Editor’s Note: Watch “Lincoln: Divided We Stand,” a six-part original series examining the life and legacy of Abraham Lincoln, Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on CNN.
Which of these four depictions of Lincoln are true?
All of them, if you believe how Lincoln has been portrayed by some historians and in pop culture. The Great Emancipator has become the great shape-shifter – his image has been twisted like licorice to fit all sorts of agendas. He’s become a pop icon who has been depicted in “South Park,” on “Robot Chicken” and in a Geico insurance ad. Scholars offer wildly different theories about everything from Lincoln’s mental health to his romantic proclivities.
But there is one image of Lincoln, examined in a new CNN documentary series, “Lincoln: Divided We Stand,” that every serious student of his legacy must eventually address:
Was Lincoln a racist?
That question is another vestige of the Civil War that some Americans are still fighting today.
“I have never called Lincoln a racist,” says Eric Foner, one of the nation’s preeminent historians on Lincoln and the Civil War.
“He shared some of the prejudices of his time. Was Lincoln an anti-racist? No not really. Was he an egalitarian in the modern sense? No. Race was not a major concern of Lincoln. He didn’t think about race about very much. To ask if he’s a racist is the wrong question. And if you ask the wrong question, you’re going to get the wrong answer.”
Lincoln’s legacy is complex and evolving
On one hand, Lincoln’s place in US history feels secure. Historians routinely rank him as the greatest American president. Republicans call themselves “The Party of Lincoln,” while Democrats claim him as one of their own. No other former President has such a mythical hold on popular imagination. We still quote lines from Lincoln speeches such as “a new birth of freedom” or “With malice toward none; with charity for all.”
But in some circles, “Honest Abe” is increasingly becoming Racist Abe.
Questions over Lincoln’s racial views have intensified over the years as historians, activists, and politicians question how Lincoln regarded Black people and Native Americans.
Lincoln’s racial views also have been the subject of recent protests. Protesters in Portland recently vandalized a statue of Lincoln, while another statue was recently removed from a Boston park because some thought its depiction of Lincoln standing over a bent freed slave was demeaning.
And earlier this year, a school board in San Francisco voted to change the name of a school named after Lincoln because of his treatment of Native Americans. The school district has since paused the school renaming process after a public backlash.
“Lincoln, like the presidents before him and most after, did not show through policy or rhetoric that Black lives ever mattered to them outside of human capital and as casualties of wealth building,” said Jeremiah Jeffries, chairman of the school board’s renaming committee.
But Jeffries’ interpretation of Lincoln’s racial views reflects our contemporary tendency to see racism as an either/or proposition: You’re either a racist or a not. Lincoln was something else, and many still haven’t caught up with the enigmatic man who David Blight, a leading Lincoln historian, calls “a creature of contradictions and ambiguities.”
Why some say Lincoln was a racist
At first glance, the evidence is damning.
Lincoln used the N-word and told racist jokes. He once said that Black people were inferior to Whites and he liked minstrel shows. He proposed ending slavery by shipping willing Black people back to Africa.
Lincoln also once floated an offer to the Confederates that would allow them to keep slaves until 1900 if they surrendered, according to a PBS film called “The Abolitionists.” And at one White House meeting with Black ministers, Lincoln virtually blamed slaves for starting the Civil War.
If some of Lincoln’s public utterances about Blacks were retweeted today, he would have been canceled on social media and likely run out of office.
During one of his famed senatorial debates with Stephen Douglas in 1858, Lincoln said:
“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.”
But Lincoln’s actions must be viewed in historical context, scholars say.
Some of Lincoln’s views about Black people reflect the era he lived in, says Stacy Pratt McDermott, a former associate editor of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln Project, an organization based in Springfield, Illinois, that collects all of Lincoln’s documents.
“Basically, every White person in antebellum America is a racist,” McDermott says. “The whole system is set up for racism. There is an economic system of slavery that relies on people believing that Black people are inferior. Black people don’t have legal standing. Even many radical abolitionists, who were heroes of mine, did not believe that Black people were equal.”
Why some say Lincoln wasn’t a racist
Yet McDermott does not call Lincoln a racist. She says he never displayed the visceral dislike of Black people that was the norm during his era. Lincoln saw Black clients in his law practice.
Other historians have talked about how comfortable Lincoln seemed around Black people, treating them as equals, shaking their hands, and answering letters from Black soldiers seeking help during the Civil War.
Lincoln was the first President to invite African Americans in number to the White House. He often greeted them “with open arms and an outstretched hand,” Jonathan W. White wrote in a recent essay on Lincoln entitled, “Black Lives Certainly Mattered to Abraham Lincoln.”
There is also the well-known story of how Lincoln, as a young man, stumbled upon a slave auction in New Orleans and watched with disgust as bidders pinched the flesh of a Black woman and made her trot like a horse to test her fitness. Lincoln reportedly said to a friend regarding slavery: “If ever I get a chance to hit that thing [slavery], I’ll hit it hard.”
“During his entire life, Lincoln believed that African Americans were his fellow human beings - - that in itself set him apart,” says McDermott, author of “The Jury in Lincoln’s America.”
Some historians also cite Lincoln’s friendship with the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, the leading Black figure of his time, as proof that calling Lincoln a racist is simplistic. Lincoln invited Douglass to the White House at least three times – once ushering him inside past a line of visitors, even though he’d arrived without an appointment – episodes that are sprinkled throughout countless history books.
“He saw the two of them as kindred spirits,” says Foner, author of “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution.” “They both started out low on the social scale, Douglass as a slave, obviously. But Lincoln grew up very modestly. Douglass never went to school. Lincoln only had one year of schooling in his life. Both of them were known as great orators. Both of them had pulled themselves up by their own hard work and intelligence.”
Lincoln always opposed slavery, but it would be simplistic to say his opposition was based solely on how Black people were treated. He believed that every human being had natural rights and was repulsed by the notion that people could be used for labor but not get paid for their work.
“His critique of slavery was on an abstract level,” Foner says. “It was a matter of principle. It was a matter of democracy. It was a matter of the enjoyment of the fruits of your labor.”
Lincoln did not advocate for social or political equality early in his political career. But near the end of his life he took a daring step. In his final speech in 1865, he spoke publicly in support of Black voting rights. Some historians say he supported giving the vote to Black soldiers and educated Black men. John Wilkes Booth, who was in the crowd when Lincoln uttered those words, vowed to assassinate Lincoln after he heard the President speak in favor of Black voting.
How Lincoln changed his views
Lincoln’s political evolution – not his racial views – is what fascinates many historians.
Civil rights activist Malcolm X reportedly once told Black people to “take down the picture” of Lincoln that hung in the living rooms of so many homes.
But Malcolm shared a rare quality with Lincoln – the capacity to admit he was wrong and evolve. Malcolm went from a fiery Nation of Islam leader who preached Black separatism to someone who embraced the common humanity of all people just before he was assassinated.
If there is a right question to ask about Lincoln, it’s this: How was he able to evolve and grow in such dramatic ways?
The answer could help us in such a politically divisive time.
There is a well-circulated story about how Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas once told his clerks, “I ain’t evolving.” The story may be apocryphal, but it’s endured in part because it points to a common trait in many contemporary political leaders: ideological rigidity.
We’re accustomed to electing political leaders on the left and right who never seem to change their mind. The refusal to have an open mind is now seen as a political virtue. When is the last time you heard a politician admit that they were wrong?
But Lincoln did evolve, and that was part of his greatness. Yes, he told Black people that they should go back to Africa. But he also risked his political career – and gave his life – to help Blacks become more equal.
Why was he able to change? Scholars cite several reasons.
Blight, the historian, says Lincoln was able to change because of his morality.
“He had a moral core that he applied to both his political and social life,” says Blight, author of a Pulitzer-Prize winning biography, “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.” “He was capable of realizing that history is bigger than him. One of Lincoln’s greatest traits was his humility.”
Foner thinks Lincoln could change because he was an independent thinker.
“He grew up on the frontier, but Lincoln was able to separate himself from the culture he grew up in,” Foner says. “He didn’t like to hunt. He didn’t like to kill animals and he didn’t hate Indians like a lot of frontiersmen. He didn’t drink, which was widespread. He made his own decisions. He had the self-confidence to decide for himself what to believe regardless of what the surrounding culture told him.”
Lincoln evolved because was “educable,” says McDermott, the Lincoln historian.
“He had a voracious appetite for knowledge,” she says. “He was always reading, thinking, and rehashing. It’s really hard to not have your mind change when you’re a voracious reader.”
The real question we should ask about Lincoln
Lincoln’s intellectual curiosity is a trait he shared with other great presidents. In his best-selling book, “Think Again,” the social scientist Adam Grant said experts assessed American presidents on a list of personality traits and compared them to the list of great presidents complied by historians and political scientists.
What all great presidents shared was one trait, he said.
“What set great presidents apart was their intellectual curiosity and openness,” Grant wrote. “They read widely and were as eager to learn about developments in biology, philosophy, architecture, and music as in domestic and foreign affairs. They were interested in hearing new views and revising old ones.”
Lincoln’s evolution is precisely why so many different people with different agendas can cite him because he was full of “splendid inconsistency,” Blight, the historian, once wrote in an essay.
“Lincoln has long been infinitely malleable,” Blight wrote. “He can serve as everyone’s aid or tool in one struggle over historical memory after another.”
Most people won’t face the onslaught of bruising decisions that Lincoln faced. We’re not tasked with holding the country together, leading a war or dealing with the personal tragedy of losing your favorite son to an illness while millions look to you for leadership.
But any of us can embrace what Blight calls the “contradictions and ambiguities” that helped make Lincoln great: Listening to people with whom we disagree, admitting we’re wrong and changing our mind.
Maybe we should stop asking if Lincoln was a racist. Here’s a better question: How did a “racist” become the Great Emancipator?
And how can more of us adopt a little of Lincoln’s “splendid inconsistency” for the partisan era we live in today?