Lincoln’s Peoria Speech, Part Eleven

Lincoln 1860

Abraham Lincoln

I’m taking tomorrow off, so here’s an extra-long post for today.

(Introduction, Parts 12, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. Full text.)

Lincoln declared himself a foe of slavery and its spread. He opposed it on the obvious moral grounds, as well as on patriotic and philosophical grounds. Naturally, one then wonders what he aspired to do about it. Thomas Jefferson opposed slavery, but would do extremely little to disturb it and encouraged Edward Coles to do no more. Just by declaring himself antislavery in public, Lincoln had gone beyond the Sage of Monticello.

If all earthly power were given me, I should not know what to do, as to the existing institution. My first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia, -to their own native land.

Abraham Lincoln, hero to whites and banisher of blacks, would rid us of them all. As much as we cringe, to nineteenth century white American ears that made perfect sense. Most white people who hated slavery hated it not for the wrongs done to black people but because they saw it as a threat to white republicanism and white social and racial purity. Different sorts should just keep to themselves. Maybe one could work out a way to live together with Catholics or Irishmen just arrived, or maybe not, but black Americans who arrived generations ago simply could not fit into American society. Best for everyone if they just went away.

Forced population transfer remained a socially acceptable, broad-minded humanitarian option up through the First World War, of course. Even if people got exiled by force, it would remove irritating minorities and their concerns from majoritarian movements. Thus, in principle, both sides would enjoy more peace and prosperity. It did not work out that way, but few people in Lincoln’s time knew as much. Americans could look at the Indian Removal for a counterexample, but then point out that private contractors turned it into a for profit enterprise and insist that their deportation scheme would work differently.

But Lincoln dismissed colonization as impractical. Where would all that shipping come from? Who would pay for it? And what would freedpeople do when dumped off in Liberia? He predicted that they would die within ten days. However harsh, that at least acknowledges that colonization would not send black Americans to Shangri-la, but rather to a world with which most of them had no experience at all. Some Americans would have washed their hands on Liberia’s beaches, considering the job done, but Lincoln had too much of a conscience for that.

What then? Free them all, and keep them among us as underlings? Is it quite certain that this betters their condition? I think I would not hold one in slavery, at any rate’ yet the point is not clear enough for me to denounce people upon.

We might immediately answer with a resounding yes but in living memory Lincoln’s own Illinois had, if not slavery, an apprenticeship system where the apprentices lived as slaves in all but name. “Freeing” the slaves this way would not improve their lot at all and Lincoln explicitly references concern for black Americans well-being, something very often off the radar of other antislavery men. One can almost read a sort of implicit egalitarianism in this. Lincoln suggests that not just the legal fact of slavery, but also its social and individual realities must end. Inherently, ending slavery means elevating black Americans beyond their current status.

At which point the Great Emancipator-to-be pulls the rug out from under us again:

Free them, and make them politically and socially, our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not. Whether this feeling accords with justice and sound judgment, is not the sole question, if indeed, it is any part of it. A universal feeling, whether well or ill-founded, can not be safely disregarded. We can not, then, make them equals. It does seem to me that systems of gradual emancipation might be adopted; but for their tardiness in this, I will not undertake to judge our brethren of the south.

A better status than slavery? Lincoln’s all for that. Equality with whites? That asked too much. Lincoln told the crowd he would not accept it himself and even if he did, he knew most American whites never would. That project remains unfinished, even with a century and a half of further progress and further reverses. The language says it all here: We cannot “make them equals”. Nothing about a black person suggests in itself that black and white should live as equals.

In the end, Lincoln comes out for graduated emancipation someday, but with great deference to southerners who don’t rush to the cause. No more slavery, in the distant future, but never equality. In making that stand, Lincoln of course pandered to the prejudices of his audience and to white racism in general. I feel the temptation even in writing this to make an excuse for him and say that in his heart of hearts, he didn’t believe a word of it. But I don’t know that and living so long after him and knowing the events ahead of him, I can’t help but see Lincoln at the end of his life when he talked about letting black men vote. That Lincoln had a decade and a war between him and the Lincoln who spoke at Peoria.

When did one Lincoln become the other? Or did both Lincolns share space, with one as Lincoln’s pragmatic side and the other his inner idealist? I don’t know. Many books delve into the subject and I understand that most scholars see Lincoln as evolving into a more forward-thinking man over time, but those books haven’t reached the top of my reading list yet. I see a ghost of proto-egalitarianism in the Peoria speech, buried deep and hedged behind many conditionals, but I can also see the other reading that Lincoln’s humanitarian gestures go no farther than that.

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