Politicians in their speeches, writings, and actions must, as Kansas Senator Nancy Kassebaum recently stated, "strike the proper balance between a naive idealism and a craven pragmatism." [1] Abraham Lincoln was a politician who understood that political action is compromise. But the highest calling of the expert—successful—politician is making compromise creative and not corruptive. It is proper that successful politicians have always wanted to be both popular and political. Being popular is easier; it is accomplished by telling audiences what they want to hear—something that touches a responsive chord because it is consonant with their own personal experiences and beliefs. Being political is more difficult. It requires telling people what the Page  [End Page 46] politician wants them to hear in a way that they will be inspired to think differently and more sensitively about things. As we consider Lincoln, the successful leader and politician, dealing with the civil rights of Negroes, let us ask two questions. How much did he tell people what they wanted to hear, and how much did he give them a new sense of direction? Did he strike a proper balance between idealism and pragmatism? I believe he did.

Arthur Zilversmit, in Lincoln on Black and White: A Documentary History, pulled together many of the documents one needs to answer the question of Lincoln's views on race. In that volume and in his recent paper "Lincoln and the Problem of Race," he set an appropriate tone on the issue of race, but I want to focus in particular on Lincoln's actions and words on civil rights for the Negro.

As I do, I am reminded that the distinguished scholar James Randall, looking at constitutional aspects of Lincoln's policies, explained that much of the constitutional reasoning of those days was mere rationalizing. Now, as any politician or lawyer can tell you, much of the legal argument of leaders at any time is not "mere," but "pure," rationalizing, and in order to understand the rationalizing, one must determine the case a politician or lawyer is trying to make and not linger overmuch on the language of the arguments. [2]

I find much to applaud in Randall's approach to history. Like Randall, I believe it is more insightful to ask how Lincoln's approach to the Civil War shaped our constitutional understanding than to ask how the Constitution limited policy alternatives available to Lincoln.

The really exciting constitutional inquiries, I believe, are finding out how adept the fathers were in picking and choosing from the Constitution's different rationales, and then ascertaining the purposes of the arguments, and analyzing the social effects of Page  [End Page 47] their goals. Whatever arguments evolved became accretions and part of the constitutional wisdom to be passed along. The real task, then, is not choosing between believing that politicians meant what they said about the Constitution and ignoring what they said, but analyzing both what they said and what they did in order to come up with interpretations of both. That is what we must do in considering Lincoln and the issue of civil rights for the Negro.

What seems remarkable to me is that some constitutional historians—constitutional history is, after all, the history of public law—would not understand that point. When dealing with the public utterances, successful politicians can be counted on to be reflecting or molding public opinion. Be careful if a politician tells you in a speech that the reason he will not do something or other is because it is unconstitutional. For example, if an administration official tells you he cannot support tuition tax credits for parents whose children go to private schools and that he even has an opinion of the Attorney General that tells him tax credits would violate the constitutional wall of separation between church and state, be suspicious. Remember that opinions of the Attorney General do not have the force of law, and that the Attorney General and the administration official are political appointees of a President whose policy is against tuition tax credits. Ask the administration official why he does not want them, and he may in confidence give you a plethora of reasons, but mostly that he thinks tax credits are too expensive and prefers to spend the money on public education. All you really know from his public statements is that he does not want tuition tax credits. Only if he tells you in the privacy of his living room or in a private letter, for example, and only if he has no reason to want to persuade you that he does not believe by any stretch of constitutional interpretation that he can justify tax credits, do you have reason to believe that he really feels hemmed in by the Constitution. Any successful politician is smart enough to know that he or she can gain more support by arguing the unconstitutionality of a policy to a group with an opposing view than by simply telling them that what they want is too expensive. Only unsuccessful politicians fail to understand that necessity; but they do not last too long, anyway. That is not to say that politicians lack personal principles, preferences, or constitutional beliefs. Most do have them. It is just that successful ones adapt their principles and preferences to the Page  [End Page 48] times and their constituencies. Successful politicians are neither naive idealists nor craven pragmatists.[3]

Freed slaves leaving their homes. Federal
soldiers in a gunboat wait to escort the freedmen to safety behind
Union lines.
Freed slaves leaving their homes. Federal soldiers in a gunboat wait to escort the freedmen to safety behind Union lines.Page  [End Page 49]

Now, consistent with these perspectives on the ingredients for success as a politician and the role of constitutional argument in politics, what did Lincoln—who was not an altogether unsuccessful politician—say about civil rights for the Negro? What did he do and why, and how did he add to our constitutional and political wisdom?

What he said is well known to scholars and Lincoln buffs.[4] In a speech at Peoria, Illinois, on October 16, 1854, he said:

Free them, and make them politically and socially, our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not. Whether this feeling accords with justice and sound judgment, is not the sole question, if indeed, it is any part of it. A universal feeling, whether well or ill-founded, can not be safely disregarded. We can not, then, make them equals.
In attacking slavery:
Let it not be said I am contending for the establishment of political and social equality between the whites and blacks. I have already said the contrary.

In a Springfield speech on June 26, 1857, Lincoln stated:

Now I protest against that counterfeit logic which concludes that, because I do not want a black woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. I need not have her for either, I can just leave her alone. In some respects she certainly is not my equal; but in her natural right to eat the bread she earns with her own hands without asking leave of any one else, she is my equal, and the equal of all others.
Furthermore, he said, as he understood the intention of the authors of the Declaration of Independence:
They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying ... equality, nor yet, that they were about to confer it immediately upon them.... They meant simply to declare the right, so Page  [End Page 50] that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit. They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all: constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.

During the first Lincoln-Douglas debate, on August 21, 1858, at Ottawa, Lincoln stated:

I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races.... But I hold that ... there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

And at the Charleston debate on September 18, he stated: "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." As long as blacks lived in America with whites: "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."

These statements were all made in the environment preceding the Civil War. Before the 1854 Peoria speech, Lincoln's statements concerned abolition, not civil rights, and of course Illinois opinion, even antislavery opinion, was against black voting. The issue was shaping opinion to end slavery—not obtaining political rights for blacks. First things first. But when he argued that the Constitution did not permit interference within the Southern states (as he pointed out in an October 3, 1845, letter to Williamson Durley), that use of the Constitution was "a paramount duty ... due to the Union of the states," and not because no one could think of an interpretation of the Constitution that would have permitted interference.

In 1854, when he clearly stated that he did not mean to make blacks equal to whites, Lincoln was expressing a view that became new Republican party doctrine. In the aftermath of the Kansas-Nebraska Act repealing the Missouri Compromise, he always pointed out that he would not interfere with existing Page  [End Page 51] slavery and would uphold the fugitive slave laws—these being essential for the maintenance of the Union—but that Congress could, under the Constitution, keep slavery out of the territories. He knew that Free Soilers and Republicans had to make clear over and over again that, although they were against the extension of slavery, they were not radically for civil rights for blacks nor for attacking the South in order to win in Illinois. The wisdom of that view was confirmed in 1856.[5]

Anti-Nebraska Democrats led by Lyman Trumbull were forced out of their party and joined the Republicans for the election of 1856. As Lincoln viewed the contest in Illinois, he believed John C. Frémont's problem was that the party still had to fight the notion that it believed in both civil equality for blacks and attacks on the South. Therefore, Buchanan could win. Buchanan did win not only Illinois but also Pennsylvania and Indiana where, as Lincoln predicted, the antislavery vote was split between the "radical" Frémont and conservative Fillmore. But the Republicans had gained strength, carrying all but five of the free states. The results showed again, however, that in order to win, the Republicans needed the conservative vote in the other Northern states. They had to emphasize that antislavery did not mean Negro equality or the amalgamation of the races.

When Stephen Douglas made a speech concerning the Dred Scott case in which he implied that anyone who opposed the decision was in favor of blacks being political and social equals of whites, Lincoln responded. He explained that Republicans respected the Court but would seek to overturn the decision. Mindful of the necessity for negating the idea that Republicans believed in black equality or amalgamation, Lincoln stated that a black woman had the natural right to eat the bread she earned but was not equal to him. He recognized that his constituency had a "natural disgust" for amalgamation and that the only way in which to prevent amalgamation was to oppose the spread of slavery and to propose the colonization of free Negroes. As he emphasized, the Declaration of Independence held out a promise for progress Page  [End Page 52]

Page  [End Page 53]
and improvement of mankind, but blacks could achieve that promise in this country or elsewhere. Colonization was a way of gaining support for the Republicans' antislavery goals.

Lincoln extended those views in the Lincoln-Douglas debates. To have done otherwise would have doomed the Republican party to defeat again in the 1860 election. Lincoln was being both popular and political. He explained the party position in terms that appealed to his listeners and that reflected their own views, but he proposed colonization as a way to set them thinking more positively about ending slavery. Lincoln's strategy proved its effectiveness when, with Hannibal Hamlin on the ticket, the Republicans attracted Illinois, Indiana, and Pennsylvania and won the election.

When the Civil War came, we find further evidence that Lincoln was a pragmatic, successful politician; in a series of events he gradually changed his posture toward civil rights for Negroes. As President, he moved to an emancipation policy in order to keep the border states in the Union. When circumstances led him to enlist blacks, he found authority for the action in the constitutional powers of Commander-in-Chief, recognizing that the interpretation of the Constitution can change with events. Therefore, "Measures, otherwise unconstitutional, might become lawful."[6]

His was no static, dead-hand view of the Constitution. The Constitution was a changing, evolving document yielding to necessity. When slavery was on the way to ultimate extinction, then he could deal with civil rights issues. One can speculate that Lincoln's final public statement (in April, 1865)—supporting suffrage for those blacks who had served in the Army—was made because he feared, as Benjamin Butler said, "a race war ... at least a guerilla war because we have taught those men how to fight." [7] This, of course, is just speculation. We can, however, conclude—based on the pattern of his public statements—that Lincoln was flexible enough to change his political positions while remaining within the Constitution. His justifications for black soldiers and for emancipation itself, then, are evidence of Page  [End Page 54]

"Mustered out" volunteers at Little Rock, Arkansas
"Mustered out" volunteers at Little Rock, Arkansas
his creative use of the Constitution. Lincoln and his advisers were very good lawyers.

Perhaps a man with Lincoln's pragmatism and flexible posture, with the threat to Republican party influence and the possibility of a race war, would have supported the Civil Rights Act of 1866, as his party did. Perhaps he would have supported Negro citizenship and all the other rights white citizens enjoyed. We should be mindful of Frederick Douglass's observation on the Emancipation Proclamation: Lincoln in his "peculiar cautious, forbearing and hesitating way, slow, but ... sure" had emancipated slaves. "Events" said Douglass, "may be relied on to carry him forward in the same direction." [8]

And events after the Proclamation did carry Lincoln forward in the same direction. Using Negroes as soldiers led logically, given the traditional association between citizenship and military service, to permitting Negroes to vote. Justice Roger B. Taney had Page  [End Page 55]

Freedom's Memorial in Lincoln Park, Washington, D.C.
Freedom's Memorial in Lincoln Park, Washington, D.C.Page  [End Page 56]
pointed out in the Dred Scott case that one of the reasons Negroes were not considered as citizens was because they were not required to perform the highest duty to the state as participants in the armed forces. Once the first National Draft Act was passed in 1863 and blacks as well as whites were required to serve, that argument was gone forever. Lincoln's private and then public statements encouraging the vote for black soldiers after the war showed his understanding and pragmatism on the issue. If Lincoln could respond positively within the Constitution when emancipation was necessary, he could respond if voting became necessary, especially was this so given the Constitutional nexus between military service and suffrage. The bottom line in any consideration of Lincoln, however, is this: There were certainly men and women who were more advanced in their civil rights actions and views than Lincoln in 1860 and 1864, but they could not be elected President. [9]

Perhaps the best way to be true to Abraham Lincoln's memory on his 171st birthday is to state as the distinguished black historian Carter G. Woodson did in 1922:

Lincoln, as President of the United States, could not carry out his own personal plans. In a situation like this an executive must fail if he undertakes a reform so far ahead of the time that his coworkers cannot be depended upon to carry out his policies....

As the experiment had not been made, the large majority of Americans of Lincoln's day believed that the two races could not dwell together on the basis of social and political equality. A militant minority of the descendants of those Americans do not believe it now. The abolitionists themselves were not united on this point. Lincoln, moreover, gradually grew into the full stature of democracy.[10]

Men had to be shown gradually that civil rights for the Negro was a proper solution to the post-emancipation status of black soldiers. Lincoln, moving into "the full stature of democracy," would have been equal to the task of generating that understanding.Page  [End Page 57]


  1. Nancy Landon Kassebaum, "The Essence of Leadership," Presidential Studies Quarterly, 9 (1979), 242. return to text
  2. Mark E. Neely, Jr., "The Lincoln Theme Since Randall's Call: The Promises and Perils of Professionalism," Papers of the Abraham Lincoln Association, 1 (1979), 10, 38–39.return to text
  3. Some constitutional historians, because they de-emphasize the flexibility inherent in the Constitution, take too seriously, I believe, the statements of politicians about constitutional limitations. See, for example, Arthur Bestor, "The American Civil War as a Constitutional Crisis," American Historical Review, 69 (1964), 327–52; Harold Hyman, A More Perfect Union: The Impact of the Civil War and Reconstruction on the Constitution (New York: Knopf, 1973); Philip Paludan, A Covenant with Death: The Constitution, Law and Equality in the Civil War Era (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1975); Herman Belz, Reconstructing the Union: Theory and Policy during the Civil War (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1969); and Michael Les Benedict, A Compromise of Principle: Congressional Republicans and Reconstruction, 1863–1869 (New York: Norton, 1974). Of course, any expansive theory of constitutional limitations on policy alternatives makes it easier to explain why pressing social problems—race relations, poverty, and the like—simply cannot be solved.return to text
  4. The statements that follow are from Roy P. Basler, ed., Marion Dolores Pratt and Lloyd Dunlap, asst. eds., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 9 vols. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1953–1955), hereafter cited as Collected Works. Quotations from the Peoria speech are in II, 256, 266; the Springfield speech, ibid., pp. 405, 406; the debates, III, 16, 145, 146; the letter to Durley, I, 348. return to text
  5. Don E. Fehrenbacher, "Only His Stepchildren: Lincoln and the Negro," Civil War History, 20 (1974), 309, and George M. Fredrickson, "A Man But Not a Brother: Abraham Lincoln and Racial Equality," Journal of Southern History, 41 (1975), 39, provide discussions of the matters in the following three paragraphs.return to text
  6. Lincoln to Albert G. Hodges, April 4, 1864, in Collected Works, VII, 281.return to text
  7. Benjamin Butler, Autobiography and Personal Reminiscences of Major General Benjamin F. Butler: Butler's Book (Boston: A. M. Thayer & Co., 1892), p. 903, quoted in Fredrickson, p. 56.return to text
  8. Arthur Zilversmit, Lincoln on Black and White: A Documentary History (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Pub. Co., 1971), pp. 116–17.return to text
  9. See, generally, Mary Frances Berry, Military Necessity and Civil Rights Policy: Black Citizenship and the Constitution, 1861–1868 (Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1977).return to text
  10. Carter G. Woodson, The Negro in Our History (Washington, D.C.: Associated Publishers, 1922), p. 381.return to text