Was Lincoln a Racist?

Well this is an important question: was Lincoln a racist? People ask this all the time. In our terms, with our language and our understanding, he sounds like a racist in some of his public statements. But that’s not the way to evaluate the question. We have to ask ourselves what “racism” meant then. Lincoln based his views about race on the science and culture of the nineteenth century, like everyone did then, and in their world they thought there was a hierarchy of races. Science seemed to approve it and almost everyone accepted it. The question is what you did about it, and the one thing that Lincoln didn’t want to do about it was enslave the people who were at the bottom of what they perceived to be the natural hierarchy, and that makes him someone who is actually in direct opposition to racism of the nineteenth century. He thought blacks were people, he said they deserved all the natural rights that were embodied by the Declaration of Independence: He always believed that. When I think about this question the way that I try to answer it for my students is to say that there were three fundamental ways to look at black people in America in the nineteenth century: one was to see them as human, one was to see them as property, and the third was to see them as citizens. Lincoln always saw blacks as people. He never accepted the idea that they could be property, but he evolved and grew on the question of whether or not they should hold full citizenship. That was something that he probably was skeptical about at the beginning of his life, and then was certain to avoid talking about in the middle of his political career because it was political suicide to do so. And then by the end of the war, he seemed to be coming around to the idea that because of all the sacrifices of black men and women for the Union cause, especially for those 200,000+ men who served in the Union armed forces, that blacks deserved full equality and citizenship. And so it’s not clear but it seems likely that by the end of his life he was ready to take that leap and move from seeing blacks as fellow humans to seeing them as full citizens.

Prepared by Elliott Drago, Parkway West High School, Philadelphia, PA