Abraham Lincoln on Race


Lincoln’s first priority as President was to preserve the Union.  Lincoln challenged Stephen Douglas’s assumption that the Union could survive half slave and half free.  Lincoln stated that a house divided cannot stand.  Lincoln attacked slavery as a divisive issue which could and would tear America apart at the seams.  Hence, his strong focus to preserve the nation/Union, and he was yoked with a task specifically, “to denounce slavery and to work toward its eventual demise, while retaining the Union.  As a result, his political solution to the crises of slavery was more conservative, more gradualist, than that demanded by abolitionists like John Brown or William Lloyd Garrison: Contain slavery where it already existed, tolerate it as far as it goes, but deny its constitutional legitimacy and encourage its gradual, natural death” (p. 1094).

Today, Lincoln would probably be perceived as a racist according to some of his statements however I don’t believe he would say the things he said in the 1860’s in the current age! In a letter he wrote to his friend Joshua Speed in 1855, he spoke of a trip down a river on a Steam Boat which was carrying some shackled slaves.  His written statement says, “…on board, ten or a dozen slaves, shackled together with irons.  That sight was a torment to me, and I see something like it every time I touch the Ohio, or any other slave border” (p. 1047).  He is not a racist, he is although a realist to preserve the Union.

Racism is still alive and well in America, although I think it is usually due to ignorance and lack of exposure; rather than hate.  However, I would like to comment on the situation concerning Lincoln’s gradualism and his keen foresight for Union preservation.  If Lincoln had taken a strong abolitionist stance he would not have been elected.  If he had taken a state’s rights stance he would not have preserved the Union and we (The United States) would probably be two or more countries at this very time.  The Republican from Illinois took a stance that could “work” with a population of 30 million people and continue to remove the huge thorn in the side of the Union.

09disunion-douglass-blog427It would seem Lincoln took a God point of view, or a “big picture” point of view, and tried every angle to succeed in Union preservation.  He also focused on the timing of delivering a specific cause.  While in the IL legislature he stated he was totally anti-slavery.  He seemed to take this gradualist point of view in the 1850’s-1864, but in his last speeches he came out in support of freeing all slaves in rebelling states, supporting the 13th amendment (abolishing slavery), and at the very end stated that blacks should have the right to vote.  I believe Lincoln to be a ponderer and many times thought and spoke rhetorically as I always believe he was questioning himself when asking “blacks” if a colony might better suite them.  You can hear him questioning the very words he writes when you read the “Address on Colonization to a Committee of Colored Men”, this is not a man of shallow convictions yet a man trying to balance the many convictions in his conscience realm (Human Rights verse Preserving a Union which was created by the Hand of God). There are many times words that are not written which are the more valuable words than what is on the page.  In the end, racism was not eliminated but it has gradually left America, the Union stood strong, and all races (at least on paper) began to gain equal rights. He completed his task and died for this cause.  Just some thoughts….


Hammond, S., Hardwick, K., & Lubert, H. (eds.) (2007). Classics of American political and constitutional thought: Origins through the Civil War. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Press.


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