Remarks to Indians (March 27, 1863)


#115 on the list of 150 Most Teachable Lincoln Documents

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HD Daily Report, March 27, 1863

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How Historians Interpret

“Lincoln felt that, ideally, American should be white.  He explained to a black delegation in 1862 that the white and black races could not coexist in the nation, adding that the presence of blacks in America was currently causing white people to fight each other.  The next year, in March, Lincoln met with Indian leaders.  He had not known many Indians.  He began by  explaining that the world is round. . .He then considered the ‘great difference between this pale-faced people and their red brethren both as to numbers and the way in which they live.’  Indians, he said, live by hunting, whereas white people farm, and ‘I can only say that I can see no way in which your race is to become as numerous and prosperous as the white race except by living as they do.’  Lincoln also told his Indian listeners of another difference between the two races: ‘Although we are now engaged in a great war between one another, we are not, as a race, so much disposed to fight and kill one another as our red brethren.’  One might had thought that the carnage of a civil war between white people, widely understood as such at the time, would have undermined the belief in white civilization as superior, not to mention more peaceful—perhaps even have undermined the belief in whiteness itself.  White people were killing each other all around Lincoln; he was himself directing much of the killing; and so his seemingly mad assertion of the white race’s comparative amiability must have answered a deep need to take an observable, unattractive feature of white behavior and attribute it to another race.  If that race were removed from the nation, then would not the unwanted behavior cease as well?  In which case the white American race could advance to prosperity and reach that destiny uniquely its own.  The Civil War, however, was a truly American conflict; all three races fought on both sides.  A majority of Indians fought for the Confederacy. . .Yet Indians in the Northern ambit, and some without, fought for Lincoln. . . Everyone’s racial fate was in the balance during the Civil War. . .”

Scott Malcomson, One Drop of Blood: The American Misadventure of Race (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000), 94-95


“Lincoln admitted that he was poorly informed on Indian affairs. . .In general, like most whites of his generation, he considered the Indians a barbarous people who were a barrier to progress.  The ceremonial visits of Indian chiefs, dressed in their tribal regalia, he welcomed, both because they were exotic and because he rather enjoyed playing the role of their Great Father, addressing them in pidgin English and explaining that ‘this world is a great, round ball.’  Occasionally, as during the following year, he would offer them little homilies on how they could profit by learning the ‘arts of civilization.’  Pointing out that the ‘great difference between this pale-faced people and their red brethren,’ he told a group in the White House that whites had become numerous and prosperous partly because they were farmers rather than hunters.  Even though he admitted that ‘we are now engaged in a great war between one another,’ he also offered another reason for white success: ‘We are not, as a race, so much disposed to fight and kill on another as our red brethren.’  The irony was unintentional.”

–David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 393


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March 27, 1863
You have all spoken of the strange sights you see here, among your pale-faced brethren; the very great number of people that you see; the big wigwams; the difference between our people and your own. But you have seen but a very small part of the palefaced people. You may wonder when I tell you that there are people here in this wigwam, now looking at you, who have come from other countries a great deal farther off than you have come.
We pale-faced people think that this world is a great, round ball, and we have people here of the pale-faced family who have come almost from the other side of it to represent their nations here and conduct their friendly intercourse with us, as you now come from your part of the round ball.”
Here a globe was introduced, and the President, laying his hand upon it, said:
One of our learned men will now explain to you our notions about this great ball, and show you where you live.
Professor Henry then gave the delegation a detailed and interesting explanation of the formation of the earth, showing how much of it was water and how much was land; and pointing out the countries with which we had intercourse. He also showed them the position of Washington and that of their own country, from which they had come. The President then said:
We have people now present from all parts of the globe—here, and here, and here. There is a great difference between this palefaced people and their red brethren, both as to numbers and the way in which they live. We know not whether your own situation is best for your race, but this is what has made the difference in our way of living.
The pale-faced people are numerous and prosperous because they cultivate the earth, produce bread, and depend upon the products of the earth rather than wild game for a subsistence.
This is the chief reason of the difference; but there is another. Although we are now engaged in a great war between one another, we are not, as a race, so much disposed to fight and kill one another as our red brethren.
You have asked for my advice. I really am not capable of advising you whether, in the providence of the Great Spirit, who is the great Father of us all, it is best for you to maintain the habits and customs of your race, or adopt a new mode of life. I can only say that I can see no way in which your race is to become as numerous and prosperous as the white race except by living as they do, by the cultivation of the earth.
It is the object of this Government to be on terms of peace with you, and with all our red brethren. We constantly endeavor to be so. We make treaties with you, and will try to observe them; and if our children should sometimes behave badly, and violate these treaties, it is against our wish. You know it is not always possible for any father to have his children do precisely as he wishes them to do. In regard to being sent back to your own country, we have an officer, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, who will take charge of that matter, and make the necessary arrangements.”
The President’s remarks were received with frequent marks of applause and approbation. “Ugh,” “Aha” sounded along the line as the interpreter proceeded, and their countenances gave evident tokens of satisfaction.
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