The Root: Was Lincoln a Racist?

Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Editor in Chief, The Root
Wednesday, February 11, 2009; 12:00 PM

"I first encountered Abraham Lincoln in Piedmont, W.Va. When I was growing up, his picture was in nearly every black home I can recall, the only white man, other than Jesus himself, to grace black family walls. Lincoln was a hero to us... But my engagement with the great leader turned to confusion when I was a senior in high school. I stumbled upon an essay that Lerone Bennett Jr. published in Ebony magazine entitled 'Was Abe Lincoln a White Supremacist?' A year later, as an undergraduate at Yale, I read an even more troubling essay that W.E.B. Du Bois had published in The Crisis magazine in May 1922. Du Bois wrote that Lincoln was one huge jumble of contradictions: 'he was big enough to be inconsistent -- cruel, merciful; peace-loving, a fighter; despising Negroes and letting them fight and vote; protecting slavery and freeing slaves. He was a man -- a big, inconsistent, brave man.'... So which was the real Lincoln, the benevolent countenance hanging on the walls of black people's homes, the Man Who Freed the Slaves, or this man whom Du Bois was quoting, who seemed to hate black people?"

Henry Louis Gates Jr., editor in chief of The Root, was online Wednesday, February 11 at 12 noon ET to discuss his article, Was Lincoln a Racist?. He also discussed his new PBS documentary Looking for Lincoln, and the book he recently edited, Abraham Lincoln on Race and Slavery.

A transcript follows.


Henry Louis Gates Jr.: Good afternoon. I am Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and I am eager to exchange ideas with you about my essay on Abraham Lincoln.


Atlanta, Ga.: I read your article, but did not understand the point you were trying to make. Were you saying that the reverence you observe American Blacks displaying for Lincoln inappropriate? Are you saying American Blacks are not learned enough on the subject of Lincoln? What if he was racist and hated Blacks with everything in his soul, what then?

(Not that it should matter, but I am Black.)

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: Abraham Lincoln was an enormously complicated man who has been turned into an enormously simple myth, the mythic man who singlehandedly freed the slaves. It's important that we understand the truth about Lincoln, in all of his complexity. While he fundamentally opposed the institution of slavery, it took him a very long time to embrace the idea of racial equality. And this process he had not completed, unfortunately, by the time he was so tragically assassinated.


Upper Marlboro, Md.: Please, as a black woman, help me to understand why it is so important to us that the people who managed to do things that were/are for the betterment of black people as a whole have to be perfect. Why do you care if Lincoln was a racist? Why does it matter whether freeing the slaves was a strictly political, "let's win the war move"? I really don't care -- my ancestry was set free by the Emancipation Proclamation, and that is what is important about Abraham Lincoln to me. That, and saving the Union. I don't have a need to see him as a slave's best friend. Understanding his motivations make an interesting history lesson, but I am surrounded by people who feel strange (to me) justification because they can call Lincoln a racist. Please help me with this.

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: I agree with you that the motivation for Lincoln's action vis a vis the slaves is not as important as the result. On another level, however, it's important that we understand that even our heroes are all too human, just as the rest of us are.


Reston, Va.: The Emancipation Proclamation was solely for publicity. Slavery wasn't made illegal until AFTER the War Between the Sates.

So much for moral high ground. Lincoln had feet of clay, just like the rest of us. What I don't get is how people think he was so special. He was just another wartime president who was more concerned about winning a war than doing the right thing, abolishing slavery.

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: The Emancipation Proclamation made it possible for slaves who reached Union lines or the North to free themselves. The 13th Amendment, ratified in December of 1865, but which Lincoln insisted on signing when it was passed by Congress earlier that year, finally abolished the institution of slavery.


Fairfax, Va.: That Gates would use the word "racist" against Lincoln -- a word rightfully used to describe the attitudes of men like James Eastland, Harry Byrd, and Richard Russell and, for most of their lives, George Wallace and Strom Thurmond -- is thoroughly unfair and wrong-headed. In order to hang the miserable epithet of a "recovering racist" on Lincoln, clearly implying that Lincoln never got over early attitudes he supposedly had, he has to ignore a mountain of evidence to the contrary, starting perhaps with Frederick Douglass saying, "he was the only white man whose conduct in my presence never reminded me of my race." He has to ignore Lincoln's early comment that, "if slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong." How much sense does it make that Lincoln talked repeatedly and increasingly about the moral, economic and other wrongs of slavery to black people, and yet at the same time felt that blacks were inferior? In simple common sense, why would he care that much if he thought that? Lincoln told "darky" jokes. Well, who exactly was safe from Lincoln's humor? Herndon, Lincoln's law partner, discussed Lincoln's supposed penchant for "dirty" jokes, and said that Lincoln saw the nugget of wit in his stories, and didn't seem to notice if he picked it off the parlor table or out of the mud. If Gates could get what Herndon is saying, would he consider that the same point might apply to his "darky" jokes? Lincoln adamantly defended arming black men for the union armies and utterly refused to consider rescinding the Emancipation Proclamation in a famous letter to a white audience demanding that he do just that, at the very lowest point of the war, in the late summer of 1864 when it seemed certain he was going to lose his bid for reelection. I'm sorry but Gates' decision to try and vilify the reputation of Lincoln on race seems the most shameful episode of an otherwise stellar academic career. And I don't like the Bait and Switch aspect of the ads for his PBS documentary where we are told how much he admires Lincoln, only, it appears to watch the show and find out that he is going to call Lincoln a "recovering racist."

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: If a man used the N word, liked blackface minstrel shows, loved telling darky jokes, referred to at least one black man as "boy," and called Sojourner Truth "auntie," how would you describe him? If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's a duck. However, this was the early Lincoln, He changed under the pressures of the presidency and he grew in terms of race relations, eventually beginning to embrace the idea that some -- only 200,000 out of 2.2 million -- black men should be allowed to vote, in the final speech that he delivered, 3 days before he was assassinated. In fact it was this very speech, overheard by John Wilkes Booth, which led to Booth's decision to assassinate him. But Lincoln was a "recovering racist," making his commitment to abolish slavery and his enormous affection for and loyalty to his "black warriors," as he called them, even more impressive.


Winchester, Va.: Hello, My family was from Piedmont (I was born there), and I enjoyed your book on that time and place in your life.

On Lincoln, I've read a lot of history about him. As with most historical figures (and as with all of us), he was a product of his times as well as his individual persona. We have to balance the good against the "not-so-good" and decide which side of the scale wins out. I don't believe there's much doubt here.

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: I'd like to give a shout out to my homey from Piedmont, West Virginia! I agree with your point entirely.


Genealogy: Thanks for all that you do!! Because of your PBS special on African American genealogy I started tracing my family roots. I discovered that my great-great uncle fought in the US Colored Troops and so did his brother-in-law. So now when our child studies US history she sees her family's contribution.

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: Thank you so much! You have made a wonderful discovery about your great-great-uncle serving in the US Colored Troops. My own great-great-uncle, JR Clifford, also served in the US Colored Troops, along with 200,000 other black men.


Maryland: What is your bet for the title of the newspaper article on the 200th anniversary of Obama's birth? For example, I can imagine Obama accomplishing great things in the global world, and then an article is written called "Was Obama a protectionist" describing the comments he made in private about other countries. What will Obama's version of racism be?

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: What an intriguing thought! Let me think about it.


Chicago Ill.: I enjoyed your column, and don't take this the wrong way, but you're sort of restating the obvious. The whole point about Lincoln is that he represents the triumph of good during a period of American history when things could have gone so wrong. Of course he was a "racist" as people in 2009 understand that word -- that's the whole point. Anyone who's ever read any of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, or anything else on the subject from before the war, sees that immediately. (And face it, pretty much everyone on the planet was a racist in 1860. Or 1960.)

It's the growth in his outlook, in such a short period of time; and his ability to rally the nation behind something so noble and positive, coupled with his own death as a result; that makes him so compelling. Thanks.

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: It is the arc of the progress Lincoln made wrestling with the demons of anti-black racial attitudes, in addition to his commitment to abolishing slavery and preserving the union, which makes Abraham Lincoln our greatest president.


Minneapolis, Minn.: What is it in us that seeks absolute perfection in human beings, people we put on pedestals? In that, I mean why do we think that people who rise to do great things: Abraham Lincoln, Lyndon Johnson, Martin Luther King, for example, were not flawed and complex human beings? Why are we shocked that Lyndon Johnson regularly used the word "n*gger" in private conversations, or that Martin Luther King was a womanizer (supposedly), or that Abraham Lincoln may not particularly have liked black people?

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: I believe that learning how human our heroes actually were is the beginning of wisdom.


Herndon, Va.: Mr. Gates: This is a great, and never-ending subject for discussion. I note for the record I am white, and am the first to agree that, by today's standards, Lincoln would be considered a racist. He was ahead of many who lived at that time. His first priority HAD to be winning the war. Everything else, including ending slavery, was secondary. If, somehow, the Union had not won the war, then Lincoln's actions in regard to slavery would have made no difference to the slaves in the Confederacy.

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: You are absolutely correct: Had the north lost the war it is is theoretically possible that slavery never would have been abolished in the south.


Rockville: Where do you think Lincoln would come down today on the issue of how much of the socio-economic disadvantage of African-Americans is due to the legacy of past discrimination, ongoing discrimination, and home-grown pathologies?

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: Lincoln wanted to abolish slavery in part to create a level playing field in the marketplace for poor white men such as his father, who found it impossible to compete in the slave state of Kentucky. But in the end, I believe that Lincoln believed that the choices human beings make largely determine their fate.


Brooklyn: Why is it necessarily assumed because Lincoln freed the slaves, that he saw black people as equals with whites? I would think in that day that even those who thought slavery was wrong, probably still believed blacks were inferior humans to whites. And besides, freeing the slave wasn't not done on moral grounds, but practical ones in order to win a war. FDR led this country in its defeat of Nazism, yet reports of anti-Semitic comments by him abound. People are complex and inconsistent animals. That's what we are. It only becomes an issue when we as a society decide to defy a human like we do with Lincoln.

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: The black abolitionists were fond of saying that the only thing their white abolitionist brothers and sisters hated more than slavery was the slave. No doubt this was meant as a joke to critique the residues of racism, but you are absolutely correct that being opposed to slavery as an economic institution is most certainly not the same as being in favor of racial equality between blacks and whites.


Bethesda, Md.: I realize that your goal is to shed light on the evolution of Lincoln's views on slavery and on the dichotomy of holding conflicting viewpoints. But why frame the discussion with the sensational title "Was Lincoln a Racist?"

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: We phrased the issue in this way because many black people have asked this question, precisely in these terms, and I wanted to show that the answer is much more complicated than this.


Bowie, Md.: Do you really think Obama understands the complexity of Lincoln? Or, his understanding more the same -- that is, part of the collective consciousness (i.e., national narrative).

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: President Obama published an essay on Lincoln in Time Magazine in 2005 in which he revealed that he fully understands the complexity of Lincoln's attitudes about slavery and race.


General comment: As someone, neither African nor European American, who was frustrated by the whitewashing of history that I encountered growing up, I want to applaud you for asking the question. The beatification of our past heroes and our need to simplify the past, often permit a very wrong view of that time that enables some to forget and risk repeating the mistakes of those days. in an era when the very principles upon which this nation were founded were being violated by our own government, it is vitally important that we recognize our own faults even as we seek to learn from them and grow into better people in a better nation.

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: I could not agree with you more.


Bowie, MD: Is Obama Lincoln-like? If so, how?

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: Lincoln and Obama share a desire to transcend partisan politics. They both also share a genius for what I call improvisatory pragmatism.


Sunnyvale, Calif.: Good Morning Dr. Gates,

Do you think Lincoln was more a product of his epoch or was he driven by some other beliefs regarding racial equality? If Thomas Jefferson was his role model, do you think that had anything to do with the contradictory positions and beliefs? Could he like Jefferson hold beliefs regarding the general benefit to all men while simultaneously believing that Blacks were somehow not part of that formula?

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: Unlike Thomas Jefferson, Lincoln firmly believed that the words "all men are created equal" in the Declaration of Independence applied to blacks. In this very important sense, Lincoln's attitudes represent an important challenge to Jefferson.


Harrisburg, Pa.: People need to remember that Lincoln was a politician and a commander in chief first. The Emancipation Proclamation, which would have very real results after his death, has no practical effect during his life. It exempted the border states: a political compromise designed to keep the border states from leaving the Union. The Northern states had already ended slavery and the Southern states, of course, disregarded the proclamation as they then considered themselves part of the Confederacy.

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: The Emancipation Proclamation actually made it possible for approx. 500,000 black people to gain their freedom during the Civil War.


Silver Spring, Md.: Most of what you wrote I already knew. Many of Lincoln's statements were made to appease poor white workers, many of whom were abolitionist only because the cost of their unskilled labor could not compete with the cost of a slave's unskilled labor.

I see nothing surprising about questioning whether Lincoln was a racist or not. The ethics of Washington and Jefferson have long been debated because of their ownership of slaves. All these men are of their times. Just as all of us today are of our times. And it would not surprise me if 200 years from now, Obama's views on gay marriage cause his ethics to be questioned. We need to consider everyone in the context of their time and the society they live in. (I think that includes people in third world countries which we want to hold to a higher or different standard than is perhaps appropriate for their society.)

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: It's important to judge historical figures in the context of their times. But it is also important to point out their flaws and limitations by our standards today.


Washington, D.C.: If I understand you correctly, you are saying that Lincoln hated the institution of slavery in large part because of its economic effect on both black and white workers. You also seem to be making the larger point that lack of equal economic opportunity is a betrayal of our core values, and is something Lincoln realized and sought to redress.

How does this relate to today's challenges, including both discrimination and forced labor?

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: Most of us do not understand today that it was entirely possible to be fundamentally opposed to slavery as an institution and yet remain deeply skeptical about the fundamental equality of the races. We have to remember that until at least midway through his presidency, Lincoln favored the voluntary colonization of the freed slaves to Liberia or Haiti or Panama.


Henry Louis Gates Jr.: I would like to thank each of you for your thoughtful comments and questions. Thank you for reading my essay. I am off to do a live interview on NPR's Talk of the Nation at 3:00 today, and I hope you will watch "Looking for Lincoln" tonight at 9 pm on most of our PBS stations.


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