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The Black Man’s President: Abraham Lincoln, African Americans, & the Pursuit of Racial Equality

Author(s):Burlingame, Michael
Reviewer(s):Kamphoefner, Walter D.

Published by EH.NET (January 2022).

Michael Burlingame. The Black Man’s President: Abraham Lincoln, African Americans, & the Pursuit of Racial Equality. New York, London: Pegasus Books, 2021. Xviii + 313 pp. $29.95 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-64313-813-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Walter Kamphoefner, Department of History, Texas A&M University.

 

Although it has little to do with economics and nothing whatsoever with cliometrics, this is an important book, authored by Michael Burlingame, the holder of a distinguished chair in Lincoln Studies at the University of Illinois branch in the President’s hometown of Springfield. Among other things, it is an antidote to economic determinism. Its thesis is succinctly laid out in the introduction: “The best evidence to support the contention that Lincoln was ‘emphatically the black man’s president’ [in Frederick Douglass’s phrase] is not just his policy decisions and public statements regarding emancipation, the enrollment of Black troops, and Black voting rights, but also his personal relations with African Americans. Because interactions speak louder than words, Lincoln’s views on race are best understood through an examination of his dealings with Black Illinoisans and Black Washingtonians. His meetings with Frederick Douglass are well-known, but not his similarly revealing encounters with many other African Americans” (x).

The book is similar in content and tone to works such as William Lee Miller’s Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography (2002), James Oakes’s The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics (2007), and David Blight’s 2019 Douglass biography. It presents a similar if slightly more generous take on Lincoln than does Eric Foner’s The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (2010).

Burlingame argues, correctly in my opinion, for the necessity of quoting the N-word, so as to understand the virulent race prejudice of the time. He provides abundant illustration of the prejudice that Lincoln had to deal with even in the North, and not only among Democrats. The word even shows up among a number of prominent Republican “friends of the Negro.” The author demonstrates how ubiquitous it was among Northern Democrats generally, and with Stephen Douglas in particular, even if it was sometimes reported as “negro” in newspapers friendly to him. William Seward quipped at one point that “No man can be elected President of the United States who spells negro with two g’s” (211).

As Burlingame indicates, much of the evidence on Lincoln’s racial attitudes and his interactions with Blacks during his political career will be relatively familiar, at least to Civil War specialists. But his first two chapters explore new territory, presenting evidence from Lincoln’s earlier times in Springfield and his interaction with a number of ordinary Blacks in the city, and his dealings with White House staff and other Black residents of Washington, DC. Ironically, his intended porter and valet, William H. Johnson from Springfield, was rejected because of “intra-racial prejudice” by lighter skinned White House staff, but Lincoln continued to exert himself on Johnson’s behalf and paid for his coffin when he succumbed to smallpox in 1864 (27-31). A brief third chapter relates Lincoln’s first meeting with Blacks in the White House, in the context of the bill for compensated emancipation in the District of Columbia, which the president ultimately signed.

The entire issue of colonization, and how seriously Lincoln considered it, is explored and contextualized in great detail in chapter four (at fifty pages, the longest in the book), which has the telling title, “A Sop to Conservatives.” Lincoln’s apparently harsh statement recommending colonization to a Black delegation in August 1862, “Go where you are treated the best, and the ban is still upon you,” was primarily designed to overcome white opposition to emancipation. This is documented by contemporary statements of conservative Republican Francis P. Blair, Sr., Black abolitionist minister Henry McNeal Turner, and a London newspaper correspondent who correctly observed that colonization proposals were “adopted to silence the weak-nerved, whose name is legion.” Further bolstering this interpretation is the fact that Lincoln arranged to have a stenographic reporter present recording his words verbatim (though no indication is given how common or uncommon that was). But Lincoln continued to explore several colonization projects as a voluntary refuge for Blacks who wished to escape American racism. This chapter shows the breadth not only of white but also of Black interest in colonization; even two sons of Frederick Douglass signed up for one of the projects, much to the dismay of their father.

Three of the four following chapters cover more familiar terrain. Chapter five describes various Black visitors, most prominent among them Douglass, visiting the president in 1863 and lobbying first for the recruitment of Black soldiers and then for their equal treatment in the Union Army. Chapter 6 covers similar interactions in 1864, including Black visitors lobbying for black voting rights, prompting Lincoln’s message to the Governor of Louisiana. Chapter eight relates a number of breakthroughs for Black Americans that were facilitated by Lincoln, first among them the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery nationwide. The intervening chapter seven documents four occasions when Black guests were admitted to White House receptions, despite attacks by Democrats.

Burlingame sums up his evidence thus: Lincoln’s “unfailing cordiality to African Americans in general, his willingness to meet with them in the white House, to honor their requests, to invite them to consult on public policy, to treat them with respect and kindness whether they were kitchen servants or leaders of the Black community, to invite them to attend receptions and tea, to sing and pray with them on their turf, to authorize them to hold events on the White House grounds—all those manifestations of an egalitarian spirit fully justified the tributes paid to him by Frederick Douglass . . . and other African Americans.”

The author makes a strong case; the only shortcomings of the book are omissions. Burlingame might have paid closer attention to when various Black Americans recorded their interactions with Lincoln, giving particular weight to statements made while Lincoln was still alive. As David Donald long ago argued, “Getting Right With Lincoln” was a tactic used by politicians across the political spectrum. Calling upon the legacy of a martyred President later helped Lyndon B. Johnson greatly in passing Civil Rights legislation. But it was also used by conservatives selectively quoting Lincoln’s Second Inaugural to argue that Andrew Johnson was attacked and vilified for carrying out Lincoln’s allegedly magnanimous Reconstruction policies.

Although slightly outside the author’s purview, it would have been worth pointing out that Lincoln’s “manifestations of an egalitarian spirit” extended to immigrants as well as Blacks. In the political world of the Civil War era, most Republican supporters of Black rights were hostile to immigrants (see Thomas Nast), and most Democratic defenders of immigrants were profoundly racist (as Nast portrayed them). In this respect, Lincoln (along with William Seward) was a notable exception. Already in 1844 he had sponsored a resolution condemning the violence that erupted against Irish Catholics in Philadelphia, and he had taken a clear stand against the nativist Know Nothing movement in his famous 1855 letter to his friend Joshua Speed. The same sentiments were echoed in an 1859 statement widely published in English and German: “I have some little notoriety for commiserating the oppressed condition of the negro; and I should be strangely inconsistent if I could favor any project for curtailing the existing rights of white men, even though born in different lands, and speaking different languages from myself.”

In a thirty-page appendix Burlingame provides an “Evaluation of Evidence Cited to Illustrate Lincoln’s Purported Racism,” which he finds wanting. He cites the criticisms by “Henry Louis Gates, professor of English at Harvard,” perhaps implying that a historian would be better suited to the task. Gates alleges that Lincoln’s autograph for “Aunty” Sojourner Truth was condescending in its wording, while paying less attention to the fact that Lincoln had issued her a special invitation to the White House after she had been denied entry to the First Lady’s reception (177-79, 202). Burlingame shows that abolitionists at the time used “Aunty” as a term of endearment, not belittlement. Critics of Lincoln have made much of the fact that when fighting for his political life in 1858, he “had to pay lip service to the Negrophobia of the Illinois electorate” (202). Burlingame offers a more complete reading of Lincoln’s remarks in that campaign, for example quoting his deft qualifier, “I do not understand that because I do not want a negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. My understanding is that I can just let her alone.” In a similar vein, Burlingame presents evidence that Lincoln used the N-word “sarcastically, implying contempt for Negrophobes who used such vulgar language” (227), on the infrequent occasions that he used the word at all.

Lincoln was not only a statesman but also a very savvy politician. Both talents were absolutely essential for him to achieve what he did, given the obstacles he faced as president. As a final illustration, the last page of the book cites a racist epithet, appropriately enough from John Wilkes Booth, after a speech by Lincoln advocating Black voting rights: “That means nigger citizenship. Now by God I’ll put him through! That is the last speech he will ever make.”

 

Walter D. Kamphoefner is Professor of History at Texas A&M University. His research focuses on immigration, ethnicity, and the Civil War era. His latest book is Germans in America: A Concise History (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021). He explores some of the same themes as Burlingame in his op-ed “Cutting through the Lincoln myth,” https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/159129.

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Subject(s):Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Servitude and Slavery
Military and War
Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century