1974.06.01: Black History Series No. 9: History of An Unfree People: The Myth of Lincoln (Red Tide)


Red Tide #13
Summer 1974

Black History Series No. 9: History of An Unfree People: The Myth of Lincoln
[By Michael Letwin]

The story of Abraham Lincoln as told to us in school and elsewhere is probably one of the . . . falsest ones in the history of the U.S. No other public official has had the virtually un-criticized write-up in history that he does. Lincoln is presented as a common man, unpretentious, and most importantly – a humanitarian. He (so they tell us in school) was so good that[,] out of his milk of human kindness, he freed black people from slavery.

It’s a lie.


First of all[,] Lincoln planned his political career to a much greater extent [than] most politicians of his time, and perhaps of ours. He used his image as a “common man” to get himself elected and he actually owed his early political successes not to his taking courageous stands on weighty moral issues, but rather over his popular fight to move the state capital of Illinois to Springfield!

In Lincoln’s 1836 campaign for the Illinois state Legislature, he made it clear how he regarded the civil rights of blacks: “I go for admitting all whites to the right of suffrage [vote].”

During the tumultuous years before the Civil War, Lincoln was surprisingly silent on the subject of slavery. He went so far however [as] to denounce abolitionists (those who really fought for an end to slavery), claiming that it was much more important to obey the law than it was to free black slaves.

Lincoln also refused to condemn the “Fugitive Slave Law,” which allowed slaves who escaped from their Southern bondage to be chased, caught, imprisoned and returned to slavery[,] even in the Northern states where slavery was illegal. An example of this attitude was shown when in 1849, in penning a law to abolish slavery in Washington D.C., he made sure that the law included a provision stating that slaves who came to D.C. after escaping from other areas should be returned to their masters by “active an efficient means.”


It was not until 1854, at the age of 45, [that] Lincoln publicly declare[d] himself to be against slavery. On October 4th at a speech delivered at the Hall of Representatives in Springfield, Illinois. . . . Lincoln went as far as saying that the slaves might be freed and kept “among us as underlings.”

When Lincoln finally did come out against slavery, he did so mainly on the grounds that black slave labor was a threat to white free labor (as if the way that people work today is “free”). He did in no way advocate equal rights of any sort for blacks[,] as illustrated in a speech given in Peoria, Ill.:

The whole nation is interested in the best use shall be made of these territories. We want them for homes for free white people. This they cannot be, to any considerable extent, if slavery be planted within them.

And on Sept. 18, 1858, in Charleston, South Carolina:

I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races [applause], 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 inasmuch as they cannot so live, 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.


As we all know, Lincoln was elected president in 1860. In his inaugural address in 1861, Lincoln made clear that while he was against slavery in the new states (stolen from Indians and Mexicans), he would not attack it in the South.

Now this seems kind of weird for the reason that Lincoln did fight a [w]ar against the South[,] which had the effect of freeing black slaves. But let’s look more closely.


The Civil War developed when the economic system of agricultural slavery in the South could no longer exist side by side with developing Northern industry. The War was basically a contest between the two systems as to which would be in total control. The South left the Union because the North was winning. It came down to a fight between the big capitalist class in the North against the slave and land owning aristocracy in the South.

Lincoln was the representative of the wealthy industrial class in the North.

However what Lincoln and many others at the time did not understand was that in order to win the War, the North had to destroy the economic power of the South, and this included slavery.

Lincoln stated early in the War that his purpose was to bring the South back to the Union with slavery intact.

In fact when General Fremont of the Union army declared slaves to be free in Missouri[,] and Gen. Hunter did so in Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina, Lincoln promptly countermanded the orders.


When Lincoln did sign the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 it was because he finally realized that in order to destroy the South, slavery as an institution of the South had to be destroyed in order for the North to win. He also knew that even if the North won militarily, unless he did away with slavery, the basis for the War would again exist.

So when Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, it was not out of his milk of human kindness, but rather because he finally got wise to reality. It was not until this point also that blacks were permitted in the armed forces of the North (not as equals, of course).

Another funny thing about the Emancipation Proclamation was that it freed slaves in areas only where the South was in control and therefore out of reach of Lincoln, and conspicuously excluded other counties where the Union was in control. It was done “as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion.”

Perhaps Lincoln’s “great” deed could be summed up best in his own words: “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me!”


Now granted, all of this differs sharply from the lies in school textbooks like “History of a Free People” and “Our American Republic,” but it is only one lie of many [about] black history.

SOURCE: The American Political Tradition – Hofstadter

[Historical Note: The Red Tide was a revolutionary high school underground newspaper and youth organization that existed from 1971-1981. See: http://theredtide.wordpress.com/] 


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