Let's Be Honest About Honest Abe: Lincoln Didn’t Believe In Black Equality
Lincoln's views on race and emancipation are more complicated than what's taught in history class.
September 23, 2020 at 12:31 am
September 22 is the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, first issued by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862 to go into effect on New Year’s Day 1863. The order, made during the middle of the Civil War, proclaimed that all slaves held in the Confederate states were free.
Contrary to what you probably learned in high school history class or the “patriotic education” that President Trump wants to impose on America, Lincoln did not start the Civil War or issue the Emancipation Proclamation in order to end slavery. It turns out that Lincoln wasn’t really a fan of having free Black Americans, at least not until towards the end of the war and his own life.
To be fair, Lincoln didn’t like slavery. As a matter of fact, he spent many years telling people how much he hated slavery and saw it as unjust — including in the 1853 speech where he declared:
I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world — enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites — causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty — criticising [sic] the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.
Let’s break that down. Lincoln said: sure, slavery was bad for slaves — but it was really terrible because it made America look bad and because it hurt the white people who had to try justifying it.
As Nikole Hannah-Jones notes in her Pulitzer Prize-winning opening essay for the 1619 Project, Lincoln made it clear that he didn’t think Black people were equal with white people in America. During the war, President Lincoln told his critics that If he could preserve the Union by freeing all slaves, some slaves, or no slaves, he would do whichever best helped him win the war. When Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, he told a group of abolitionist pastors that he did so as a "practical war measure" for "the suppression of the rebellion," not because he was trying to end slavery.
Lincoln later said he was willing to reconsider his views, and he moved in the right direction over time. Of course, this was partially because Black people weren’t afraid to get in his face. Even though the Emancipation Proclamation let Black folks serve in the Union army in significant numbers, they were paid less and treated very poorly compared to their white fellow soldiers. Frederick Douglass, one of American history’s original emancipators, came straight-up uninvited to the White House to complain about it to Lincoln.
Douglass put Lincoln in his place and urged the president to make sure Black soldiers were treated right if he wanted Douglass to keep on helping to recruit Black men for the army, and probably insisted that Lincoln be a good host and fix him a plate to take with him before he left. Douglass became one of the few Black people that Lincoln listened to directly, and he helped shape Lincoln’s evolving views on racial equality towards the end of Lincoln's life.
Lincoln had previously been against granting Black people the right to vote. But in a speech on April 11, 1865, Lincoln indicated to his audience that he was rethinking his ideas. He was now open to granting voting rights to "the very intelligent, and…those who serve our cause as soldiers." Even though this was basically an “I guess there are some good ones” approach to Black America, it was move in the right direction.
This minor move by Lincoln towards seeing some Black people as equal was dangerous to white supremacy. One of the people in the audience that night responded to the speech by saying that it would be “the last speech [Lincoln] would ever make.” That man was John Wilkes Booth, who shot and killed President Lincoln three days later.
None of these truths negate the achievements of President Lincoln or his importance in ending slavery and setting America on the path towards greater racial equality. And the recognition of these realities by Hannah-Jones and others has not "warped, distorted, and defiled the American story" as President Trump has accused the 1619 Project of doing. But to properly understand the American story, we need to know and speak the whole truth, and that includes being honest even about Honest Abe.