposedly "freed the slaves." But did the "Proclamation" really free the slaves? The confiscation acts (which allowed slaves to be categorized as "contraband" so as to either be freed, or in some instances be enslaved again by the federal army) were already in effect, and none of the union slave states or enemy slave states under federal control were required to emancipate. The New York World, among myriads of other newspapers worldwide saw right through Lincoln's move.
The president has purposely made the proclamation inoperative in all places where we have gained a military footing which makes the slaves accessible. He has proclaimed emancipation only where he has notoriously no power to execute it. The exemption of the accessible parts of Louisiana, Tennessee, and Virginia renders the proclamation not merely futile, but ridiculous.
So what was the motive behind the proclamation if it wasn't freeing the slaves? Simply put, it was a war measure designed to keep anti-slavery European powers out, and possibly encourage slave insurrections in the South.The U.S. Army was in a very desperate situation, and if anti-slavery nations Britain or France agreed to ally with the Confederacy the war would have continued to favor the South. If however a new purpose was introduced (i.e. ending slavery), even if it was sincere or accurate, the executive could cast the war in terms of a "moral crusade." The proclamation was a rousing success though it did not free one slave.
Though I have not intended to uncover in this piece the true motives behind Lincoln's War, hopefully you can at least see that they weren't about slavery. Far from being a noble crusade, the "War of Northern Aggression" as so many Southerners and Constitutionalists like to call it, was fought to keep the South from leaving along with their tax money which financed infrastructure projects in the North. While the federal government's cause and methods were far from being noble, there were many Northern soldiers however who did feel they were doing the slaves a service, and they should not be forgotten (even if they're government did the slaves a great disservice). Lincoln's actions while president were reprehensible (i.e. suspending habeas corpus, jailing thousands of political opponents, shutting down hundreds of newspapers who disagreed, authorizing "total war," and declaring a war and passing laws without the consent of congress) and far worse than even the usurpation President Obama has attempted to enact, but he is forever remembered as an American hero even by folks on the right (probably because he was the first Republican president).The only thing that makes him seem noble is this myth that he somehow freed the slaves and valued equality. Nothing could be further from the truth. Political tyranny is viewed through the lens of moral superiority, and therefore granted legitimacy. It's time we unhinge ourselves from his legacy, or else we are in danger (as many have already) of becoming "big-government conservatives," using Lincoln's tools for our own "moral" crusades. The fact is, his tools cannot ever be used for moral crusades because they are immoral in and of themselves.