Was Abraham Lincoln a Racist? (A Podcast Comment)
Message to Phil Lanides 22 July 2017. Host and Creator of ‘History Personified’ Podcast
Re: Episode posted 21 July 2017- The Lincoln-Douglas Debates – Author Harold Holzer
Below is a minimally edited comment I wrote on Mr. Phil Lanides’s Patreon webpage for the episode listed above. I recommend this podcast to the serious and casual History buff equally. Mr. Lanides is taking a break during August (2017), so that would be a great time to delve into his library of past episodes. Pertinent links are provided at the end of this post.
As soon as I heard your announcement of an upcoming Lincoln-Douglas Debate episode, I became impatient for it’s eventual posting. Your wording of the announcement on Patreon parallels topics and arguments I’ve encountered, listened to, and debated over decades. In each of those instances President Abraham Lincoln’s status as “The Great Emancipator”, “Father Abraham”, or the US’s secular saint was being targeted. These arguments are fine if they take place within an academic setting or similar scenario where truth is the ultimate prize. At times, however, the effort is to besmirch the 16th President’s reputation and standing in the public’s eye.
The Charleston debate on 18 September 1858 is the encounter when Mr. Lincoln professes views about African slaves that, while shocking today, was the minimally accepted stance regarding the ‘White’ and ‘Black’ races. It’s the issue of historical context that throw’s many ‘for a loop’. As a thought experiment, I’ve asked my students to think of thoughts they’ve had regarding people, neighborhoods, schools, etc. you were taught to avoid. Consider the substance and nature of those advisories given by friends and loved ones. Would any of those thoughts be ‘shocking’ if made public? Another exercise would be to time travel with our generic thoughts of ‘equality among all races’ from our 21st Century perch to mid-19th C. Baltimore, MD (or Washington, DC; Charleston, SC; Richmond, VA; New York City, NY; etc.). Would you keep your thoughts and views to yourself or publicly profess them?
President Lincoln’s views regarding a personal equality between him and a slave (intellect, politically), in my estimation, is nearly identical to ‘hidden’ biases many Americans bear. Additionally, his views on the nature-based equality that all people’s have, by virtue of their birth, to enjoy the “…fruits of their labor”, is a view many Americans historically (secretly today) question regarding certain groups (immigrants). Evidence of Mr. Lincoln’s moral and political growth is laid bare in the 7 years that follow those ‘shocking’ words in Charleston, Illinois. He would build on and expand his thoughts of ‘equality’ to consider, and then forcefully endorse, a constitutional change abolishing slavery and extending citizenship to African slaves. That is as radical an American thought as any American has ever entertained. You can argue that it was such efforts that led to his assassination. Imagine if he had uttered those views 7 years before in the Charleston debate? Speculation might suggest that he would have been assaulted, if not assassinated, at the time.
Finally, a little bit of geography. If you look at a map of the US and focus on the lower-half of the State of Illinois, you would notice that it lies South of the Mason-Dixon Line if it were extended that far West. Additionally, that portion of the State is bordered by Arkansas, Kentucky, and Missouri- all ‘Southern’ States whose 19th C. sensibilities regarding Slavery permeated Southern Illinois. Charleston falls within that area.