How Much Should We Judge Lincoln on Race?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A few readers seek to complicate the racist legacy of Woodrow Wilson by looking to the president who freed the slaves:

Yes, the world was very different place 200, 100, 50 or even 25 years ago. Why do people continue to measure people, not in the time they lived, but in a different world? This does not excuse anyone from hateful, hurtful speech or actions, but we need to evaluate people in their time.

Yes, Woodrow Wilson was a racist. Yes, he did things that are beyond the pale for the time. These were, and are, horrendous. But if we want to use that standard, let’s tear down every monument or reverence to Abraham Lincoln. America’s greatest citizen did not believe in the equalities of the races. [Lincoln said, for example: “I am not, nor have ever been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races.”] He believed in white rule. [Here and here are historians who emphasize that.]

But perhaps the words of Fredrick Douglass best sum it up, “Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.”

Let us move forward, remember the past, but build for the future.

This reader looks to another complicated aspect of Lincoln’s bio:

For a while, Abraham Lincoln explored the option of sending all black Americans to colonize Liberia.

He went so far as to meet with black leaders to discuss such a voluntary program. Another black leader, Frederick Douglass, was deeply suspicious of the president until he was given an exceptionally respectful interview by Lincoln. Douglass noted later that while he continued to differ from the president in his policies, he well respected the man.

And here lies the rub: In as much as politics is the art of the possible, the successful politician must recognize exactly what is, in fact, possible—what society of the day will tolerate. Or, as Henry Kissinger has pointed out, the true statesman will lead his society but only so far as his society will permit. Was Lincoln a racist because he advocated sending freed slaves off to Africa? Or perhaps he thought a program of federally sponsored black colonization would be a kindness in light of what he must have envisioned to be their very hard prospects of the South’s political and social reconstruction.

I would guess that before their encounter, Douglass would have considered Lincoln to be a racist based on Lincoln's public record. But after their meeting, Douglass clearly recognized the president had dignified him with assumed equality:

In all my interviews with Mr. Lincoln I was impressed with his entire freedom from popular prejudice against the colored race. He was the first great man that I talked with in the United States freely, who in no single instance reminded me of the difference between himself and myself, of the difference of color, and I thought that all the more remarkable because he came from a State where there were black laws…

Social progress, short of revolution, is to be had by baby steps. When looking back on such a path from the present, it is easy to fall prey to the notion that the whole journey could have been undertaken with one big presidential stride. But historiography suggests otherwise and makes me, for one, even more in awe of Abraham Lincoln.

As for Woodrow Wilson: I would reserve judgment until I read an account from one who worked for, and had been segregated by, Wilson.

Any historians out there know of one? Or just want to join the discussion in general? Drop us an email.