“While I was at the hotel to-day, an elderly gentleman called upon me to know whether I was really in favor of producing a perfect equality between the negroes and white people. [Great Laughter.] While I had not proposed to myself on this occasion to say much on that subject, yet as the question was asked me I thought I would occupy perhaps five minutes in saying something in regard to it. 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.”
– Abraham Lincoln (Fourth Lincoln Douglas Debate – September 18, 1858 – Charleston, Illinois)
Now, I know what many may be thinking. This is unfair, you are taking an excerpt from a speech early in Lincoln’s political life, 5 years before he issued the emancipation proclamation and six years before he gave the Gettysburg address. Certainly, Abraham Lincoln’s beliefs in racial equality must have grown and changed over the course of his political career.
In 1864, near the end of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln wrote what is probably the shortest and most famous political speech in American history, the Gettysburg Address. At 272 words, beginning with a reference to the Declaration of Independence and concluding with the often-quoted line “…that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Many believe this speech to be the perfect capstone to his life and political career.
But we must note that, like the inclusive language used by the authors of the Declaration of Independence (“All men”) and the US Constitution, (“We the people”), Lincoln does not in the immediate context of his words, define who he is including when he refers to “All men” and “people”. In the Declaration of Independence, 30 lines after the statement “All men are created equal”, the authors refer to native tribes as “merciless Indian savages.” Making it very clear that they had a very narrow definition of who was actually human. And Article I Section II of the US Constitution, the section that defines who is included in the designation “We the people”. Article I, Section II never mentions women, it specifically excludes Indians and it counts African slaves as 3/5th human. This leaves only white, land-owning men.
If you read the Emancipation Proclamation you will note that President Lincoln was incredibly specific as to exactly where he was freeing the slaves:
“Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, (except the Parishes of St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Jefferson, St. John, St. Charles, St. James Ascension, Assumption, Terrebonne, Lafourche, St. Mary, St. Martin, and Orleans, including the City of New Orleans) Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia, (except the forty-eight counties designated as West Virginia, and also the counties of Berkley, Accomac, Northampton, Elizabeth City, York, Princess Ann, and Norfolk, including the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth[)], and which excepted parts, are for the present, left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.”
The Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to the slave owning border states of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware. These states had not seceded from the Union and therefore were exempted from the Emancipation Proclamation.
Some will argue that because President Lincoln was using his wartime powers as commander-in-chief to make the proclamation, it was legally necessary to limit the proclamation to states and counties that were actively fighting against the Union. However, President Lincoln himself provides detailed insight into his thinking regarding his reasoning for freeing the slaves just a few months prior.
On August 19, 1862, Horace Greeley, the Editor of the New York Tribune wrote a scathing Op-Ed calling for the immediate emancipation of the slaves. President Lincoln had already written the Emancipation Proclamation but was not yet ready to issue it. He first wanted to reassure the slave-owning states of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware of his values, so he responded to Greeley’s Op-Ed with a letter which stated:
“If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”
This quote is engraved on a marble plaque that hangs in the museum at the base of the Lincoln memorial. Boldly announcing to everyone who visits the museum that President Abraham Lincoln did not believe that black lives matter.
On top of that, just a few weeks before he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, President Lincoln ordered the largest mass execution in the history of the United States.
In the fall of 1862, after the United States failed to meet its treaty obligations with the Dakota people, several Dakota warriors raided an American settlement, killed some of the settlers and stole some food. This began a period of bloody conflict between some of the Dakota people, the settlers, and the US Military. After more than a month, several hundred of the Dakota warriors surrendered and the rest fled north to what is now Canada. Those who surrendered were quickly tried in military tribunals, and 303 of them were condemned to death.
“The trials of the Dakota were conducted unfairly in a variety of ways. The evidence was sparse, the tribunal was biased, the defendants were unrepresented in unfamiliar proceedings conducted in a foreign language, and authority for convening the tribunal was lacking. More fundamentally, neither the Military Commission nor the reviewing authorities recognized that they were dealing with the aftermath of a war fought with a sovereign nation and that the men who surrendered were entitled to treatment in accordance with that status.” (Carol Chomsky)
Because these were military trials, the executions had to be ordered by President Abraham Lincoln.
Three hundred and three deaths seemed too genocidal for President Lincoln. But he didn’t order retrials, even though it has been argued that the trials which took place were a legal sham. Instead he simply modified the criteria of what charges warranted a death sentence. Under his new criteria, only two of the Dakota warriors were sentenced to die. That small number seemed too lenient, and President Lincoln was concerned about an uprising by his white American settlers in that area. So, for a second time, instead of ordering retrials, he changed the criteria of what warranted a death sentence.
Ultimately, 39 Dakota men were sentenced to die. And on December 26, 1862, by order of President Lincoln, and with nearly 4,000 white American settlers looking on, the largest mass execution in the history of the United States took place. The hanging of the Dakota 38.
Clearly, not only did President Lincoln not believe black lives mattered, but he also did not believe native lives mattered.
So how about his inauguration? The election of Abraham Lincoln as President, and his inauguration into office was what spurred several of the southern states to secede from the Union. Surely, he must have stated something in his address that made clear his belief in the value of “all men” and his inclusion of people of color in his definition of humanity.
“Apprehension seems to exist among the people of the Southern States that by the accession of a Republican Administration their property and their peace and personal security are to be endangered. There has never been any reasonable cause for such apprehension. Indeed, the most ample evidence to the contrary has all the while existed and been open to their inspection. It is found in nearly all the published speeches of him who now addresses you. I do but quote from one of those speeches when I declare that–I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” (1861 – Inaugural Address)
And, President Lincoln’s direct quote of a previous speech brings us back to yet another example of what is obviously a deeply held, and life long, belief in the lie of white supremacy:
“Now, gentlemen, I don’t want to read at any greater length, but this is the true complexion of all I have ever said in regard to the institution of slavery and the black race. This is the whole of it, and anything that argues me into his idea of perfect social and political equality with the negro, is but a specious and fantastic arrangement of words, by which a man can prove a horse-chestnut to be a chestnut horse. [Laughter.] I will say here, while upon this subject, that I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so. I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which, in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality, and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a difference, I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position.”
– Abraham Lincoln (First Lincoln Douglas Debate – August 21, 1858 – Ottawa, Illinois)
After President Trump made his vulgar and racist statement regarding immigrants from Africa, a statement that was rooted in his belief in the abhorrent lie of white supremacy, I had my two oldest children read the above speech by another US Politician who deeply believed the same abhorrent lie. Throughout his political career, President Abraham Lincoln was a white supremacist. I asked my children read his speech because I did not want them to believe that Donald Trump is the sole root of the problem. President Trump is obviously the most explicit and recent manifestation of the problem. But the abhorrent lie of white supremacy runs much deeper and is far more pervasive than most anyone is willing to admit.
I understand why so many white politicians hold up Abraham Lincoln as their political hero regarding matters of race. President Lincoln built and left a legacy that is the envy of many politicians. He won the support and admiration of generations of people of color, all the while blatantly, and repeatedly, reassuring his white base of the abhorrent lie that they were indeed the superior race.
Whether it comes from the vulgar mouth of Donald J. Trump or through the eloquent articulation of Abraham Lincoln, I lament, I weep, I decry, I denounce the pervasive and abhorrent lie of white supremacy.