Documents & Debates: "To Address You As My Friend" - African-Americans and Abraham Lincoln

July 26, 2023

In this week’s episode of The American Idea, Jeff Sikkenga and Jonathan White examine Abraham Lincoln’s relationship with the African-American community at large, and individual African-American leaders, both before and during his presidency.

Abraham Lincoln’s stance on slavery was unequivocal; from his youth he believed it to be morally wrong. As an adult, he famously stated, “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” However, Lincoln’s views on racial equality evolved over time. While he opposed slavery, he did not initially advocate for full social equality between races. Nevertheless, the experiences of the Civil War and his interactions with black men and women as president gradually shifted his perspective.

Coupled with the events and progress of the war, Lincoln’s views on his options within his powers as president and Commander-in-Chief also evolved, to the point that he saw permanent emancipation as both constitutional and legal, and aligned with his moral sentiments.

Before Lincoln’s presidency, African Americans, like the rest of the country, had limited knowledge of him. However, many saw hope in the election of a Republican president, as they believed that if Lincoln was a threat to their white slave-owning masters, he might bring about positive changes for them. Southern reaction to Lincoln’s candidacy and victory in 1860 bolstered his potential in the eyes of slaves, as they watched their masters react violently, supporting secession and rebellion – even before he’d been inaugurated.

By the end of his life, Lincoln publicly called for black men to have the right to vote, a stance that was significant given his earlier positions. His last public speech on April 11, 1865, advocating for black suffrage, marked a transformative moment in his views on race, and the future of an America without slavery.

While Lincoln had his black critics, they were not representative of broader African-American sentiment. Lincoln’s willingness to meet with black Americans and listen to their concerns marked a significant departure from previous presidents. Many black visitors found in Lincoln a leader who cared about their issues and struggles, creating a profound connection between him and African Americans. Frederick Douglass, a vocal critic initially, underwent a transformation in his views as he interacted with Lincoln during the Civil War. By 1865, he praised Lincoln as emphatically the “black man’s president.”

You can see a full list of John’s books on his site, and directly access information about “To Address You As My Friend: African-Americans’ Letters to Abraham Lincoln,” on Amazon.

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