A Darker Side of Lincoln
Is it true that Abraham Lincoln was secretly an African American all along?
Was he just passing as White for most of his life?
Did his alleged knowledge of this African ancestry make it easier for him to grant freedom for American slaves with his Emancipation Proclamation?
Was Lincoln a closet slave-owner who wanted to rule America as a tyrant?
These and other questions will be addressed in this article.
PART 1: Did Abraham Lincoln Own Slaves?
We will start with the question of whether or not Lincoln owned any slaves.
"Group of Contrabands on Mr. Foller's Plantation"
May 14, 1862
Photographer: James Gibson
Cumberland Landing, Virginia
(Source: Library of Congress)
This stereograph card, featuring the iconic image of freed slaves in front of a log cabin, which is often used in documentaries on slavery in the United States, contains a caption on the back, suggesting that people who were enslaved, like those pictured here, affectionately referred to the president as 'Massa Linkum.'
This language is common in the transcripts of interviews with former slaves. Owing to the circumstances of their oppression, "master" was considered the highest authority in their vocabulary.
During the period immediately preceding the Civil War, a majority of Black people in the United States embraced a Lincoln presidency. When referring to Lincoln after his death, some continued to use the title of "master" because it was the greatest sign of respect they could confer upon anyone and who to them was greater than the man whom they came to thank for their newfound freedom?
However, to say that Abraham Lincoln was a slave-master is another thing altogether.
Lincoln's Relations With Black America
During his campaign for the Illinois State Senate, Lincoln stated that up until that point, he had not owned any slaves.
I am now in my fiftieth year, and I certainly never have had a Black woman for either a slave or a wife. So it seems to me quite possible for us [Black and White people in America] to get along without making either slaves or wives of Negroes.
Lincoln did have a Black male valet, barber, and bodyguard who he described as 'honest, faithful, sober, industrious, and handy as a servant.' In reality, this "servant," was a free man named William Henry Johnson (c. 1833-1864) who was paid $600 a year for his services.
Though Johnson was over 25 years of age when he joined Lincoln, the president elect referred to his assistant as 'a colored boy.'
When Lincoln assumed the presidency, Johnson became a messenger in the Treasury Department.
At first, he had some difficulties fitting in, but he was now one of the many Black staffers serving the Lincoln family at the White House.
The White House Historical Association says of these individuals:
All of the servants were free men and women, but many had been enslaved or descended from enslaved families, including the able staff who guided Mrs. Lincoln through the management of the house, influenced her husband’s thought, and vetted his timeless rhetoric.
John E. Washington, who met them first-hand, recorded testimonials of their treatment by Lincoln in his book They Knew Lincoln, first published in 1942.
Staff members testified that Lincoln 'sympathized with us colored folks' and that he treated them 'like people.'
Reminiscing on his childhood at the Lincoln White House, the son of one Black servant remarked:
There was no color line there.
Lincoln practiced his speeches with White House usher William Slade and it is even believed that Slade influenced some of the wording in Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.
In his review of Washington's book, William M. Brewer, the editor of the Journal of African American History, had only good things to say of Lincoln's relationship with his servants. Brewer called the book 'documentary evidence of his beliefs.'
Some debunkers, seeking publicity and notoriety, have attacked, without proof, the genuineness of Lincoln's humane convictions and his abiding antipathy to slavery. Here, the records of his deep sympathy blast convincingly such theories of detractors.
It also demonstrates, said Brewer, that Lincoln's Emancipation was not simply 'a measure of military necessity,' but 'a long, definitive objective.'
Lincoln at New Orleans Slave Market
Creator: Joseph Boggs Beale
Used With Permission
Courtesy of the George Eastman Museum
The catalyst for Lincoln's attitude towards slavery is a truth which not many Lincoln enthusiasts are aware about. As a young man, Lincoln took two journeys into the Deep South. During these visits, he witnessed a slave auction and saw slaves at work on plantations in Mississippi and in Louisiana.
One of Lincoln's greatest admirers was a man named John B. Burton.
Here's how Burton described the moment of Lincoln's great awakening in the late 1800s:
As a flat-boatman in the city of New Orleans he saw, for the first time, Negro boys and girls and young women put up and sold as chattels upon the auction block, and then and there the mordant sunk deep into his very soul, and he said to his companion, "That's wrong, and if ever I get a chance to hit it, by God, I'll hit it hard."
The details of Lincoln's travels are further expounded upon by Richard Campanella in his 2010 book Lincoln in New Orleans: The 1828-1831 Flatboat Voyages and Their Place in New Orleans History.
In statements cited by Campanella, Lincoln made it clear that it was the scenes he witnessed during this time which kindled his lifelong hatred for the institution of slavery in America.
After his death, the president's private secretaries John Nicolay (1832-1901) and John Hay (1831-1905) helped to popularize this narrative of a vengeful Lincoln.
These men received permission for their biography from Lincoln himself and approval from his son, Robert, on the portions about Lincoln's early life.
But Lincoln historian Mark E. Neely Jr. informs us* that a key discrepancy within an account of Lincoln's life, which he personally delivered to the journalist John L. Scripps (1818-1866) in 1860, casts serious doubts on the auction story. The man who is credited with the most popular version of the event left Lincoln's group at St. Louis and returned home to his family.
He never made it to New Orleans.
Whether the story of Lincoln's anger at seeing slaves 'whipped and scourged' and his promise to free them is true or false, that will scarcely change our perception of Lincoln.
In the end, his actions spoke louder than his words.
What about Mary Todd Lincoln?
Where did she stand on the issue of slavery?
According to eHistory,** an affiliate of Ohio State University:
Although the Todds rejected the idea of slavery, they owned one slave for every member of the family. Mary was especially fond of the slave Mammy Sally. Her anti-slavery views developed very early in her life and she was extremely proud and pleased when she learned that Mammy Sally was integral in helping escaped slaves make it to the Ohio River.
*As mentioned in his essay "Colonization and the Myth That Lincoln Prepared the People for Emancipation" for the 2009 book Lincoln's Proclamation: Emancipation Reconsidered.
**The source cited for this information is the 1986 book Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography by Jean H. Baker.
From these facts, we can only concede that there were people in his wife's family who did own slaves, but Lincoln and his immediate family were not slaveholders.
The Origins of the Great EnSlaver Myth
There is an article circulating on the internet from the site "Weekly World News" that claims a book written 8 years ago by a pair of researchers reveals that Lincoln owned slaves.
However, the article fails to actually quote anything from the book that supports this claim.
Rather, it references quotes by Abraham Lincoln in which he advocated for Black people to leave the United States.
"For the sake of your race, you should sacrifice something of your present comfort for the purpose of being as grand in that respect as the White people,” Lincoln said, promoting his idea of colonization: resettling Blacks in foreign countries on the belief that Whites and Blacks could not coexist in the same nation.
It continues by mentioning the title of the book and the sources where the information purportedly comes from.
The book, "Colonization After Emancipation,” is based in part on previously uncovered documents that authors Philip Magness and Sebastian Page found at the The National Archives outside London and in the US National Archives.
The article ends with a suggestion that since Lincoln had never really intented to free all Blacks who were enslaved in America, he was himself a slave-owner.
Lincoln joins George Washington and Thomas Jefferson as U.S. President[s] that were slaveholders despite misgivings.
Here is the article:
What IS clear in several other articles and reviews online is that the authors discussed Lincoln's efforts to relocate free Blacks to colonies outside the United States of America, most notably, in the British Honduras (today the nation of Belize in South America).
Historian Allen C. Guelzo wrote one such review for the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association in 2013.
While it is true that Lincoln did encourage Black people to find other places to live outside of the United States and he did hatch a plan to settle freed Blacks in South American colonies, Lincoln did not express, as part of this plan, a desire to keep any number of them as slaves.
As it turns out, "Weekly World News" is entirely a satire website.
This is a description of their organization on their "About" page, which I found on their website when I first checked in July 2017:
Don’t believe everything you read. Unless you read it here at www.weeklyworldnews.com.
I have included a more recent screenshot from the site below.
Read it in full here:
The book about Lincoln and his colonization project is real.
(You can see it on co-author Philip Magness' website here.)
The quotes attributed to Lincoln are also very real.
The part about Lincoln being a slaveowner is not.
Back in 2007, Samuel P. Wheeler (now the official Illinois state historian who directs research at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum), addressed the controversy over Lincoln's slave ownership in a post on his blog "Lincoln Studies: Abraham Lincoln and the American Civil War."
Soon after the "Weekly World News" article was published in 2012, an anonymous commenter cited that article under Wheeler's blog post to make a point that Lincoln was indeed a slave-owner.
The comment read:
New information found in later years showed that he did, indeed, own slaves.
You can see it here:
I would imagine that, from there (and other places), this rumor really took off.
That slick joke, first posted on a satire news site has since spread unchecked to all kinds of places on the web, including those devoted to Black history and empowerment. From there, people will, no doubt, continue to tell it around to others in the real world as 100% solid fact.
Rumors such as these, which are known to circulate in neo-Confederate forums and in revisionist media, are now commonplace in our community.
This is why it is important, in documenting and sharing our rich history, that we not resort to teaching and sharing information that is based on hear-say alone.
We need to do the research.
So...Was Abraham Lincoln a Black Man?
Read What The Research Says About Lincoln's Ancestry in Part 2...
Scientific Researcher, Independent Historian, and Co-Founder of Black Research Central
You can read more about Lincoln and his connections to the institution of slavery from the book Did Lincoln Own Slaves? And Other Frequently Asked Questions about Abraham Lincoln (2008) by Gerald J. Prokopowicz.
Black Research Central
When Negritude Meets Pettitude.