12 February 2018

An excerpt from the Lincoln-Douglas debates

This is Lincoln's opening statement from the fourth debate (Charleston, Illinois, September 18, 1858):

Mr. Lincoln took the stand at a quarter before three, and was greeted with vociferous and protracted applause; after which, he said:

LADIES AND GENTLEMEN: It will be very difficult for an audience so large as this to hear distinctly what a speaker says, and consequently it is important that as profound silence be preserved as possible.

While I was at the hotel to—day, an elderly gentleman called upon me to know whether I was really in favor of producing a perfect equality between the negroes and white people. [Great Laughter.] While I had not proposed to myself on this occasion to say much on that subject, yet as the question was asked me I thought I would occupy perhaps five minutes in saying something in regard to it. I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, [applause]—that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that 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. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied every thing. I do not understand that because I do not want a negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. [Cheers and laughter.] My understanding is that I can just let her alone. I am now in my fiftieth year, and I certainly never have had a black woman for either a slave or a wife. So it seems to me quite possible for us to get along without making either slaves or wives of negroes. I will add to this that I have never seen, to my knowledge, a man, woman or child who was in favor of producing a perfect equality, social and political, between negroes and white men. I recollect of but one distinguished instance that I ever heard of so frequently as to be entirely satisfied of its correctness—and that is the case of Judge Douglas’s old friend Col. Richard M. Johnson. [Laughter.] I will also add to the remarks I have made (for I am not going to enter at large upon this subject), that I have never had the least apprehension that I or my friends would marry negroes if there was no law to keep them from it, [laughter] but as Judge Douglas and his friends seem to be in great apprehension that they might, if there were no law to keep them from it, [roars of laughter] I give him the most solemn pledge that I will to the very last stand by the law of this State, which forbids the marrying of white people with negroes. [Continued laughter and applause.] I will add one further word, which is this: that I do not understand that there is any place where an alteration of the social and political relations of the negro and the white man can be made except in the State Legislature—not in the Congress of the United States—and as I do not really apprehend the approach of any such thing myself, and as Judge Douglas seems to be in constant horror that some such danger is rapidly approaching, I propose as the best means to prevent it that the Judge be kept at home and placed in the State Legislature to fight the measure. [Uproarious laughter and applause.] I do not propose dwelling longer at this time on this subject.
The fulltext of the entire debate is at Teaching American History.

This is not a subject matter that I was taught in school or have any particular knowledge about, so I can't offer any informed commentary on the context and the question of whether or to what extent President Lincoln amended his opinions after he gained the presidency.  Those with a proper background in history, sociology etc are welcome to clarify matters in the Comments.


  1. Keep in mind EXACTLY what he is saying. "There is a physical difference" is all he admits to in terms of difference. That they're black.

    90% of his audience would have said they were morally and intellectually inferior, but he won't go there.

    Those who judge a politician by his words rather than his deeds are naive, even when their naivete leads them to harsher judgments.

    Lincoln always knew who he was and what he wanted to do. When a Congressman from North Carolina offered him a path to peace and union just before the law, he said "and retract my pledges on stopping slavery where it stands?" He claimed he held union highest, but was unwilling to accept union if the south wouldn't acknowledge the authority of the federal government to diminish slavery.

    Revisionists can find a trillion quotes. But what did he do? He moved towards bring the races into a more equal relationship, firmly, without a step back.

    1. No, that is not all that he admits to- he clearly states, "...the White man is to have the superior position..." And he clearly plays up "social" or "equal" interaction with Blacks for laughs, and a punch line. He sees no law(s) necessary to separate the races from interacting as apparent equals because every White there (incl himself) would consider the very thought... laughable.

  2. I just lost a hero. I really thought Lincoln was better than that!

    1. Although Lincoln's views may have evolved with time, you must remember that even most abolitionists did not believe in social equality with African Americans- they simply did not believe in the institution of slavery. John Brown was one of the few abolitionists who broke bread with Blacks and treated them as equals.

      The policy of "40 acres and a mule" was a concept to give freedmen with no education, money and only the rags on their back a chance to survive after the life long abuse of slavery- it was quickly shot down.


    2. Like any other human being, Lincoln was a product of his time. It is no secret, at least to me, that the Civil War had far, far less to do with slavery than it did with simple economics, and the preservation of the United States as one singular nation.

      Please recall that the vast and overwhelming majority of people in this time period believed firmly that skin color was inherently and irrevocably linked to intelligence and morality; that whites were superior and all others were inferior. To judge Abraham Lincoln, or anyone else, for simply stating the views that he/she/they were raised with is naive and foolish in the extreme. It does not excuse these views, but it does in large part explain them; there is a difference.

      Whatever his reasons may have been, Lincoln was still a great man, and was one who helped to usher in the beginnings of the struggle for equality that we are still mired in to this day. Was he perfect? Decidedly not. No one is. Like any man, he had his flaws. Unlike many men, he rose above them for the most part.

      Note: I grew up in a small town that hosted one of the Lincoln/Douglas debates, so this is not as new to me as it may be to many people. Perhaps that's the difference.

  3. This is a troubling passage, no doubt, for many admirers of Lincoln. To add another brick to the pile, friends and acquaintances of Lincoln recall him telling race jokes.

    Well, let us bring things forward. Woodrow Wilson was an out-and-out racist who reversed many hard-won gains by people of color during the Jim Crow era. Harry Truman was known to utter the N-word and flirted with the KKK when he was a county politician in Missouri (never formally joined, though). JFK was lukewarm on civil rights; it was RFK who saw political advantage in supporting Dr. King in the '60 election, and so urged his brother to do so. Most everyone will look bad if we apply today' standards to people who lived in previous centuries. We must try to judge them by the standard of the day.

    I mentioned RFK earlier. You might recall that RFK, early in his career, was a pretty aggressive and mean-spirited man, who worked for Joseph McCarthy and with Roy Cohn during the Communist witch hunts of the 50's. The trauma of his brother's death seemed to change him, and he spent the final few years of his own life trying to be a different and better man. I think the trauma of the Civil War changed Lincoln as well As he came into personal contact with such luminaries as Frederick Douglass, I sense his views on race seemed to evolve a bit into something we today might find a bit more enlightened.

    Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, all owned slaves. John Adams, who prided himself on not owning slaves, nonetheless thought that the slavery issue was much less pressing than that of the scandalous theatricals which he thought were destroying public morals!

    All heroes have feet of clay.

  4. It always amazes me how little many liberals know of US history or the context of the times from the past. They wish to demonize past historical figures based on their superior morality of today. This is an extremely slippery slope. They quickly forget how many of their heroes of the very recent past were against gay marriage. Will Obama and Hillary be vilified in the future because they once had a different position on the subject? A very slippery slope indeed.


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