Latest posts by Clifford Thies (see all)
- Trump, the United Nations, and the Revenge of the Nation-state - September 19, 2017
- Houston, We Have a Problem - August 30, 2017
- Lincoln on Equality - August 18, 2017
The left now turns its hatred on Abraham Lincoln, along with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and anybody else of pale skin not committed to revolutionary socialism. In Washington, D.C., the Lincoln Memorial has been vandalized, and in Chicago
, Illinois, a Lincoln statue burned. It’s not enough that Lincoln gave his life in the cause of freedom, because, after all, he was white.
Abraham Lincoln’s position on slavery is clear enough. He was against it. How to bring about the end of slavery and the issue of racial equality were other things. Like his protégé Henry Clay of Kentucky, the pre-Civil War Lincoln held nuanced positions on slavery and on racial equality. Slavery, he always felt, was morally wrong. But, our right to be free has nothing to do with equality.
It didn’t bother Lincoln that African Americans (he would say Negros) were not the equals of European Americans (he would say whites), either because of their degraded position or because of something inherent in their nature. This is because he didn’t predicate freedom on equality. That would be a fool’s game, as some white people could be enslaved by other white people. Indeed, some white people were enslaved by other white people, through serfdom. Famously, Lincoln said in the Lincoln-Douglas debates:
“I agree with Judge Douglas he [the Negro] is not my equal in many respects–certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment. But, in the right to eat the bread, without the leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man.”
This quotation leaves open the possibility that inequality is not inherent. “Perhaps,” Lincoln said, “not in moral or intellectual endowment.” Perhaps, it is implied, inequality was due to the circumstances associated with slavery. Lincoln’s statement was perfectly valid; and, politick in that those to whom Lincoln was appealing for votes could read into it what they would. The success of Afro-Caribbean and African immigrants in this country suggests that racial disparities within our country are due to circumstances and are not inherent.
In contrast to the above quotation, another passage from the Lincoln-Douglas debates demonstrates that Lincoln tolerated, if not embraced unequal treatment under the law.
“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 every thing. 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.”
This passage sounds either wrong-headed or shrewd. At the time, Illinois was a Democratic state. It heavily restricted the rights of Negroes relative to whites in what were called the “black codes.” While the northern states were free states, by the 1850s, only the New England states, New York and Ohio were committed to equal rights. During the 1850s, the newly-emerged Republican Party needed to appeal to voters in states at various points along the road to freedom and equality. Lincoln, a “western Republican,” was viewed as being able to do this.
The pre-Civil War Lincoln entertained himself with the possibilities of gradual emancipation or compensated emancipation. He also entertained himself with the possibility of repatriation, or “returning” slaves, once freed, to Africa. But, during the Civil War, he changed his views. Partly, this was due to the military necessity of freeing the slaves in the Confederacy to disrupt their war efforts, and to recruit freed slaves to swell the ranks of the Union Army. But, partly this was due to Lincoln’s maturing as a Christian. As a young man, it is fair to say he was something of a deist. But, as President, he became profoundly Christian. Lincoln feel deeply in love with republicanism. He considered the Declaration of Independence sacred. And, there were those words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Lincoln famously invoked these words in the Gettysburg Address, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” But, how did Lincoln reconcile his belief in republicanism as a civic religion, with his belief in a Christian God, given the awfulness of the Civil War? He tells us this in his Second Inaugural, ‘Woe unto the world because of offenses! for it must needs be that offenses come; but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.’ The United States was put through a civil war for failing to free our slaves. We, north and south, white and Negro, were one nation, and concepts such as freedom and equality transcend petty considerations.
After Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Lincoln, accompanied by a troop of colored cavalry, went to visit Richmond. Along the way, he was met by various newly-emancipated slaves. These are some of his remarks to them, as recalled by his companions.
“Don’t kneel to me, that is not right. You must kneel to God only, and thank him for the liberty you will hereafter enjoy.”
“Liberty is your birthright. God gave it to you as He gave it to others, and it is a sin that you have been deprived of it for so many years. But you must try to deserve this priceless boon. Let the world see that you merit it, and are able to maintain it by your good works. Don’t let your joy carry you into excesses. Learn the laws and obey them; obey God’s commandments and thank Him for giving you liberty, for to Him you owe all things.”
“In reference to you, colored people, let me say God has made you free. Although you have been deprived of your God-given rights by your so-called masters, you are now as free as I am, and if those that claim to be your superiors do not know that you are free, take the sword and bayonet and teach them that you are; for God created all men free, giving to each the same rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”