A Darker Side of Lincoln
Part 2: Was Abraham Lincoln a Black Man?
We cannot say, definitively, that Abraham Lincoln had Black ancestry.
We can't say that he had ever been a slave either, although much of the work he did in his early years was comparable to indentured servitude.
From The Genesis of Lincoln (1904)
A man named James H. Cathey published a book in 1899, contending that before Lincoln's mother, Nancy Hanks, met Thomas Lincoln (1779-1851), she was pregnant by another man named Abraham Enloe, while working as a servant in his household. She later named the boy after his "true" father.
Lincoln's law partner and biographer, William H. Herndon (1818-1891), also related a story told by a John B. Helm* in which Enloe challenged Thomas Lincoln for custody and lost "a piece of his nose."
For some, Enloe's parentage presents an alternate origin of Lincoln as a Southerner and not a Yankee.
Like Cathey, some of us would like to imagine 'an honorable...origin for Abraham Lincoln.'
And why must it be so?
Why do we long for something more within the Lincoln lineage?
As Lincoln scholar Gerald J. Prokopowicz says:
To those who believe that biology is destiny, it's inconceivable that someone as great as Lincoln could be the product of the humble genes of his pioneer parents.
For others, Enloe's ancestry points to a greater possibility of Black blood than the mainstream narrative.
But Cathey tells us that Enloe, whose Ancestors came from Scotland in the mid-1600s, was the 'central figure and benefactor' in a 'settlement' of 'White families.' Furthermore, he identifies Enloe as a slave-trader and slaveholder.
He trafficked in Negroes all the way from Western North Carolina to Florida. From the latter, on one occasion, he brought home twenty.
Lincoln told Fell that he descended from a line of Quakers through his paternal grandfather, also named Abraham Lincoln.
Beyond Nancy's mother, Lucy, her ancestry is uncertain. Further research into that side of Lincoln's family is more promising for those hoping to find some hint of Blackness.
Rogers reported in his findings:
Lincoln was said to be the illegitimate son of a Negro by Nancy Yanks.
Is it possible that Nancy fathered a child by one of Enloe's slaves?
Perhaps. But as On The Black List's Nicole Emmanuel noted:
Because of limited birth records and the documenting of the ancestry of slaves [or lack thereof?], it’s found to be difficult to trace backward and so a lot of this is based on rumor.
Some people believe that Lincoln was a Melungeon. Melungeons - that is, persons considered to have a mixture of European, Native American, and African ancestry - were known to live in Kentucky, where he was born, and in Virginia, where his mother was born.
In any case, it is not enough to say that Lincoln was inspired to end slavery simply because he had a drop or two of Black blood.
I believe that Lincoln's knowledge of his Quaker ancestry, the impression of his father's convictions, his own personal experiences with being exploited for his work, and the shock at seeing crying children marketed like animals were all solid motives for why Lincoln was anti-slavery.
But it seems that Lincoln's word is not enough for believers of the Enloe theory, who hold that Lincoln kept his true heritage a secret for many years.
Wheeler has argued against the plausibility of these allegations. He centers his skepticism around the fact that the primary sources who Cathey interviewed for his research were not actually present during the time of the events they had described.
Prokopowicz agrees with Wheeler that Lincoln's birth in 1809 was unlikely to have resulted from a prior relationship as Nancy Hanks and Thomas Lincoln had already been married for three years.
It would seem that both of Lincoln's parents had it rough coming up.
They would not make it any easier for the young Abe.
Though he was opposed to slavery, Thomas Lincoln took the money his son earned as a rail splitter, farmhand, hog butcher, and ferry operator, and pocketed everything for himself. He literally hired out his son.
Thus, when speaking of his childhood days, Lincoln declared:
I used to be a slave.
These words were written in an autobiographical sketch and attached to a letter** Lincoln mailed to his friend Jesse W. Fell (1808-1887). Lincoln further described himself as having a 'dark complexion, with coarse black hair, and grey eyes.' To this, he added, 'No other marks or brands recollected.'
According to the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University, this phrase was common in descriptions of "impounded stray animals."
However, I believe it may also be taken as a subtle reference to the branding and whipping that Black slaves were often subjected to at the time. Lincoln may be here saying, in a matter-of-fact way, that although he is darker in complexion than the average Caucasian, he has no true physical indications of being a member of the Black race.
Rogers quotes Lincoln's 'closest friend' (of 20 years) Herndon as saying that Lincoln had 'very dark skin' compared to other White people. He also found that Lincoln described his father as having a 'swarthy' complexion with 'hair, black and coarse.'
Herndon, says Rogers, suggested that an awareness of 'his mother's origin or his own' may have lead Lincoln, at times, to thoughts of suicide.***
Lincoln's own statements to Fell were made in the wake of his campaign for the Illinois State Senate in 1858, when his commitment to die-hard Americanism was being called into question. They were finalized on December 20, 1859 and were widely publicized the following year.
They continued to be relevant in the run-up to the presidency.
*UPDATE (5/18/20): In his 1892 book Abraham Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life, Herndon described Helm as "an eyewitness" and a clerk at the store where Lincoln's family was believed to have done their usual shopping.
**Read more about Lincoln's autobiography, as dictated to Jesse W. Fell, here.
***UPDATE (5/18/20): In his notes, quoted in the 1940 book Rogers cited, The Hidden Lincoln, Herndon explicitly linked Lincoln's depression to a habit of internalizing his mother's illegitimacy, believing her mother's legacy extended to him.
The Role of Political Propaganda in the Making of a Myth
You might have seen this image of Lincoln before.
"Abraham Africanus" was an insult given to him by his political opposition, and particularly a faction of Northern Democrats known as "Copperheads."
They used it as a fear-mongering tactic, to herd White voters into thinking that the primary candidate of the Republican party was trying to establish a government in which White people could not keep all the power to themselves. With the slightest support, Lincoln, who stood against the expansion of slavery and hoped for its eventual end, was destined to become the future king of an African America. At the same time, by using a kingly title, they were positioning Lincoln as a tyrant who wanted to force un-American ideas on God-fearing Americans. King Africanus was about to take America back to the colonial era - a time when democracy did not exist.
Calling him "Africanus I" was to imply that if he got his foot in the door, others like him (and possibly worse) were soon to follow.
The Lincoln they presented was not a person who stood for traditional values. This was a candidate who wanted to terrorize the American people by breaking down institutions, which were fundamental to their prosperity.
The practice of intimidating a rival with embarrassing claims about their lineage has a long history in U. S. elections. When it comes to playing dirty, nothing is off-limits.
The reason is obvious. America has always had an obsession with race.
Concerning the rumors about Abraham Lincoln, presidential scholar Russell Riley, who wrote the book The Presidency and the Politics of Racial Equality (1999), told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2008:
Because race is such a sensitive issue in American politics, it is an easy target for an unscrupulous campaigner to make a claim that somebody has a particular ancestry that the majority of the population is less likely to support.
In an 1864 pamphlet titled Abraham Africanus I: His Secret Life, as revealed under the mesmeric influence: mysteries of the White House, Alexander del Mar (1836-1926) concocted what may be the kookiest conspiracy about Lincoln's origins.
It becomes obvious, when reading the beginning of this book, that it was meant as a joke. The section addressed "to the reader" is a simple poem written in jest. These couplets continue into the first chapter and then morph into an entire story.
At various intervals of this clever tale, Lincoln is in conversation with the Devil himself.
"Bully for yon," cried Satan, enraptured, "you are the smartest pupil I ever had! I am afraid people will find you out after a while, though."
Before Satan left, Lincoln asked him for some advice on something that had been bothering him for a long time.
What shall I do with the Abolition party? Nothing I do seems to please them.
Issue a Proclamation of Emancipation. You remember you said at Chicago, July 10, 1858, I hate, and have always hated slavery as much as any other Abolitionist.' It will run well with your words.
Later, Alexander del Mar's 'informant' overhears the Devil dictating to Lincoln another deal for his position in the Illinois State Legislature.
Suppose I stir up this all-fired nigger question...what'll you do in that case, old boy?
Keep you in for two terms.
When Lincoln pressed Satan further, Satan proposed a future contract for Lincoln in the event of a civil war.
You agree to bring to death one million human beings and I'll agree to give you the presidency.
At this moment, the two embrace.
They were the tallest pair my informant ever saw, and bore a striking resemblance to each other — sufficient to be brothers.
At one point, Lincoln has a revealing conversation with senators Salmon P. Chase ("Cheezey"), William H. Seward (a magician named "Soo"), and Lincoln's Secretary of War Edwin Stanton ("Stentor").** The president admits that on a journey South as a young man, he 'picked up a good deal of money by dancing jigs and singing nigger songs.'
This is likely a reference to Lincoln's two trips down the Mississippi River, which I discussed in Part 1.
While the book alludes to Lincoln being a slave, it does not seem to indicate that he was himself a Black man.
The book ends with Abraham Lincoln's betrayal by Satan, who claims that Lincoln is, in fact, a slave to him and, therefore, inferior.
A slave you are, and though much bigger,
Lincoln took the 'proffered hand' of his 'counterpart' and off they flew.
Thus, on the very day before election,
Del Mar's Lincoln was a cheater by nature. By associating Lincoln with a common racist stereotype of Black people, del Mar had attempted to insult him in the worst possible way - calling him a Black man.
Throughout his career, Lincoln had proven to be quite evasive. He claimed he was a good and honest man, but he couldn't fake it forever. His past would return to haunt him; sooner or later, he would embrace his dark destiny.
"Behind the Scenes"
(Source: Library of Congress)
The same year del Mar published his book, a caricature by an unknown cartoonist appeared, showing Abraham Lincoln as a "Black" actor.
Here is part of the explanation by Bernard F. Reilly, Jr., who cataloged and annotated the Library of Congress' collection of political prints:
Another venomous attack on the Lincoln administration by the artist of "The Commander-in-Chief Conciliating the Soldier's Votes," and "The Sportsman Upset by the Recoil of His Own Gun."
"Douglass" here is a reference to Lincoln's political opponent, Stephen Douglass (1813-1861).
During the first senate debate in Ottawa, Illinois on August 21, 1858,*** Douglass taunted Lincoln with the same strategy used by del Mar and the cartoonist - calling him a Black man.
Mr. Lincoln, following the example and lead of all the little Abolition orators, who go around and lecture in the basements of schools and churches, reads from the Declaration of Independence, that all men were created equal, and then asks, how can you deprive a Negro of that equality which God and the Declaration of Independence awards to him?
Lincoln's response was two-pronged.
First, during their fourth debate, Lincoln expressed his personal deference to seeing interracial relationships and, by default, the offspring that would result from them.
He also disavowed any allegiances towards Black political progress in the United States, saying that he had no intentions for Blacks to vote or to hold political offices.
It is obvious that "the Negro problem" had occupied Lincoln's mind for at least the past night. After all, he opened the debate addressing it head on.
The second move was to clarify his ancestry, which he did in the sketch that he wrote for Jesse W. Fell in 1859.
Lincoln had resolved that he would stick to his words. By then, he was still unapologetic.
An attached note read:
If it were thought necessary to incorporate any thing from any of my speeches, I suppose there would be no objection.
**The characters Soo and Stentor were identified with thanks to John Hartwell, host of the Civil War Talk forum.
***The source for the Douglass quote is the The Abraham Lincoln Encyclopedia (1982) by Mark E. Neely, Jr.
The Final Verdict
With all the evidence we have available, it is not possible for us to conclude that Abraham Lincoln was a Black man.
In other words, we really have no grounds to say that he was.
He called himself a White man and lived as a White man.
He was called a Black man by his opponents in an effort to discredit his anti-slavery agenda and that of his administration.
He might have been a descendant of Melungeon people but did not consider himself a member of the Black race. Nevertheless, he empathized with Black people who suffered the horrors of slavery.
He understood full well the gravity of racial inequality in Antebellum America, notwithstanding the peripheral impact on its intended benefactors.
Most notably, Lincoln lamented the way that the three-fifth's compromise (which counted three out of every five slaves as part of a state's population) and other agreements that followed it contributed to a significant disparity in White Congressional representation between Northern and Southern states.
In 1854, Senator Douglass defended the "equal rights" of individual states to decide on the question of slavery by introducing the pro-slavery bill which preceded the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
In response, an angry Abe blasted him in a speech,* saying that there can be no "equal rights" in an America where the vote of one White man in the state of Georgia was equivalent to the vote of three White men in Illinois.
Talk about equal rights. I would like some man to take a pointer dog, and nose around, and snuff about, and see if he can find my rights in such a condition.
*as recorded by Lincoln's friend Henry G. McPike (1825-1910) in the February 1906 issue of the Magazine of History
Lincoln espoused an automatic solidarity with White people in the infringement of their rights. However, when it came to matters of equal rights for Black people, he seemed to be less concerned.
Later that very year and on two other occasions, he could be heard saying:
Free them, and make them politically and socially, our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this.
So again, Lincoln was not a slave-owner. He was anti-slavery.
Slavery, he said, was 'the greatest wrong inflicted on any people.'
At the same time, his approach towards advocacy for Black people outside the issue of slavery was moderate at best.
It took a man like Douglass to bring out Lincoln's true colors.
In the course of their Senate debates, another Lincoln came to light.
He supported the right of Whites to rule over Blacks. He declared that he was personally 'not in favor' of Black people living in any country where White people lived with the same rights that he enjoyed as a White man.
Then, during the presidential election, Lincoln was more subtle. For example, Lincoln was quoted as saying that in a true struggle of survival between Whites and Blacks, he would choose the side of White people.
The proposition that there is a struggle between the White man and the Negro contains a falsehood. There is no struggle between them. It assumes that unless the White man enslaves the Negro, the Negro will enslave the White man.
By the middle of the Civil War, Lincoln went as far as to tell a group of Black leaders he invited to the White House that the very presence of Black people in America was the primary reason for the national crisis, and in particular, for bloody conflicts between his fellow White people.
I need not recount to you the effects upon White men, growing out of the institution of Slavery. I believe in its general evil effects on the White race.
And he spoke these words as the president of the United States.
Besides Rogers' work, two other books purporting to have information on Lincoln's "Blackness" are The Six Black Presidents Black Blood: White Masks (1993) and Leroy Vaughn's Black People and Their Place in History (2001).
However, Vaghn points to Rogers' research as the inspiration for all three.
Virtually, all we know came from J. A. Rogers.
I hope that all those who were interested and have read this article found a satisfactory answer to their questions on this subject.
If anyone can provide concrete evidence to the contrary, then please do. If not, then here's my advice: question those who say such evidence exists but produce nothing.
Scientific Researcher, Independent Historian, and Co-Founder of Black Research Central
Unless otherwise states, Lincoln quotes used in this article were taken from The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, published by the Lincoln Association in 1953 and made available online free of charge for research purposes.
Black Research Central
When Negritude Meets Pettitude.