Abraham Lincoln: Friend of Foe?

February 27, 2013
Of all the presidents of the United States, few are more recognized or more celebrated than Abraham Lincoln. His efforts caused the passing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 which would ultimately lead to the freedom of African American slaves across the nation. With this feat, how could anyone imagine this man to be anything other than fair and just? They can only do so when taking a closer look into his words. After all, Lincoln himself said “I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which, in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality” (Document B). In these words, where may we find the honest and just man we've been told about time and time again? We may find him through his actions. Although Lincoln made statements that may be interpreted as racist, they were made in pursuit of political power with which he made advancements towards the equality of races.
All we have today to help us piece together the true nature of our 16th president are words and scraps of lost conversations. Some of those words spoke of equality while others seemed to condemn him to the crimson stain of racism that is spread across our history. Who says that a racist man cannot hate slavery enough to free those beneath him? Didn't Lincoln speak of moving freed slaves back to Britain, effectively shoving them out of our country? What else can be assumed from these words but that he barely tolerated those of the darker race and wished them to leave his presence? Lincoln said himself that he had “no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races” (Document B).
The truth is this: Whether we like it or not, words are not always indicative of a person's true intents and desires. Directly after making the statements above, Lincoln continued, saying “there is no reason in the world why [an African American] is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence-the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man” (Document B). These are the words upon which he acted, and in the end, that is what truly matters. Actions will always speak louder about true character than empty words. With his words, Lincoln paid lip service to those who were dead-set against the freedom of the slaves, because if he hadn't, he likely would not have won the vote. Frederick Douglas, a freed slave, spoke to this at the unveiling of Freedman's Monument in the April of 1876.

“His great mission was to accomplish two things: first, to save his country from dismemberment and ruin; and, second, to free his country from the great crime of slavery. To do one or the other, or both, he must have the earnest sympathy and the powerful cooperation of his loyal fellow-countrymen. Without this primary and essential condition to success his efforts must have been vain and utterly fruitless” (Document E).

Without presidential power he would not have been able to pass the Emancipation Proclamation and the job would have been left to another man, if that man would take it. Lincoln used his words in a political strategy in which the goal was to end slavery.
Furthermore, when comparing his words to those of others at the time a clear line is drawn. A rift between ideologies that cannot be crossed with empty words alone. John Bell Robinson, a white man in support of slavery, spoke his desires frankly: “God himself has made them for usefulness as slaves, and requires us to employ them as such, and if we betray our trust, and throw them off on their own resources, we reconvert them into barbarians, and we shall be compelled to atone for our sin towards them through all time” (Document D). In a society where this line of thought was promoted to varying degrees among most white people, what use did Lincoln have for his clearly more reserved feelings on the matter? It was the 15th amendment that gave black people the right to vote and that was not passed until after Lincoln's assassination. What then could he possibly gain from not freely expressing derogatory feelings he may have about African Americans? Surely the ratio of those who felt that the white race was superior still outnumbered those who did not feel that way. Yet Lincoln even went as far as saying that African Americans deserved the basic human rights that a white man deserved. In this light it is difficult to determine him as being a truly racist man. In fact, it is almost impossible.
When all is said and done, when all of the facts have been added together, only one logical conclusion can be drawn: Lincoln was not a racist man. He may have expressed racist tendencies and it is possible that not all of those expressions were lifeless and void. However, in light of the time and considering all that he accomplished which sharply contrasted with the actions of a racist man, it is clear that Lincoln truly cared for the equality of all humans. He cared for this equality and felt that it should extend beyond the borders of skin tone. Because that is what he felt, that is what he worked towards. Words are difficult things that Lincoln utilized to his advantage. With them entire worlds may be painted in which the bonds of reality are stretches and broken. A skilled weaver of words and a careful planner may fool others with his words in order to accomplish another goal. Lincoln said the racist things he said in order to gain the vote of those otherwise unwilling. The most that he can really be accused of then is of deception and cunning. When compared with his larger actions, the words he acted upon, these seem like minor sins which are very excusable in comparison to racism.

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