Was Abraham Lincoln a Racist?

Eric Foner is, most recently, the author of "The Story of American Freedom" (W.W. Norton). He is the DeWitt Clinton professor of history at Columbia University

Each generation, it is said, reinvents history in its own image. This is certainly true in the case of Abraham Lincoln. Portraits of Lincoln have gone through innumerable permutations, depending on the era in which historians were writing. Lincoln has been depicted as a statesman who merged politics and moral purpose by liberating 4 million slaves and as a political pragmatist who opposed the radicals within his party almost as much as secessionist Southerners. Most recently, in David Donald’s masterful biography “Lincoln,” he emerged as an indecisive leader with few firm convictions, a man constantly buffeted by events, rather reminiscent of Bill Clinton. Rarely, however, has a scholar launched the full-scale assault on Lincoln’s reputation that Lerone Bennett offers in “Forced Into Glory.”

Although not an academic historian--he has long worked as an editor at Ebony magazine--Bennett produced three pioneering and important works of African American history in the 1960s. “Before the Mayflower” surveyed the black experience in America from the first appearance of slaves in colonial Virginia, “Black Power USA” challenged prevailing interpretations of Reconstruction by stressing how blacks achieved significant political power after the Civil War and “Pioneers in Protest” offered portraits of key leaders in black history. Popular history at its best, these books brought the fruits of scholarly research to a broad audience at a time when the civil rights revolution had created tremendous interest in America’s black past.

But it was his brief article, “Was Abe Lincoln a White Supremacist?” which appeared in Ebony in 1968, that put Bennett on the radar screen of academic history. Seeking to dismantle the “mythology of the Great Emancipator,” Bennett argued that Lincoln “shared the racial prejudices of most of his white contemporaries.” He resolutely opposed black suffrage and other expressions of racial equality and freed few if any slaves with his famous proclamation. Far from being a symbol of racial harmony or enlightened white leadership, Bennett concluded, Lincoln embodied the nation’s “racist tradition.”


Apart from Bennett’s indignant tone, little in the Ebony piece was actually new. Millions of readers had already encountered Richard Hofstadter’s brilliant portrait of Lincoln in “The American Political Tradition,” which belittled the Emancipation Proclamation as lacking “moral grandeur” and pointedly juxtaposed Lincoln’s 1858 speech in Chicago affirming the equality of man with his address the same year in pro-slavery Southern Illinois in which he insisted that he opposed “bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the black and white races.” In the early 1960s, Malcolm X urged blacks to “take down the picture” of Lincoln--that is, to place their trust in their own efforts to secure racial justice rather than waiting for a new white emancipator. In 1968, however, with so many national icons tumbling from their pedestals and Black Power the new rallying cry of the black movement, Bennett’s article struck a powerful chord. It also evoked a furious counterattack from Lincoln scholars intent on defending Lincoln’s credentials as a racial egalitarian. Henceforth, no one writing about Lincoln could ignore the subject of his racial outlook.

Now, three decades later, Bennett has produced a full-scale elaboration of his argument that Lincoln was a racist and a supporter, not a foe, of slavery. In brief, Bennett’s indictment runs as follows: As an Illinois legislator, congressman and political leader before the Civil War, Lincoln opposed the abolitionists, supported enforcement of the fugitive slave law, favored removing all blacks from the United States and explicitly endorsed the state’s laws barring blacks from voting, serving on juries, holding office and intermarrying with whites. According to the reminiscences of his contemporaries, he enjoyed minstrel shows and used the word “nigger” in private conversation and sometimes in speeches.

As president, Bennett continues, Lincoln initially allowed the four slave states that remained within the Union during the Civil War--Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri--to dictate his policy toward slavery. Bennett says that Lincoln refused to free and arm the slaves because of his ingrained racism. Credit for emancipation should go not to Lincoln but to abolitionists such as Wendell Phillips and to Radical Republicans in Congress, who in 1862 pushed through the Second Confiscation Act, freeing slaves of owners who supported the Confederacy. The Emancipation Proclamation, Bennett insists, did not free a single slave because it applied only to areas outside Union control. In fact, Lincoln designed it to “save as much of slavery as he could.” To the end of his life, in Bennett’s view, Lincoln was a devoted proponent of white supremacy.


Repetitious, full of irrelevant detours and relentlessly polemical, “Forced Into Glory” is not likely to convince many readers who do not already believe that Lincoln was an inveterate racist. But the book deserves attention, for it contains insights into Lincoln’s era and the ways historians have treated the 16th president. Bennett offers a valuable discussion of the notorious Black Laws of pre-Civil War Illinois, which not only denied blacks basic civil and political rights but also required any black entering the state to post a bond of $1,000. He highlights little-known acts of Congress that paved the way for emancipation--not only the Confiscation Act of 1862 but also the earlier revision of the military code that forbade soldiers to return fugitive slaves to bondage and a later measure that freed the families of black men who enlisted in the Union army, effectively destroying slavery in the loyal border states where the Emancipation Proclamation did not apply.

Most important, perhaps, Bennett presents compelling evidence of how historians have consistently soft-pedaled Lincoln’s racial views. Previous scholars, he rightly points out, downplay or ignore Lincoln’s commitment to colonizing blacks outside the country, a position he inherited from his political hero, Henry Clay, and advocated publicly for almost his entire political career. This was no passing fancy: Lincoln mentioned the idea in numerous prewar speeches, two State of the Union addresses, several cabinet meetings and in a notorious meeting with black leaders at the White House, at which he urged them to encourage their people to emigrate.

Lincoln was hardly the era’s only colonizationist--virtually every major political leader of the early republic, including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Andrew Jackson and John Marshall, supported the idea. Their ideal America was a white republic. But historians have found Lincoln’s embrace of colonization embarrassing and have emphasized--through what Bennett calls the “fallacy of the isolated quotation”--Lincoln’s condemnations of slavery while ignoring his support of colonization.


Writers on the Civil War era are almost certain to quote Lincoln’s allusion to the “monstrous injustice” of slavery in his Peoria speech of 1854 but not the passage in the same speech asserting that he would prefer to send the slaves, once freed, “to Liberia--to their own native land” (a term he used even though some blacks’ ancestors had been in North America longer than Lincoln’s). They cite his message to Congress in December 1862 with its eloquent passage about the “fiery trial” through which the nation was passing but rarely note that, in the same speech, Lincoln not only affirmed “I strongly support colonization” but for the first time used the ominous word “deportation.”

If, on colonization, Bennett scores some powerful points against existing Lincoln scholarship, his argument as a whole seems overwrought. Bennett is the kind of critic who cannot take yes for an answer. Thanks, in part, to his 1968 article, few historians today refer to Lincoln as a racial egalitarian and discussions of the Emancipation Proclamation almost always emphasize its limitations as well as its broad impact. It would be hard to find a book published in the last 20 years that portrays Lincoln freeing all the slaves with a stroke of his pen. Nor are Radical Republicans and abolitionists, as Bennett claims, still viewed as fanatics and zealots bent on punishing the white South.

Today’s historical works are more likely to emphasize the idealism of Wendell Phillips, Thaddeus Stevens and Frederick Douglass, much as Bennett does in this book. Historians today are far more sensitive to issues of race than when Bennett first wrote about it. And judging from textbooks, even today’s schoolchildren imbibe a far more nuanced view of Lincoln than the one that Bennett is attacking.

Bennett, however, is after larger game. Lincoln, for him, stands as a symbol of core American myths and values, “the key,” as he writes, “to the American personality.” By demythologizing Lincoln, he hopes to demonstrate the centrality of racism in all of American culture--today, as in the 19th century. Thus, Bennett is not content to show that Lincoln held racist views. Racism, Bennett insists, was Lincoln’s most deeply held belief, “the center and circumference of his being.” The Great Emancipator, he asserts, was, in reality, “one of the major supporters of slavery in the United States” and “in and of himself, and in his objective being, an oppressor.” These statements are totally unfounded.

Prosecutorial briefs rarely make for satisfying history. Bennett is guilty of the same kind of one-dimensional reading of Lincoln’s career as are the historians he criticizes. If they downplay Lincoln’s racism and emphasize instead his anti-slavery and egalitarian rhetoric (that is, his statement that the “equality of man” is the “central idea” of the American nation, his soaring language accusing Stephen A. Douglas of “blowing out the moral lights around us” for refusing to oppose the expansion of slavery), Bennett dismisses such statements as meaningless rhetoric--”this was not an argument about rights and realities; it was an argument about words.”

Which was the real Lincoln, the racist or the opponent of slavery? The unavoidable answer is both. Bennett cannot accept that it was possible in 19th century America to share the racial prejudices of the time and yet simultaneously believe that slavery was a crime that ought to be abolished. Nor is Bennett convincing in his account of Lincoln’s policies toward slavery during the Civil War or in his belittling of the Emancipation Proclamation as a meaningless “ploy” designed to perpetuate slavery as long as possible. The Proclamation may not have freed many slaves on the day it was issued, but it marked a turning point in the war and in Lincoln’s own policy. It ignored colonization and, for the first time, authorized the large-scale enlistment of black soldiers in the Union army. In making the destruction of slavery a Union objective, it transformed a war of armies into a conflict of societies and ensured that Northern victory would produce a social revolution within the South.

Contemporaries fully understood the Proclamation’s significance--among them the slaves, free blacks and white abolitionists who celebrated its issuance on Jan. 1, 1863. So did Karl Marx, observing American events from London. “Up to now,” Marx wrote, “we have witnessed only the first act of the Civil War--the constitutional waging of war. The second act, the revolutionary waging of war, is at hand.”

Once the proclamation had been issued, Lincoln embraced the role of Emancipator and refused demands that he abandon or modify it. (Were he to do so, he told one visitor, “I should be damned in time and eternity.”) He had been reluctant to employ black soldiers but came to believe them critical to the Union’s eventual victory. To secure emancipation against a future national retreat, he insisted that any supporter of the Confederacy seeking a pardon from the federal government pledge to support the abolition of slavery. In 1864 while the war still raged, he sought to bring Louisiana back into the Union under a new constitution that outlawed slavery and worked tirelessly to secure the passage of the 13th Amendment, abolishing the institution throughout the country.


By the end of the war, Lincoln, for the first time, called publicly for limited black suffrage in the postwar South. These developments--striking examples of his capacity for growth that characterized the last two years of Lincoln’s life--are strongly emphasized in LaWanda Cox’s 1981 work “Lincoln and Black Freedom,” a brief for the defense in the case of Lincoln, race and slavery. But Bennett says nothing about them, except to criticize Lincoln for not enfranchising all black men and, indeed, ignores Cox’s book.

Lincoln was not an abolitionist or Radical Republican, a point Bennett reiterates innumerable times. He did not favor immediate abolition before the war and held racist views typical of his time. But he was also a man of deep convictions when it came to slavery, and during the Civil War he displayed a remarkable capacity for moral and political growth. If America ever hopes to resolve its racial dilemmas, we need to repudiate the worst of Lincoln, while embracing the best.