No matter how hard I try, I always struggle to get a clear sense of Abe Lincoln’s views on race, which often appear inconsistent, to say the least. So it was with great pleasure that I read Jim Oakes’s chapter in this book. Oakes’s essay offers by far the best summary I’ve read of the issue. Here’s the key paragraph:

Lincoln believed that race relations were regulated at three different levels. At the highest level, the natural rights guaranteed by the Constitution, Lincoln consistently favored the equality of blacks and whites. Below natural rights were the privileges and immunities of citizenship, sometimes called citizenship rights, and at this level Lincoln was cautiously egalitarian during the 1850s and unambiguously so during his presidency. Finally, there were aspects of race relations that fell solely within the purview of the states – laws regulating marriage, voting, and jury duty, for example. These matters were determined by state legislatures elected by people at large. Virtually every concession Lincoln made to racial prejudice concerned the third level.

That’s an extremely helpful formulation, I think, even though I’m not sure there’s anything new there. Still, it’s concise and clear. Oakes goes on:

Lincoln shared many, though by no means all, of the racial prejudices of his fellow Americans. He instinctively thought of the United States as a white man’s country, agreed that the founders had imagined their new nation the same way, believed that the western territories existed for the benefit of whites, and said on various occasions that it would be best if blacks and whites permanently separated.

Yup, that about sums it up. And Oakes’s explanation of the above is interesting:

But when he bothered to justify these views Lincoln usually referred not to any notion of innate racial inequality but to the clearly expressed will of a racist white majority. Lincoln’s democratic deference to popular opinion explains his perplexing inconsistencies at least as much as his own racial prejudices. He resisted the idea that either natural rights or the privileges and immunities of citizenship were subject to majority rule, and on those matters he was a racial egalitarian. But on issues that were distinctly the prerogative of elected officials in state legislatures Lincoln deferred. As was so often the case in antebellum America, Lincoln’s prejudicial views had as much to do with democracy as racism.

Hmm. About some of that I’ve got lingering doubts. For example, Lincoln on occasion granted that racial pseudoscientists were right: that there were inherent differences between blacks and whites, immutable markers indicating the latter’s superiority. I’m not sure how, even given the schema outlined in the first paragraph above, Oakes would explain evidence that Lincoln accepted the existence of “natural” differences between the races. Perhaps with his “virtually every concession” caveat? And maybe that’s all there is to it. Still, pro-slavery forces used scientific racism to undercut claims that slaves and free people of color enjoyed natural rights. I don’t know; maybe I’m overthinking this. Regardless, the Oakes is worth your time — as is the case with everything the man writes.

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