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Houses Divided: Lincoln, Douglas, and the Political Landscape of 1858


Lincoln and Race

Although Abraham Lincoln is renowned as the “Great Emancipator” who freed the American slaves in 1863, he has been bitterly criticized for his hypocrisy on the subject of race. That criticism is based largely on what he said about race in the Lincoln-Douglas debates. The issue of race was closely bound up with the conflict over the expansion of slavery into the western territories. Most white northerners opposed the expansion of slavery, not because they disliked slavery, but because of deep racial prejudice against blacks. Stephen A. Douglas appealed to white racial prejudice throughout the debates, insisting that Lincoln not only opposed the extension of slavery into the territories, but also advocated the outright abolition of slavery and granting freed black slaves equal civil rights with whites. Those accusations put Lincoln in a tight corner and made him explicitly state his position on slavery and rights. He declared that he personally opposed slavery and hoped for its eventual extinction because it violated the natural right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness with which everyone was endowed. But he added that he was required by the Constitution to respect slavery’s legal status in the southern states and was only asking Congress to prevent its spread from the South into the western federal territories. He stated that even though he believed that blacks possessed the same natural rights as whites, that did not compel individual states such as Illinois to grant free blacks the same civil rights as whites, since natural and civil rights existed in different spheres.

Questions

  • What distinction was Lincoln trying to make between “natural” and “civil” equality?
  • Was Lincoln actually reflecting a belief in white racial supremacy? Or was he trying to placate the white racial prejudices stirred up by Douglas?
  • What light do these questions cast on Lincoln as the future “Great Emancipator”?

Sources

A. Excerpt from “What Would Be the Effect of Negro Equality?,” Springfield Illinois State Register, Oct. 9, 1858.

B. Abraham Lincoln, “Speech at Chicago,” July 10, 1858, in Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Roy P. Basler (8 vols., New Brunswick, 1953), II, 499Ó502.

C. Thomas A. Marshall to Abraham Lincoln, July 22, 1858, in Abraham Lincoln Papers (Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.).

D. Abraham Lincoln, “Fourth Debate with Stephen A. Douglas at Charleston, Illinois,” Sept. 18, 1858, in Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, ed. Roy P. Basler (8 vols., New Brunswick), III, 145–46.

E. Abraham Lincoln, “Seventh and Last Debate with Stephen A. Douglas at Alton, Illinois,” Oct. 15, 1858, in Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, ed. Roy P. Basler (8 vols., New Brunswick), III, 315.