Growing up in Mississippi in the 1930s, Bennett had admired Abraham Lincoln until he read Lincoln's speech in Charleston, Illinois, in his debate with Stephen Douglas, where Lincoln declared that he had never desired the perfect equality of the white and black races, and that he preferred that the white race should be in the "superior position." Bennett told one interviewer: "I was a child in whitest Mississippi reading for my life, when I discovered for the first time that everything I'd been taught about Abraham Lincoln was a lie." He explained: "I read it and I--and I was just--just absolutely shocked. And from that point on, I started to--researching Lincoln and trying to find out everything I could about him. . . . I was trying to save my life because I find it difficult to understand how people could say this man was the great apostle of brother--brotherhood in the United States of America."
In 1968, Bennett wrote an essay for Ebony entitled "Was Abe Lincoln a White Supremacist?" His answer to the question was yes. Coming only a few years after Martin Luther King had delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, Bennett's essay provoked an intense debate over whether Lincoln's reputation as the "Great Emancipator" was a fraudulent myth. In 1999, Bennett published a massive book (662 pages) laying out the evidence for his argument--Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln's White Dream. John Barr--in his book Loathing Lincoln--has shown how Bennett's argument fits into a long history of criticizing Lincoln.
Since I am rereading Lincoln now with my students, I have been reexamining that Charleston speech. This question of whether Lincoln was a racist white supremacist has deep implications for American political history and for political philosophy. The story of Lincoln as the Great Emancipator is crucial for the story of America as the nation that was redeemed from the sin of slavery by Lincoln and the Civil War, thus confirming America's original promise from the Founding period as the land of moral improvement directed to the goal of equal liberty for all.
For political philosophy, the question is whether it is possible for political thinkers and statesmen like Lincoln to break free from the cultural prejudices of their time in apprehending the natural standards of justice that dictate natural human rights, or whether the cultural relativists and historicists are correct in claiming that there are no natural standards of right and that all moral and legal standards are merely the cultural biases of some particular historical moment.
Another question of political philosophy that arises here, and in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates generally, is how to resolve the tension between individual liberty and majoritarian democracy. For Douglas, the tension is resolved by giving priority to majority rule, even when majority rule violates individual liberty. For Lincoln, the tension is resolved by giving priority to individual liberty, even when that means denying the will of the majority, and yet as a politician in a majoritarian democracy, Lincoln cannot disregard the opinions of the majority.
Here's the opening of Lincoln's speech in Charleston on September 18, 1858. For the purposes of citation, "CW" refers to Basler's Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, and "LA" refers to the Library of America edition of Lincoln's Speeches and Writings. Although the newspaper transcripts of the speech present this opening as one long paragraph, I have divided it into shorter paragraphs.
"While I was at the hotel today, an elderly gentleman called upon me to know whether I was really in favor of producing a perfect equality between the negroes and white people. [Great laughter.] While I had not proposed to myself on this occasion to say much on that subject, yet as the question was asked me, I thought I would occupy perhaps five minutes in saying something in regard to it."
"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 white and black races, [applause]--that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor 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 social 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 I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position, the negro should be denied everything. I do not understand that because I do not want a negro woman for a slave, I must necessarily want her for a wife. [Cheers and laughter.] My understanding is that I can just let her alone. I am now in my fiftieth year, and I certainly never have had a black woman for either a slave or a wife. So it seems to me quite possible for us to get along without making either slaves or wives of negroes."
"I will add to this that I have never seen to my knowledge a man, woman, or child who was in favor of producing a perfect equality, social and political, between negroes and white men. I recollect of but one distinguished instance that I ever heard of so frequently as to be entirely satisfied of its correctness--and that is the case of Judge Douglas' old friend Col. Richard M. Johnson. [Laughter.] [Johnson was a Kentucky Democrat who was widely known to have a black mistress.]"
'I will also add to the remarks I have made, (for I am not going to enter at large upon this subject,) that I have never had the least apprehension that I or my friends would marry negroes if there was no law to keep them from it, [laughter] but as Judge Douglas and his friends seem to be in great apprehension that they might, if there were no law to keep them from it, [roars of laughter] I give him the most solemn pledge that I will to the very last stand by the law of this State, which forbids the marrying of white people with negroes. [Continued laughter and applause.]"
"I will add one further word, which is this, that I do not understand there is any place where an alteration of the social and political relations of the negro and the white man can be made except in the State Legislature--not in the Congress of the United States--and as I do not really apprehend the approach of any such thing myself, and as Judge Douglas seems to be in constant horror that some such danger is rapidly approaching, I propose as the best means to prevent it that the Judge be kept at home and placed in the State Legislature to fight the measure. [Uproarious laughter and applause.]" (CW, 3:145-46; LA, 1:636-37)There are at least three possible interpretations of what this reveals about Lincoln's thinking. First, one could argue that this shows that Lincoln was a life-long white supremacist, who fully embraced the racist attitudes of his audience in Charleston. Second, one could argue that while this shows that Lincoln shared some of the racist opinions of his audience in 1858, he later moved away from the racism of his time and evolved towards promoting racial equality. Third, one could argue that Lincoln always believed in racial equality as a standard to be approached as quickly as circumstances permitted, but that racist prejudices would for a long time make this hard to achieve, and that in 1858, he had to speak in an ambiguous way so as to make his audience think he shared their racism, because any direct challenge to their racism would have deprived him of any political success.
Bennett takes the first view. If I am reading him correctly, John Barr takes the second view. I take the third view.
In his book, Barr seems to agree with the words of Eric Foner: "the aspiring Illinois politico of the 1850s who pandered to the racial prejudices of his audience had, by the end of the Civil War, arrived at a remarkable sensitivity to the plight of blacks in American society. The growth of Lincoln's vision was the hallmark of his Presidency" (Barr, 237). Barr observes that Lincoln's view of race was "quite advanced" compared with other people of his time, because he always defended, even in Charleston, the claim that blacks were entitled to the equality of rights affirmed in the Declaration of Independence. And by 1865, Barr notes, Lincoln was showing "expanded notions of racial egalitarianism." In his last public speech, Lincoln recommended voting rights for the emancipated slaves. He recommended the readmission to the Union of the new government of Louisiana, despite the fact that blacks in Louisiana did not yet have voting rights. Lincoln observed: "I would myself prefer that it [the elective franchise] were now conferred on the very intelligent, and on those who serve our cause as soldiers." Lincoln indicated that the new Louisiana Constitution provided for public education equally for black and white and empowered the Legislature to grant voting rights to all blacks (CW, 8:403-404; LA, 2:699-700). Barr points out that when John Wilkes Booth heard this, he told someone that this meant "nigger citizenship," and then he assassinated Lincoln only three days after the speech (Barr, 130-31). In the original manuscript of Barr's book that I read, he wrote that the Charleston speech "was not Lincoln's best moment," but that he showed improvement in his "evolving racial views as they stood in 1865."
I agree with Barr that there was some evolution here, but the evolution was not so much in Lincoln's views as in public opinion. From the early days of his political career, Lincoln embraced the equality of natural rights for all human beings as affirmed in the Declaration of Independence, but he also indicated that the practical enforcement of those equal rights would depend upon a slow evolution in public opinion towards recognizing those rights for all human beings, black as well as white, female as well as male. For example, when Lincoln was running for a second term as an Illinois state representative in 1836, he declared to the voters: "I go for admitting all whites to the right of suffrage, who pay taxes or bear arms, (by no means excluding females.)" (CW, 1:48; LA, 1:5). Remarkably, as far as I know, Lincoln for the rest of his life never again mentioned extending voting rights to women. Can't we assume that he realized that the women's suffrage movement was unlikely to win over public opinion during his lifetime, and so he would have to keep quiet about his belief that equality of rights included equal voting rights for women?
Similarly, I suggest, Lincoln had to move slowly and carefully on the issue of voting rights for blacks. In his speech on the Dred Scott decision, Lincoln noted, in contrast to Roger Taney's claim that blacks had not been citizens during the Founding period, that in fact blacks were voters in some of the states during the ratification of the Constitution; and Lincoln said nothing to suggest that he thought this was wrong (CW, 2:403; LA, 1:395).
Furthermore, Lincoln's careful use of language in his speech in Charleston allows the audience to believe that he is endorsing their racist attitudes, while in fact he is not. Notice what he says. Twice he says: "I am not, nor ever have been in favor of . . . ." But he does not say: "nor ever will be"! So he does not say that he will never in the future favor negroes being voters, jurors, or officers of government, or intermarrying with white people.
Lincoln says that there is "a physical difference between the white and black races" that he believes will forever forbid the two races living together in "perfect equality, social and political." He does not say what that "physical difference" is, but the most obvious difference is skin color; and thus Lincoln could be suggesting that a mere difference in skin color between races can make "perfect equality" difficult if not impossible to achieve because of racial prejudices.
In his speech on the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, Lincoln had said that once black slaves are emancipated, they will not be treated as socially and politically equal to whites, because "the great mass of white people" have a "feeling" against this. "Whether this feeling accords with justice and sound judgment is not the sole question, if, indeed, it is any part of it. A universal feeling, whether well or ill-founded, cannot be safely disregarded. We cannot, then, make them equals" (CW, 2:256; LA, 1:316). So the failure to achieve perfect equality between the races arises from feelings of racial prejudice that cannot be ignored, even though they might be totally unjust and irrational.
Speaking of the negro in the first debate at Ottawa, Lincoln said: "I agree with Judge Douglas he is not my equal in many respects--certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowments. But in the right to eat the bread, without the leave of anyone else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man" (CW, 3:16; LA, 1:512). So the only certain "physical difference" is color. The differences in "moral or intellectual endowments" are uncertain. Even if there were moral and intellectual differences, this would not weaken the argument for human equality, which is based on the claims that all human beings have a right to themselves and to what they have earned, that no man is good enough to govern another man without that other man's consent, and that as none of us would wish to be a slave, so none of us should wish to be a master (LA, 1:303, 327-28, 484; 2:19, 663).
In his Charleston speech, Lincoln goes on to say that if "perfect equality" of the races is not achievable, and if the races do remain together, then "there must be the position of superior and inferior," and he as much as any other white man would want to have the "superior position" assigned to the white race. But notice that he does not say that the white race deserves the "superior position" because it is the "superior race"!
Stephen Douglas does say that the white race is the "superior race." But Lincoln in other speeches rejects such talk: "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--discarding our standard" from the Declaration of Independence. That standard of equal liberty in the Declaration is a standard of perfection that can never be perfectly achieved, Lincoln argued, but it can be approximated over time: "let it be as nearly reached as we can," or "as fast as circumstances permit"(CW, 2:501; LA, 1:458). He sometimes suggested that it might take one hundred years or more to approximate that standard of equal liberty (LA, 1:514-15, 677).
Lincoln agrees with Douglas that in America's multiracial society, emancipated slaves can have the "civil rights" of free people, but they cannot have the "political rights" of citizens, because the free blacks will be assigned to an "inferior position" by the whites. But while Douglas thinks this is a permanent position of inferiority for the blacks because they belong to a permanently inferior race, Lincoln thinks that through gradual social changes, blacks can move from inferiority to some approximation of equality (CW, 3:10-11; LA, 1:505-506).
An alternative to striving for equal liberty in a racially mixed society would be to separate the races so that each race could live in its own society. For a long time, Lincoln proposed voluntary colonization of Africa, particularly Liberia, where American freed slaves could satisfy "the aspiration of men . . . to enjoy equality with the best when free" (LA, 2:353). But Lincoln had always doubted the practicality of this scheme, and by the end of the Civil War, his plans for reconstruction assumed that the emancipated slaves must be assimilated into American society.
As indicated in his Charleston speech, any alteration in the social and political relations between the races to move towards equality would depend on state legislatures, because of the limited powers of the national government for intervening in the states. But at the end of the Civil War, Lincoln supported the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery in all of the states. This was followed by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, which prohibited the states from abridging the equal liberty of citizens of the United States. These amendments could be seen as the fulfillment of the principles of the Declaration of Independence--that all human beings are naturally endowed with equal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and that just governments must secure those rights.
In contrast to Stephen Douglas's claim that the principle of self-government requires that majoritarian democracy takes priority over individual liberty, the Civil War Amendments confirm Lincoln's claim that the principle of self-government requires that individual liberty takes priority over majoritarian democracy. And for Lincoln, individual liberty means that "each individual is naturally entitled to do as he pleases with himself and the fruit of his labor, so far as it in no wise interferes with any other man's rights" (CW, 2:493; LA, 1:440).
Consequently, Lincoln could have foreseen that under the Fourteenth Amendment's prohibition of state laws abridging the natural liberty of citizens, the Supreme Court--in the case of Loving v. Virginia (1967)--could strike down as unconstitutional the state laws forbidding and punishing interracial marriage. As Lincoln foresaw, it took a hundred years to do this!
This shows that the cultural relativists and historicists are correct in claiming that moral progress is constrained by the cultural prejudices of a society. But they are wrong in denying that it is possible for prudent thinkers and statesmen like Lincoln to apprehend the principles of natural right as the standard of moral perfection that can be approximated over time, even if never perfectly attained.
In his "Lecture on Discoveries and Inventions," Lincoln presented the history of progress towards equal liberty as a big history of human evolution from foraging society to farming society to commercial society. Ultimately, this is a history of the progressive improvement in the human mind. Of the many discoveries and inventions in this history, the three most important are language, writing, and printing. The invention of printing brought the "dark ages" to an end. Lincoln explains:
"It is very probable--almost certain--that the great mass of men, at that time, were utterly unconscious, that their conditions, or their minds were capable of improvement. They not only looked upon the educated few as superior beings; but they supposed themselves to be naturally incapable of rising to equality. To emancipate the mind from this false and underestimate of itself, is the great task which printing came into the world to perform. It is difficult for us, now and here, to conceive how strong this slavery of the mind was; and how long it did, of necessity, take, to break its shackles, and to get a habit of freedom of thought established. It is, in this connection, a curious fact that a new country is most favorable--almost necessary--to the emancipation of thought, and the consequent advancement of civilization and the arts. . . . It is in this view that I have mentioned the discovery of America as an event greatly favoring and facilitating useful discoveries and inventions." (CW, 3:362-63; LA, 2:10)Thus, the emancipation of human beings and their rising to equality requires the emancipation of the human mind.
Some of my posts on Lincoln and slavery are here, here., here., here., and here. Some of my posts on equality and the IQ debate are here and here.