Like the Founding Fathers, Abraham Lincoln presents scholars, especially African American scholars, with quite a conundrum. On the one hand, here is the man who is given credit for freeing the slaves, the Great Emancipator. On the other, Lincoln was a man who publicly and privately professed a belief that blacks, whether slave or free were inferior to whites–clearly Lincoln must have thought of Frederick Douglass as an exception–and that colonization was a fine idea after all. Which Lincoln should we, especially those of us who are black, believe and admire?

Henry Louis Gates says that in order to answer that question, we might do well to consult a well-used notebook that Lincoln kept on his person dealing with the great issue of the day: slavery. In it were facts and figures he could call upon during a debate, while writing a letter or while wrestling with himself over the so-called Negro question.

According to Gates, the debate over slavery really involved three separate issues: slavery, race and colonization. First, what are we to make of slavery as an institution in the United States? That is, how was it that whites thought it good and right that they could own black men and women? Second, what were we to make of the Negro himself? Was he a human being equal to the white man, or a creature that, no matter how dire his circumstances, God had made preternaturally cheerful, ignorant and carefree, and who, therefore, must be taken care of as though he were a child? Finally, was colonization to Africa the best answer to the race and slavery questions? Lincoln on Race and Slavery seeks to answer those questions as Lincoln might have done at various stages of his life.

One thing is made clear early in the book: Lincoln hated slavery. He thought it morally and spiritually wrong for one man to own another. Furthermore, he disliked the economic impact the institution had on wage laborers. Since slave owners did not compensate their slaves, they had an unfair advantage over businessmen who relied on free labor, and this advantage was bad for capitalism. Indeed, Lincoln came to see his decision to allow African American men to fight for the Union as depriving the South of a tremendous economic advantage.

Gates also addresses a characteristic of Lincoln that may surprise some readers: his use of the word nigger, albeit it less than his rival Stephen Douglas, not only in private conversations and correspondence, but in public utterances, including campaign speeches. According to Gates, many scholars are so taken aback by this fact that they completely ignore it, and although Gates understands their squeamishness, he disagrees with it and seems to suggest that he finds scholars’ silence on the matter it intellectually dishonest.

Lincoln on Race and Slavery begins with a fine introductory essay by Gates that sets the material and the man in the context of the times. The book then opens with a resolution Lincoln and a colleague, Daniel Stone, signed in 1837 regarding their disagreement with the formation of abolitionist societies and ends with his last public speech April 9, 1865, in which he explained why he supported so few conditions be met by the Confederate states to return to the Union. In between are speeches, letters and reports, including the transcript of a speech he made in Columbus, Ohio on September 16, 1859, from Lincoln and his contemporaries arranged in chronological order that show us how Lincoln struggled to reconcile his beliefs on race and slavery, and how these beliefs changed over time.

We also see that Lincoln was not above challenging the fear mongering of some of his fellow politicians. In a rejoinder to a comment made by Stephen Douglas, who often implied that since Lincoln was against slavery, he must be for miscegenation, Lincoln pithily stated, “I protest, now and forever, against that counterfeit logic which presumes that because I do not want a negro woman for a slave, I do necessarily want her for a wife.”

Gates does an excellent job of showing how the thrusts and parries in Lincoln’s public and private lives regarding his feeling about blacks, racial equality and slavery reflected his own convoluted feelings on these matters. While not a book for the casual reader, Lincoln on Race and Slavery is a welcome addition, not only to the scholarship on Abraham Lincoln, but as an incredibly rich resource of primary sources on the two most vexing issues in American history.

Lincoln on Race and Slavery book review
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., ed.
Princeton University Press
320 pages
Introductory Essay
Annotated Bibliography and Index

_________________________________ Dr. Marilyn K. Howard earned a BA in criminal Justice from Ohio Dominican College; an MA in political science from The Ohio State University (Thesis: The Entrance of Black Voters Into the Mississippi Electorate) and her PhD in American history from The Ohio State University (Dissertation: Black Lynching in the Promised Land: Mob Violence in Ohio 1876 - 1916). She was an associate professor in the Department of Humanities at Columbus State Community College, where she now holds the same position in the Department of Humanities. Dr. Howard has twice received the Distinguished Teaching Award from Columbus State, and was twice recognized as an outstanding staff member by the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development. She was also named a top educator by Ohio magazine. Dr. Howard has served as an editor of the Southern Historian, a freelance book critic for the Columbus Dispatch and Ohioana Library. She has published essays in a number of anthologies, including the Encyclopedia of Racial Violence in America and the Encyclopedia of Jim Crow. She continues to conduct research on the lynching of black men by white mobs in Ohio.