In Brief

How times change: what Abe had to say about race

Barack Obama’s hero would have been shocked by today’s inauguration of a black man as president

The train journey from Philadelphia to Washington; the speeches dripping with Abraham Lincoln quotes; the swearing-in using the very bible Lincoln used in 1861. By turning so many aspects of his inauguration into a homage to Lincoln, the President-elect has left no doubt as to which of his predecessors he'd most like to emulate. But what would Abe have thought about Obama?

Whatever else, he would have been surprised, to put it mildly. Lincoln was a man of his time - a revolutionary who fought to end slavery, but a man of his time nonetheless. Which means that while he loathed slavery on moral grounds, he did not believe whites and blacks were equal.

Lincoln called for slaves to be deported from America to Liberia Consider this, from a speech that the Great Emancipator made in 1858, "I will say then that I am not, nor have ever been, in favor of bringing about in anyway 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 forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality."

Based on this it would seem Abe could no more have prophesied a black man becoming President than he could have foreseen Americans walking on the moon.

That 1858 speech, and other evidence, was used in 2000 by the black historian Lerone Bennett Jr to counteract the previous hagiographic biographies of Lincoln and persuade Americans that Lincoln was actually a racist.

Bennett's book, Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln's White Dream, included stories about Lincoln shouting for an encore at a negro minstrel show, making jokes about 'darkies', and using words like 'Sambo' and 'Cuffee'. Bennett also made the point that on several occasions Lincoln called for slaves to be deported from America to Liberia, and, long before he became president, supported an 1853 law stopping blacks from moving to his home state of Illinois.

Once in office Lincoln met with more black leaders than any other president

But Bennett was looking at remarks made in the mid-19th century through a 21st century prism. Springfield, Illinois, where Lincoln worked as a young lawyer, was a frontier town inhabited by white southern settlers. Very few of the hundred or so blacks who lived there had any level of education and it was not until Lincoln moved to the White House that he had any real chance to meet black people on an equal footing. This was the background to Lincoln's prejudice.

However, as Henry Louis Gates Jr and John Stauffer wrote in the New York Times this week, once in office Lincoln met with more black leaders than any president before him. By 1865, after the Civil War, Lincoln was advocating giving the vote to the African-Americans who had fought with the Union.

And the politician whose view he most wanted to hear on a draft of his famous second inaugural speech - "Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away" - was a black man, Frederick Douglass.

As Lincoln told Douglass: "There is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours".

Editor’s note: Our photograph has been manipulated. The original words carved in marble above the seated figure of the 16th President at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington are: 'In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he served the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever'.

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