Three days before he was shot, Lincoln stood on the second floor of the White House and made a speech to a crowd assembled outside celebrating the recent Union victory over the Confederacy. With his troops and Frederick Douglass very much in mind, Lincoln told the cheering crowd, which had demanded that he come to the window to address them, that he had decided to recommend that his 200,000 black troops and “the very intelligent Negroes” be given the right to vote.
Standing in the crowd was John Wilkes Booth. Hearing those words, Booth turned to a man next to him and said, “That means nigger citizenship. Now, by God! I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make.” Three days later, during the third act of Our American Cousin, Booth followed through with his promise.
It is important that we hear Lincoln’s words through the echo of the rhetoric of the modern civil rights movement, especially the “I Have a Dream” speech of Martin Luther King Jr. It is easy to forget that when Lincoln made a public address, he was speaking primarily—certainly until his Second Inaugural Address—to all-white or predominantly white audiences, who most certainly were ambivalent about blacks and black rights, if not slavery. When Lincoln talked about wrestling with the better angels of our nature, he knew whereof he spoke: about his audience and, just as important, about himself.
It should not surprise us that Lincoln was no exception to his times; what is exceptional about Abraham Lincoln is that, perhaps because of temperament or because of the shape-shifting contingencies of command during an agonizingly costly war, he wrestled with his often contradictory feelings and ambivalences and vacillations about slavery, race and colonization, and did so quite publicly and often quite eloquently.
So, was Lincoln a racist? He certainly embraced anti-black attitudes and phobias in his early years and throughout his debates with Douglas in the 1858 Senate race (the seat that would become Barack Obama’s), which he lost. By the end of the Civil War, Lincoln was on an upward arc, perhaps heading toward becoming the man he has since been mythologized as being: the Great Emancipator, the man who freed—and loved—the slaves. But his journey was certainly not complete on the day that he died. Abraham Lincoln wrestled with race until the end. And, as Du Bois pointed out, his struggle ultimately made him a more interesting and noble man than the mythical hero we have come to revere.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is editor in chief of The Root. He is co-host of the PBS series Looking for Lincoln, which premieres Feb. 11 (check local listings for time). His book, Lincoln on Race and Slavery, is available now.
Read the washingtonpost.com Live Online discussion: “WAS LINCOLN A RACIST?” with The Root‘s editor in chief Henry Louis Gates Jr.