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Abraham Lincoln: A Bicentennial Exhibition

Statement by Dr. Joseph Reidy and Dr. Edna Medford

Dr. Joseph Reidy
Associate Provost
& Professor of History,
Howard University 
Dr. Edna Medford
Associate Professor of History,
Howard University

The Lincoln Bicentennial

When Abraham Lincoln was born two centuries ago, few could have imagined his ascendancy to the presidency. A son of the American frontier, he grew up impoverished and underprivileged. The recipient of scarcely any formal education, he possessed an aptitude for learning and maintained faith in the national creed that industry and perseverance could overcome the disadvantages of birth. Lincoln worked hard in pursuit of bettering himself, learned from his failures along the way, and emerged prepared when opportunity presented itself in the form of election to the presidency. And when war threatened the Union, he did what he thought was necessary to preserve it.

The America of the nineteenth century was able to produce a Lincoln because its people believed in “the right to rise.” But not all of the nation’s residents were allowed to enjoy this birthright. Predominant among the excluded stood the sons and daughters of Africa, at the time of Lincoln’s presidency numbering more than four million, all but a half million of whom lived in bondage. African Americans throughout the nation—whether in the North, South or West—lived lives circumscribed by skin color. In Lincoln’s own birth state of Kentucky, and indeed in all of the southern states, men, women, and children were designated as property and had their human rights stripped away. His adopted states of Indiana and Illinois, both of them ostensibly free, passed laws designed to keep their African American residents subordinate or attempted to curb black immigration. To his credit, Lincoln spoke out against slavery, eloquently so, when the issue of the institution’s expansion threatened to, and eventually did, tear the nation apart.

But Lincoln’s views on slavery were complex. Our sixteenth president’s attitudes about the South’s “peculiar institution” reflected both a moral sensibility and a practical consideration of the rights of property ownership. While he railed against the existence of slave auctions and decried the denial of the rights of bondmen and women to enjoy the wealth that was generated by their own hands, Lincoln acknowledged the right of the slaveholder to his property. His solution to the dilemma of the clash of natural rights with property rights was to contain slavery where it already existed and to propose the adoption of a gradual, compensated approach to abolition with the consent of the white electorate. Slavery would thus end in a slow, natural death, and owners would receive remuneration for the loss of their property. The newly freed would be encouraged to accept “voluntary deportation” or colonization in order to prevent inevitable racial conflict.

This latter condition for abolition underscores the complexity of Lincoln’s racial views and reflects the attitudes of most white Americans in the nineteenth century. The nation’s history gave Lincoln little reason to consider men and women of color as anything but inferior beings. Long before there was a nation, African Americans had been denied basic rights, whether enslaved or free. His prejudiced remarks at Charleston, Illinois in 1858 may be construed by some as the practical musing of a politician who knew his audience well. Indeed, he did. When four years later he lectured a group of black men invited to the White House on the impracticality of racial coexistence in America, he was drawing on his knowledge of his own people and their propensity for denying the humanity of black men and women. But Lincoln’s own fondness for making black people the object of insensitive joke-telling suggests that he held some of the same racial beliefs as his fellow white Americans. What separated him from the masses of whites of his era was his belief in equality of opportunity. He did not consider blacks equal in intellectual ability or capable of enjoying equal social and political status. But in the right to their earnings, they were the equal of all Americans.

War modified Lincoln’s views about slavery and abolition. Recognizing the importance of the South’s enslaved labor force to the Confederacy’s successful prosecution of the war, he issued a Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation that threatened to declare free all enslaved people who remained under the control of the secessionists. When the states in rebellion failed to heed his ultimatum, he signed the decree that promised freedom to more than three million enslaved people. Those in the loyal border states of the South remained enslaved until their states abolished slavery or until the Thirteenth Amendment (which Lincoln supported) was ratified at the end of 1865.

Lincoln also amended some of his racial views. He abandoned the idea of colonization and advocated political rights for literate African Americans and for black Union soldiers. Lincoln’s public support for a black electorate reached John Wilkes Booth, who vowed to make the president pay with his life.

In subsequent years, Lincoln was inextricably linked with the abolition of slavery. Oddly enough, however, national commemorations of his birth gave scant attention to fostering an understanding of the forces that brought about what Lincoln referred to as the “great event of the nineteenth century.” Howard University and the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission have resolved to rectify this omission. As an institution that advocates the study of the history of people of African descent as a core mission, it is appropriate that an exhibit and conference on race and emancipation in the age of Lincoln be hosted on this campus. It is also especially fitting at this time to consider these issues as we celebrate the administration of the nation’s first president of color. The election of President Barack Obama reminds us that the newly emancipated defined freedom as equality and that our progress as a nation toward their goal, although not fully realized, should strengthen our resolve to push on.  

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