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President Abraham Lincoln: Disappointment Then Exhilaration

We have turned, or are about to turn loose, four million slaves without a hut to shelter them or a cent in their pockets. The diabolical laws of slavery have prevented them from acquiring an education, understanding the commonest laws of contract, or managing the ordinary business of life. This Congress is bound to look after them until they can take care of themselves. If we do not hedge them around with protecting laws, if we leave them to the legislation of their old masters, we had better have left them in bondage.–Thaddeus Stevens, December 1865

On April 12, 1861, Fort Sumter, South Carolina was attacked by southern forces marking the beginning of the Civil War. The war raged for almost four years until the formal surrender of Confederate forces at the Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia on April 9, 1865. These were fateful years for the future of blacks in the United States, as they presented the best opportunities for black freedom since the War of 1812 when the British invaded the South.

In his first inaugural speech, President Abraham Lincoln attempted to head off secession by giving the South reassurances that he would not interfere with slavery where it already existed. Citing an “apprehension” that existed in the South that he would threaten their “property,” and “peace and personal security,” Lincoln asserted that there “never been any reasonable cause for such apprehension.” Noting that he was quoting from one of his earlier speeches, the president reiterated that he had “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.” Lincoln then quoted the Republican platform that supported the “rights of the States,” particularly the right of each state to maintain the institution of slavery, euphemistically termed “its own domestic institutions.” The platform also repudiated any “lawless invasion by armed force of the soil of any State or Territory, no matter what pretext.” Lincoln went on to state, in effect, that fugitive slaves would be captured and given back to the slaveholders “cheerfully” “when lawfully demanded.” Lincoln stressed this, going so far as to read the section of the Constitution pertaining to fugitive slaves:

No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall in consequence of any law or regulation therein be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.

The newly inaugurated Lincoln also called for the legal safeguards to be put in place to help protect vulnerable unenslaved blacks from illegal capture and rendition to slaveholders. In addition, he called for the enforcement of the constitutional clause mandating that citizens from one state be guaranteed “all privileges and immunities of citizens in the several States.”

When Lincoln considered the notion that the United States government would yield to secession without a fight, he concluded that “[P]erpetuity is implied, if not expressed, in the fundamental law of all national governments. It is safe to assert that no government proper ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination.” Some in the audience no doubt recalled his earlier statements such as on the occasion of 1856 State Republican convention in Bloomington when he declared: “We will say to the Southern disunionists, We won’t go out of the Union, and you shan’t.” At Galena, Illinois, July 23, 1856 Lincoln had declared to would-be slaveholding secessionists, “...we won’t let you. With the purse and sword, the army and navy and treasury in our hands, and at our command, you couldn’t do it. . . . “

In his inaugural address, Lincoln continued on this theme citing the long history of the American Union and the fact that its predates the Constitution going back to 1774, Lincoln warned Southern leaders by urging them to reexamine their reasoning that led them risking the “commission” of such a “fearful a mistake. Pleading with southern leaders to look to solutions other than war, Lincoln said:

Suppose you go to war, you can not fight always; and when, after much loss on both sides and no gain on either, you cease fighting, the identical old questions, as to terms of intercourse, are again upon you.

Later in his inaugural speech, he again pleaded with slaveholders for reason and patience: “My countrymen, one and all, think calmly and well upon this whole subject. Nothing valuable can be lost by taking time.” Bending over backwards to accommodate southern demands, Lincoln indicated that he had no basic objection to the insertion of a constitutional clause, a Thirteenth Amendment, “to the effect that the Federal Government shall never interfere with the domestic institutions of the States, including that of persons held to service,” “being made express and irrevocable.” This would fix the chains on African Americans until southern slaveholders decided that they no longer wanted the services of slaves. Thus, for Lincoln there was no fixed date for black emancipation, and slavery could possibly extend far into the future. Any efforts by blacks or their allies to forcefully win their freedom would be opposed with force by Lincoln and the slaveholders. Nevertheless, Lincoln stood fast on the principle that slavery should not be allowed to extend its present geographical boundaries. This, he had long believed, as did apparently most of the slaveholding class, would spell its doom over the long run. Lincoln believed that because of the inexorable tendencies for slavery to ruin the land, pollute the social environment, and, eventually, depress the economy, slavery would gradually die a natural death.

Responding to the unprecedented crisis over secession, Lincoln indicated his support of a proposed 13th amendment that prohibited Congress from interfering with slavery in the states--a formal statement of what liberal Whig and Republican policy consensus on slavery had been for decades. The rebellious southern states had already assembled a government led by Jefferson Davis and had begun threatening federal forts in the South including Fort Sumter. Speaking to the rebels, Lincoln declared that the “momentous issue of civil war” was in “your hands” and “not in mine” promising the federal government would not attack them. “You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors,” Lincoln stated.. Finally Lincoln said:

I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. . . .

Many of the victims of the system of slavery rejoiced at this historical rupture of white American unity. Like thousands of others, Abby Kelley Foster, a long-time abolitionist exclaimed “Glory to God.” Frederick Douglass too declared, “God be praised!” upon hearing that Fort Sumter surrendered. He felt that the onset of war was the beginning of a historic opportunity to win black emancipation. Douglass vowed to “stand up for the downtrodden, to open my mouth for the dumb, [and] to remember those in bonds as bound with them” during this period. From the beginning of the Civil War, Douglass advocated that the Lincoln administration emancipate blacks from slavery and enlist them in the fight to save the Union. Since the Confederacy used blacks in factories, plantations, and supportive roles, the Union army would also find it necessary to do so, Douglass maintained. The Sage of Anacostia also prophetically asserted that the “Negro is the key of the situation—the pivot upon which the whole rebellion turns.” Douglass wrote that just the armed thrust of one black regiment would qualitatively alter the situation in the North’s favor.

The early months of the war, however, seriously strained Douglass’s optimism with respect to Lincoln. Particularly disheartening for Douglass and other abolitionists was Lincoln’s reversal of an emancipation proclamation by General Fremont and his actions to return escaped slaves to their captors in the South On August 6, 1861, Lincoln signed the Confiscation Act that emancipated the slaves of those Confederates waging war on the Union. Later, however, after General David Hunter proclaimed slaves of Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida free Lincoln denounced him, reversed his edicts, declaring the general’s proclamation “null and void.”

After Douglass learned that Lincoln was still advocating black colonization outside of the United States, his anger intensified. In 1862, the president obtained $100,000 appropriated by Congress to investigate a practical method of colonizing blacks. Lincoln’s view that the “problem” of blacks was thrust upon Americans by their British oppressors translated into a viewpoint, somehow, that blacks themselves were the source of the problem. Hence, he sought to remove the black presence from the United States. Douglass wrote in response to Lincoln's position favoring black removal:

A horse thief pleading that the existence of the horse is the apology for his theft or a highway man contending that the money in the traveler's pocket is the sole first cause of his robbery are about as much entitled to respect as is the President's reasoning at this point, . . . No, Mr. President, it is not the innocent horse that makes the horse thief, nor the Negro that causes the foul and unnatural war, but the cruel and brutal cupidity of those who wish to possess horses, money and Negroes by means of theft, robbery, and rebellion.

In July 1863, when Douglass visited President Lincoln at the White House, he could not avoid being emotional as he reflected on his path to prominence, from a slave on Maryland’s Eastern Shore to his presence in the company of the President of the United States. “No man who had not worn the yoke of bondage and been scourged and driven beyond the beneficent range of the brotherhood of man by popular prejudice” could “understand the tumult of feeling with which I entered the White House.” President Lincoln dispensed with a formal introduction of Douglass telling the famed abolitionist, “Mr. Douglass, I know you; I have read about you, and Mr. Seward has told me much about you.” The president had heard of one of Douglass’ eloquent speeches in which he described Lincoln's policy as “tardy” and “vacillating.” Lincoln denied any vacillation but said, in essence, that he was slow but sure. He stated that once he adopted a position he never backed away from it. Douglass, then an agent of the government charged with the recruitment of black soldiers, next presented the case for equal treatment in pay and rights for blacks in the military service. President Lincoln resisted this argument and refused to grant equal pay immediately citing prevailing white prejudice as the reason. Despite this he promised that equality in this respect would gradually prevail.

During early 1864 Douglass was critical of Lincoln’s plans for the formerly enslaved African Americans. While Lincoln did not foresee enfranchising blacks in the South as voters he was amenable to a liberal plan of reintegrating southern whites into the political system. Since Lincoln had not prioritized black emancipation but rather black removal upon emancipation, it was not surprising that he foresaw continued white supremacy and a social system closely resembling slavery in the postwar South. Yet, Lincoln did act to make emancipation irreversible in the context of a political-military situation that was constantly shifting. Having used his special war powers to decree emancipation, he now sought a permanent constitutional amendment guaranteeing emancipation to slaves and their descendants. Such an amendment passed the Senate but failed in the House in mid-June 1864. House Democrats said termed the amendment decreeing a permanent emancipation as “cruel,” and otherwise “unworthy of the support of civilized people.”26 For his part Lincoln said “[I] never in my life was more certain that I was doing right than I do in signing” the Emancipation Proclamation.

The fragility of the young Emancipation Proclamation contrasted with the reality that the centuries-old system of slavery was shattered by the middle of the war. As plantations were transformed into battlefields, as former masters became Confederate officers, and as food supplies dwindled, many slaves fled to Union lines. Other slaves resisted in other ways taking full advantage of the slackness and new opportunities accompanying the Confederate crisis. By 1864 escaping slaves had completely left many plantations crippling the southern war economy. Even among those slaves remaining the notion that they were bound to be lifelong slaves was discredited underlining the difficulty any attempted restoration of slavery would encountered. Asking coerced and brutalized labor to sacrifice for a war effort proved to be an arduous and fruitless undertaking. Switching from the production of the cash crop cotton to the staple crops necessary to sustain an army had as its byproduct “demoralization” on the part of resistant slaves. In the context of a shortage of white males of prime working ages, tasks requiring more management, planning, and coordination explaining to the enslaved that meat rations were being drastically cut back often proved hazardous as it highlighted the rulers’ increasing weakness and slaves growing power. Remarkably, the master race mentality led to the common perception that these slaves were betraying their masters. For one prominent slaveholder this behavior signified the “ingratitude” integral to “the African character.”

The Early Life of Abraham Lincoln

Strange that a second rate Illinois lawyer should be the instrument through which one of the sublimest works of any age is accomplished. —James A. Garfield

Abraham Lincoln was born in Nolin Creek, Kentucky on February 12, 1809 to Thomas Lincoln and Nancy Hanks in a log cabin. As a youth, Lincoln not only imbibed a steady diet of the American folklore of westward expansion, the actual experiences of his parents and grandparents also were products of the frontier experience. Lincoln's grandfather, a small slaveholder, was slain by a Native American. During quieter moments, the future president’s father, Thomas

President Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln, 16th President

1861 to 1865

Birth: February 12, 1809, Hodgenville, Kentucky

Death: April 15, 1865

Education: Largely self-taught

Religion: Unaffiliated

Profession: Lawyer

Political Party: Whig, Republican

Primary Form of Relationship with African Americans: Politician

Important Online Works

The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln

Mr. Lincoln's Virtual Library

Life Portrait of Abraham Lincoln, June 28, 1999

The Slavery Experience, May 26, 2010

Lincoln, would regale him with stories of past and present battles fought against the continent’s original inhabitants. Despite this the elder Lincoln, who had also once served on the slave patrols, later converted to a “anti-slavery” viewpoint. Lincoln’s mother died young at the age of thirty-four when Abraham was a child of nine. Subsequently, his father married again and joined a church adhering to anti-slavery doctrines. Nevertheless, the daily operations of the slave system were distant from the future politician and his first glimpse of plantation slavery occurred while he was on a flatboat trip down the Mississippi to New Orleans carrying agricultural goods.

While still a youth, the impoverished and gangly six feet four inch lad launched a feverish and largely successful effort to educate himself. An ardent admirer of the slaveholding advocate of black colonization, Kentucky Senator Henry Clay, who became his “beau ideal of a politician,” Lincoln was increasingly drawn to politics. Prior to entering into the political arena, however, Lincoln volunteered to fight in the Black Hawk War. As a volunteer, the government generously granted him a portion of the conquered land and $125.

Following his appointment as the New Salem, Illinois Postmaster, Lincoln, while studying law, launched his political career by becoming a candidate for a seat in the Illinois legislature. The political atmosphere into which Lincoln was socialized was thoroughly saturated with anti-black prejudices. Abolitionism was widely regarded as a plot to deliver white females to black male monsters. Their contact would allegedly lead to the tragic “mongrelization” of the white race. The consensus view among whites in the state was that slavery in their state was undesirable, but abolition would result in a flood of blacks entering Illinois.

Early on, Lincoln decided that it was to his advantage to take political positions that were within the limits of acceptability of the period's dominant racial views. His first opportunity to vote in favor of black civil rights involved the expansion of the franchise in Illinois to include blacks. Lincoln took this opportunity to vote “no” during this 1835-36 session of the legislature. By age twenty-eight, however, Lincoln had officially registered his opposition to slavery in the Illinois House of Representatives, but also felt obliged to frame his “anti-slavery” position by stressing a co-existing hostility to abolitionism. Like many other aspiring and ambitious politicians Lincoln found in abolitionism the convenient target. These attacks on abolitionism were essential to his goal of establishing his political legitimacy and credibility—this was an era when a discernable level of sympathy with the plight of blacks or Indians was taboo.

Yet, during at least a portion of one early speech, Lincoln did evince an unusual degree of empathy with black murder victims of white mobs. In an 1837 speech, Lincoln lashed out at what he perceived as an “increasing disregard for law which pervades the country” specifically targeting “savage mobs” that have perpetrated “outrages.” Blacks accused of conspiring to rise up were hanged, Lincoln noted. Following these actions, white men thought to have sympathized with the blacks were treated likewise moving Lincoln to deplore this trend toward violent mob rule. Later, in this speech he condemned the chaining and burning to death of a “mulatto,” Francis Mcintosh in St. Louis. Lincoln lamented that his slaying occurred “within a single hour from the time he had been a freeman attending to his business and at peace with the world.” He later, reversed himself, and asserted that the black “forfeited his life by perpetration of an outrageous murder upon one of the most worthy and respectable citizens of the city, and had he not died as he did, he must have died by the sentence of the law in a very short time afterward.” Lincoln was careful not to display any sympathy with this individual black. “. . . As to him alone, it was as well the way it was as it could otherwise have been. But the example in either case was fearful. . . .” Lincoln initially deplored the lynching, but later reasoned that the black man who was lynched was undoubtedly guilty anyway, and that his death at that hands of a white mob nearly accomplished in a more expeditious way what would've been done to him legally later.

Lincoln was a practical border state politician who remained within the boundaries of what would win and keep him in office. In Congress, Lincoln supported the Wilmot Proviso but would often side with the slave owners on issues such as that of fugitive slaves and the abolition of the slave trade in the District of Columbia. Moreover, Lincoln vacillated on the issue of the slave markets within the District of Columbia. Lincoln was not the only politician who was interested in getting rid of the large slave markets in the shadow of the Capitol dome. They saw this as undermining the nation’s claim to be an oasis of freedom and an embarrassment before the growing number of foreign visitors and diplomats. The sight of slave coffles and auction blocks next to American national symbols of freedom caused unease and disrupted the “silence” that many national politicians felt was necessary for slavery’s perpetuation.

In January 1849, Lincoln announced his intention to introduce a bill to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia. He proposed a gradual emancipation decree that would compensate slaveholders for the loss of their “property.” Despite the inclusion of a provision that would deliver fugitive slaves back to slavery, Lincoln immediately faced a harsh political backlash. The powerful political and economic interests that protected slavery in Washington exploded with fury upon learning of the proposed legislation. John C. Calhoun, the powerful South Carolina senator, a life-long foe of black emancipation, led the opposition. Calhoun, as always, warned that if blacks were given a morsel of liberty, they would revolt and enslave the white race. In addition, other Whigs were reluctant to embrace the measure forcing Lincoln to consider the longevity of his political career. Not surprisingly, he decided against introducing the bill.

While Lincoln believed that upon emancipation blacks should be colonized outside of the country, he realized the expense of such a venture made it impractical. So fixed in his mind that blacks had to be removed from the country if they were emancipated, Lincoln continued to investigate this possibility during the Civil War investing in impractical schemes aimed at black colonization in Central America or the Caribbean. If blacks did remain in the nation, it was inconceivable to Lincoln that they be extended full and equal social and political rights. Lincoln admitted that he himself was too racially prejudiced to agree to racial equality: “My own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not.”

A speech by Lincoln in 1858 stressed that the Founding Fathers “desired that slavery should be put in course of ultimate extinction. . . " At the same time, Lincoln worked to reassure slaveholders that his view was that “there is no right and ought to be no inclination in the people of the free States to enter into the slave States and interfere” with the institution of black enslavement. Lincoln’s “states’ rights” position was quite a convenient shield to deflect any moral obligation to act against slavery. At the same time, Lincoln and many other anti-slavery moderates believed, as apparently did the slaveholders, that unless slavery was nourished by fresh agricultural land it would die a natural death. Indeed, one of the most powerful, popular and persuasive arguments against the institutions for decades had been the devastation it had wrought on the land, in addition to his stunted of industry, democracy and the development of a middle-class.

It is no wonder that black leader Robert Purvis of Philadelphia, addressing the American Anti-Slavery Society May 8th, 1860, harshly criticized the Republican Party. Noting that he was disfranchised and “put out of the pale of political society,” Purvis stated:

I would not be a member of the Republican party if it were in my power. How could I, a colored man, join a party that styles itself emphatically the “white man’s party”? How could I, an Abolitionist, belong to a party that is and must of necessity be a proslavery party? The Republicans may be, and doubtless are, opposed to the extension of slavery, but they are sworn to support, and they will support, slavery where it already exists. . . . No, sir, I am not a Republican. I can never join a party the leaders of which conspire to expel us from the country.

After winning the election and while he prepared to take office in March 1861, Lincoln grossly underestimated the seriousness of the slaveholder threats to secede the Union. He felt that the anticipation of the end of the rule of the slaveholding elite was the source of the trouble. “Disunionists ... are now in hot haste to get out of the Union, precisely because they perceive they can not, much longer, maintain apprehension among the Southern people that their homes, and firesides, and lives, are to be endangered by the action of the Federal Government.”

Years later, in April 1876, Frederick Douglass delivered a speech at Lincoln Park in Washington, D.C. on the occasion of the unveiling of the Freedmen's Monument in Memory of Abraham Lincoln.86 From Douglass' perspective as the preeminent African American leader he concluded that Lincoln was not an ideal president. “In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man.” He was “preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of the white man.”

Douglass stated that African Americans, despite all of this, never relinquished the hope that Lincoln would act in the interests of humanity:

. . . Our faith in him was often taxed and strained to the uttermost, but it never failed. When he tarried long in the mountain; when he strangely told us that we were the cause of the war; when he still more strangely told us that we were to leave the land in which we were born; when he refused to employ our arms in defence of the Union; when, after accepting our services as colored soldiers, he refused to retaliate our murder and torture as colored prisoners; when he told us he would save the Union if he could with slavery; when he revoked the Proclamation of Emancipation of General Fremont; . . .when we saw all this, and more, we were at times grieved, stunned, and greatly bewildered; but our hearts believed while they ached and bled. . .

Douglass suggested that, paradoxically, Lincoln’s racial prejudice may have been necessary for him to have the degree of success that he attained in mobilizing racially prejudiced northerners to fight the Confederacy. Douglass had noted this while the actual key early events of the Civil War were playing out. He felt that his earlier views on Lincoln’s actions and slowness were correct but he admitted that had Lincoln took a hard and principled stand on emancipation too early he would have risked losing the support of a good proportion of his northern and border-state constituency. The similarity in mentality and outlook of Lincoln and that of his fellow northern whites facilitated his communication with them thereby fostering change in their views of blacks and slavery. Had Lincoln taken a consistent stand in favor of black freedom and equality, Douglass concluded, “he would have inevitably driven from him a powerful class of the American people and rendered resistance to rebellion impossible.” Douglass overall assessment of Lincoln credited him, despite this criticism, with a number of significant achievements including the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia in 1862.