Lincoln might be considered a racist today

Posted Saturday, Apr. 06, 2013  Print Reprints
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This article has been modified from how it originally was published in the Star-Telegram and on Star-Telegram.com to correct when the The American Colonization Society was founded and that Abraham Lincoln later was a member.

I've learned a lot about Abraham Lincoln in the past several months. I read Killing Lincoln, by Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly (who used to be a high school history teacher), and I've seen the Oscar-nominated film by Steven Spielberg.

But the most interesting thing I found out from watching a three-part PBS series, The Abolitionists, then doing further reading because what I heard was at odds with what I learned in school.

I relied heavily on a scholarly paper by Robert Morgan, "The Great Emancipator and the Issue of Race," in doing research for this column. Many of the facts I cite and language I use came from his work.

Here's what I learned: If "Honest Abe" were alive today, he would be labeled a racist.

Although Lincoln regarded slavery as evil, he didn't believe in racial equality.

The man held up as a champion of social equality and black freedom was actually trying to engineer a project to ship all black Americans to Africa or a Central American nation even while he was signing the Emancipation Proclamation, which celebrated its 150th anniversary Jan. 1.

At one point, he even had a plan to send all blacks to Texas.

It's hard to blame Lincoln for his beliefs. Like all of us, he was a product of his times. Future generations will look back on us and say, "Boy, they were backward and ignorant in 2013."

Lincoln was a member of the American Colonization Society, an organization founded in 1816 whose stated purpose was to promote black relocation. Prominent citizens like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Frances Scott Key and James Monroe were members, too.

In the late 1850s, when Lincoln and Stephen Douglas were engaged in a historic series of debates during their Illinois Senate race, Lincoln said: "I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and black races. There is physical difference between the two which, in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together, and I ... am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position."

After being elected president in 1860 (with only 39 percent of the popular vote), Lincoln sought to assure Southerners that he had no intention of ending the institution of slavery.

In a letter to Alexander Stephens, who later became vice president of the Confederacy, Lincoln wrote: "Do the people of the South really entertain fears that a Republican administration would directly or indirectly interfere with their slaves? ... I wish to assure you ... there is no cause for such fears.''

After the Civil War began in 1861, he worked two strategies to solve the race dilemma.

In June 1862, Lincoln signed a law abolishing slavery in all the federal territories, and in July he read to his Cabinet a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, which would give the Confederacy 100 days to lay down arms or he would declare all slaves in those states to be free. He issued that threat publicly in September.

Meanwhile, he was signing orders authorizing a project to relocate blacks to Central America. That quickly failed, however, when Nicaragua, Honduras and Costa Rica protested.

Other options in the Caribbean and Texas were explored in 1863 but were quickly dismissed as impractical.

By late 1864, it became apparent that the North would eventually win the war, and in January 1865 the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was passed, prohibiting slavery throughout the United States.

Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered April 9, 1865. Lincoln, meanwhile, continued to search for a way to relocate the nation's blacks, who were now free.

But just five days later, on April 14, 1865, he was assassinated.

Jim Witt is executive editor of the Star-Telegram

jwitt@star-telegram.com

817-390-7704

Twitter: @jimelvis