Tracking Lincoln on Race and Slavery
This weekend I will be leading a teacher workshop at the Massachusetts Historical Society, which focuses on Abraham Lincoln’s evolving views on race and slavery. As part of my presentation I am going to utilize excerpts from seven primary sources that I believe highlight Lincoln’s thinking on these topics and that also point to important shifts in his thinking over the course of his public career.
What follows is a preliminary lists. Please push back with your own suggestions.
- Protest in the Illinois Legislature on Slavery, March 3, 1837
- Letter to Joshua Speed, August 24, 1855
- Fourth Debate with Stephen Douglas at Charleston, Ill, September 18, 1858
- First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861
- Letter to Horace Greeley, August 22, 1861
- Emancipation Proclamation, January 1, 1863
- Lincoln’s Final Speech from White House Balcony, April 11, 1865
I don’t think you can understand any of this without appreciating the importance of contingency. There was nothing inevitable about Lincoln becoming president. There was nothing inevitable that the nation would have to fight a civil war in 1861. And perhaps, most importantly, the war that did begin in 1861 could have ended without emancipation and the end of slavery. Providing sufficient context for each document is critical for teachers and students to appreciate this.
I want to establish Lincoln’s early antagonism toward slavery and how this co-existed with his understanding of race, which clearly emerged in his debates with Douglas. This distinction between race and slavery can be incredibly difficult to teach so I hope to spend a good amount of time on it.
Depending on the grade level it can also be difficult to accurately reflect Lincoln’s eventual push to promote emancipation and the end of slavery. I am going to explore Lincoln’s emphasis on the preservation of the Union as his primary goal during the war and ask participants to think about how slavery helped to achieve that goal. Lincoln’s final speech in which he broaches wanting to give certain African Americans the vote, should give us a sense of how far he came by the end of the war. If there is time we may also talk about how his understanding of the the place of African Americans in a reconstructed Union might have evolved had he not been assassinated.
Again, feel free to push back. What documents would you use?