Book Review of George Frederickson, Big Enough to Be Inconsistent: Abraham Lincoln Confronts Slavery and Race. Harvard University Press, 2008.
Like almost all whites in the 19th Century, Lincoln held prejudicial or racist views about blacks, and was reluctant to extend full citizenship and political rights to them. His native state of Illinois had a constitutional provision that barred blacks from settling there at all, as did Indiana, Iowa, Kansas and other Northern and Western states. Only a few New England states actually granted nonwhites equal citizenship and voting rights before the Civil War. Whites could -- and did -- oppose the expansion of slavery in the Western territories and even slavery itself, while still not being particularly favorable to black equality. Nevertheless, compared to his contemporary opponents like Senator Stephen Douglas, Andrew Johnson and Jefferson Davis, who spoke openly of their contempt for blacks, support for slavery and belief in black inferiority, Lincoln's racism was of a milder variety. Unlike Davis, who owned over 500 slaves, or Douglas, whose wife owned 150 slaves in Mississippi, Lincoln had never been a slave owner and never made any public or private statement sympathizing with slavery. Just the opposite, he stated that he would never want to be a slave or a master, since the core of his political and social philosophy was that every person had the natural right to rise as far and as fast as their talents permitted. As he put it in 1861, all people should "have an equal chance" in life, even though he did not accept full equality and citizenship rights for blacks (Frederickson 87).
At the time of his election in 1860, Lincoln argued that slavery was immoral, but also that the Constitution protected it where it already existed. This was a matter of states right and state law, but it did not prevent the federal government from preventing its expansion in the Western territories. He was "genuinely antislavery, but in a way that did not provide the basis for any action that would violate rather strict construction of the Constitution" (Frederickson 84). In the election of 1860, he had won as a purely sectional candidate who had not even been on the ballot in ten Southern states and had received not a single vote in there. His main goal when the war began was not to abolish slavery but preserve the Union as a model for democracy in the world. If the South chose to resort to violence and revolution because its favored candidates had lost the election, then democracy itself would be undermined. Yet as he wrote in 1864, "I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong," and he was perfectly consistent in these views throughout his adult life. Even so, he had only moved to abolish slavery as a war measure in 1863 because he thought this was essential to save the Union, and concluded that in order to win the war he had to lay "a strong hand on the colored element" (Frederickson 86). Only at the very end of the Civil War, not long before his assassination, was he prepared to consider the idea of full citizenship and voting rights for blacks, an idea that enraged John Wilkes Booth when he heard Lincoln mention in a speech that some blacks who fought for the Union might be allowed to vote. In a very real sense, then, Lincoln lost life merely for mentioning the possibility that some blacks might be allowed to vote, which evoked a murderous response from open racists and Confederates like Booth.
Lincoln had come a long way from 1861, but so had the rest of the country, at least outside the Confederate states. All of his life, Lincoln had believed that the Declaration of Independence and its affirmation of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness applied to all human beings, even though it did not "mandate the civil and political equality of blacks." Even then, he argued that slavery was on a "partial and temporary" deviation from these rights, one that the Founders had hoped would gradually become extinct (Frederickson 87). It had not become extinct, of course, but had expanded and become more profitable in the great cotton boom of the 19th Century and the number of slaves grew from 500,000 in 1775 to over four million by 1860. From the…