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?

Civil War Memory has moved to Substack! Don’t miss a single post. Subscribe below.

24 comments… add one
  • BPS Feb 15, 2017 @ 10:38

    I don’t know what speech this is from(perhaps you know), just the date:

    These communities, by their representatives in old Independence Hall, said to the whole world of men: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” This was their majestic interpretation of the economy of the Universe. This was their lofty, and wise, and noble understanding of the justice of the Creator to His creatures. [Applause.] Yes, gentlemen, to all His creatures, to the whole great family of man. In their enlightened belief, nothing stamped with the Divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on, and degraded, and imbruted by its fellows. They grasped not only the whole race of man then living, but they reached forward and seized upon the farthest posterity. They erected a beacon to guide their children and their children’s children, and the countless myriads who should inhabit the earth in other ages. Wise statesmen as they were, they knew the tendency of prosperity to breed tyrants, and so they established these great self-evident truths, that when in the distant future some man, some faction, some interest, should set up the doctrine that none but rich men, or none but white men, were entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, their posterity might look up again to the Declaration of Independence and take courage to renew the battle which their fathers began — so that truth, and justice, and mercy, and all the humane and Christian virtues might not be extinguished from the land; so that no man would hereafter dare to limit and circumscribe the great principles on which the temple of liberty was being built.

    Abraham Lincoln, August 17, 1858

  • Matt McKeon Feb 11, 2017 @ 18:04

    Unfortunately this was canceled at the last minutes because of weather. Hope it runs later.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 11, 2017 @ 18:06

      I have already been notified that it will be re-scheduled.

  • Craig L. Feb 8, 2017 @ 2:16

    The first five chapters of Volume II of The Memoirs of Gustave Koerner, written between 1886 and 1896 and published posthumously in 1909, could be a useful source for your topic. Koerner was essentially a founding member of the Republican Party in Illinois; he met and tutored Mary Todd Lincoln while at law school in Kentucky in1837, served as judge the first time Lincoln pleaded a case in court, was Lieutenant Governor of Illinois several years before recruiting Lincoln to run for President, presided over the convention at which Lincoln was nominated and was one of the twelve pallbearers at Lincoln’s funeral. Volume II begins with a discussion of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 8, 2017 @ 2:18

      The goal is to stick to Lincoln’s own words. Thanks for the suggestion.

  • James F. Epperson Feb 7, 2017 @ 10:34

    You might consider Lincoln’s attempt to get the Border States to abolish slavery on their own:

    The basic issue here is that you don’t want to drown your audience with a deluge of sources. Your list is good, and all of the suggested additions are good. But you can’t include them all.

    Another, earlier document that might be of interest is Lincoln’s letter to Alec Stephens:

    The Stephens letter has the merit of being short and to the point.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 7, 2017 @ 11:02

      Definitely going to talk about the importance of the Border States. Thanks, James.

  • Kristoffer Feb 6, 2017 @ 20:46
    Lincoln’s letter to James Conkling on August 26, 1863 belongs on your list. In it, Lincoln rebuked those who would not fight for emancipation, and in my interpretation hinted at what he might have to do to maintain the freedom of the freed slaves after the war was over:
    “You say you will not fight to free negroes. Some of them seem willing to fight for you; but, no matter. Fight you, then exclusively to save the Union. I issued the proclamation on purpose to aid you in saving the Union. Whenever you shall have conquered all resistence to the Union, if I shall urge you to continue fighting, it will be an apt time, then, for you to declare you will not fight to free negroes.”
    Lincoln’s letter to Albert Hodges is also worth including, as Lincoln tries to define his movement towards emancipation as being driven to it by a necessity to preserve the Union, after the option of compensated emancipation in the border states failed.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 7, 2017 @ 4:10

      I’ve been going back and forth on the Conkling letter. In the end, Lincoln is making pretty much the same argument he makes in his letter to Horace Greeley with the addition of black soldiers now fighting. Thanks.

  • Lisa Kapp Feb 6, 2017 @ 14:24

    Great list, Kevin!

    I would include “House Divided” (at least an excerpt), the letter to John Fremont (September 2, 1861) and his letter to James Conkling (August 26, 1863) based on how well each played in class with my own students as they wrestled with this theme.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 6, 2017 @ 14:31

      Both are worthy of inclusion. I decided against the “House Divided” speech because it is so difficult to boil down into excerpt form. It would take too much time to do it justice, but it’s good to know that you are using it in the classroom.

  • James Harrigan Feb 6, 2017 @ 12:08

    Is it too obvious to suggest adding the Cooper Union address to your list, Kevin? From the conclusion:

    “Wrong as we think slavery is, we can yet afford to let it alone where it is, because that much is due to the necessity arising from its actual presence in the nation; but can we, while our votes will prevent it, allow it to spread into the National Territories, and to overrun us here in these Free States?”

    • Kevin Levin Feb 6, 2017 @ 12:12

      I am going to mention this as part of the broader Republican Party position when discussing Lincoln’s letter to Speed. Of course, it could just as easily be added as is the case for so many other sources. Thanks.

  • James Harrigan Feb 6, 2017 @ 12:00

    And perhaps, most importantly, the war that did begin in 1861 could have ended without emancipation and the end of slavery.

    I agree with this, but I don’t think the war could have ended in a Union victory without the death of slavery following in short order. To be concrete, suppose McClellan had succeeded in capturing Richmond in June 1862 (quite possible if Lee hadn’t taken command after the wounding of Johnston) and the rebellion had collapsed. With Lincoln already mulling the Emancipation Proclamation at that point, and slaves in Virginia, Louisiana, and elsewhere already liberating themselves, is it plausible to think that the 1860 status quo could have been restored?

    My point is that once the war started, it was effectively a war over the future of slavery, despite the fact that abolition was not initially a Union war aim.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 6, 2017 @ 12:04

      I agree with this, but I don’t think the war could have ended in a Union victory without the death of slavery following in short order.

      That might be true, but we have no way of knowing.

    • Shek Feb 18, 2017 @ 1:23

      James, emancipation was a means to the end until the passage of the 13th Amendment, at which point it finally became an end unto itself.

      I haven’t done in-depth research to see what liberties Spielberg took in “Lincoln,” but based on my cursory reading, it’s relatively true to actual events. So with that caveat in mind, I’d point to the scene where Mr. and Mrs. Jolly from Jefferson City, Missouri enter the White House office to discuss an issue with Lincoln while Seward is in the room.

      This scene points to the sentiment that because of the cost in blood that the war bought, many unionists supported the Amendment only because it was a means to end – to stop the killing and dying sooner. However, this support could allow Lincoln to secure the passage of the 13th Amendment to allow him to accomplish his policy goal – ridding the institution that had caused the war, thereby addressing the root cause and achieving lasting strategic results.

      This suggests that had the war ended sooner than the 1864 election, then the second attempt at a 13th Amendment (the first attempt was the Crittendon compromise that would have, ironically, enshrined slavery) would have failed. Thus, without the root cause of the war being addressed, all it would take would be another catalyst event to result in a return to hostilities.

  • David T. Dixon Feb 6, 2017 @ 11:56

    It would be hard to surpass Eric Foner’s The Fiery Trial on this subject. When you use the word “evolving”, that could suggest to some students that Lincoln’s development in this area was linear. “Contingent” is a better word, as Lincoln’s positions were somewhat fluid, depending, in large part, on his audience and political considerations. I do believe he was moving, however cautiously and sometimes hesitantly towards emancipation of some sort (talking moderate, but leaning radical as Martin Johnson puts it). Lincoln was such an extraordinarily skilled political animal, it is hard to read any of his [public or even private pronouncements without always having his political objectives in mind.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 6, 2017 @ 12:01

      Hi David,

      I am not going to unload a bunch of book references, but I am going to bring my copy of The Fiery Trial, which I think is hard to beat. I agree completely that audience and a political calculation is central to understanding Lincoln.

  • Bryce Hartranft Feb 6, 2017 @ 11:53

    I think you got a pretty good list. Some others to consider:

    This source in which Lincoln expounds the positives of colonization to a “committee of colored men” is especially interesting given that it happened around the same time that Lincoln was working on drafting the Emancipation Proclamation.

    Lincoln’s reaction to Fremont’s emancipation order is a good one as well.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 6, 2017 @ 11:55

      Excellent suggestions. I thought about the first one for the reasons you mentioned. Will give it some more thought. Lincoln’s response to Fremont will be referenced.

      • M.D. Blough Feb 6, 2017 @ 13:54

        And one thing that I think is frequently overlooked about the “committee of colored men” is that Lincoln was actually seeking to determine how blacks saw colonization instead of, as many well-intentioned white men of that era did, assuming that he, as a white man knew best. I think it is important in evaluating Lincoln on race to compare and contrast him with other white men of his era to determine how advanced or not his attitudes on race and slavery were.

        However, I’d also include, in your materials, Frederick Douglass’s “Oration in Memory of Abraham Lincoln” which he gave at the April 14, 1876 unveiling of the Freedman’s Monument in DC’s Lincoln Park for its candid discussion of Lincoln’s development on issues on race and slavery from the perspective of a contemporary who was black, a former slave, and an abolitionist

        • Kevin Levin Feb 6, 2017 @ 14:06

          Hi Margaret,

          Thanks for the suggestions, Margaret. Both are worth considering. I hope to be able to comment a bit on your first point about how Lincoln compares to other white Americans, but I won’t be able to go into much detail given the time constraints. Given the recent news about Douglass, his “Oration” would be a nice way to close things out.

          • M.D. Blough Feb 6, 2017 @ 16:55

            Thanks, Kevin. I’m glad my comment was helpful. I agree about the Douglass oration being a nice way to close things out. The thing I appreciate about it is that it is neither hagiography nor hatchet job, which is rather exceptional just over a decade after the assassination. It’s also a wonderful analysis, with appreciation for both sides, of the eternal tension between advocates and those who have to set policy and run the government, especially when they agree with each other in principle.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.