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Abraham Lincoln, Viewpoints

Date published: 2/8/2009


"I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races; that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will for ever forbid the two races from living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race."

The context of these remarks is important. Lincoln was engaged in an intense senatorial campaign battle against Stephen Douglas who was the incumbent. Some historians dismiss Lincoln's statements as the stuff of a political campaign. To have said anything else, they argue, would have resulted in his defeat. Nonetheless, he lost the election. By dismissing these remarks as merely rhetoric, historians imply that Lincoln was disingenuous--a political chameleon. But instead of dismissing Lincoln's words we should accept them for what they are--his views at that particular time.

In 1922, the black historian and sociologist William Edward Burghardt DuBois reflected on Lincoln's 1858 speech and expressed his hatred for those words while praising Lincoln, the self-made man who would rise above his humble roots and thoughts to become a truly great man. DuBois wrote: "I revere [Lincoln] the more because up out of his contradictions and inconsistencies he fought his way to the pinnacles of earth. I care more for Lincoln's great toe than for the whole body of the perfect George Washington, of spotless ancestry, who never told a lie. "

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Theodore Carter DeLaney teaches American history at Washington and Lee University. His specialty is the American South. His current research focuses on public school desegregation in western Virginia.