Abraham Lincoln: The Early Years

Abraham Lincoln, circa 1846

Abraham Lincoln, circa 1846


Photo of a certain lawyer from Springfield, Illinois, perhaps 35 years of age.

About the year 1846.

At the time, about 1 in 50 residents of Sangamon County, Illinois were enumerated on US census forms as “free people of color”.

The ratio of those enumerated as “free colored” – as opposed to “white” – in these 19th century census returns tells only a small part of a broader ethnic story.

Only a fraction of families with members who were mixed-ethnic, or “people of color” at this point in American history were actually enumerated as such.

If the head of household was seen as “acting white” (voting, paying taxes, serving on juries, owning property, attending church), local census enumerators were unlikely to insist on noting the brown complexion of a man or his wife.

Or the particularly dark skin of three of his eight children…

Many of these mixed-ethnic families living in places like southern Illinois had moved north during the early and mid 1800s to avoid the increasingly repressive laws being passed in states like Tennessee – laws intended to disenfranchise mixed-ethnic voters.

It is very common today among apologists for “The Southern Cause” to claim that Abraham Lincoln only signed the Emancipation Proclamation reluctantly, as a tactical move in order to weaken The South, and that his only real interest was in preserving The Union.

This is forgetting that Abraham Lincoln was a lawyer before he was a politician.  He was not stupid.

This smart lawyer from Kentucky, earning a crust in Sangamon County, Illinois, had a clear feel for The Long Game.

Those who have listened to our recent podcast episode How Lovely Are Thy Branches, will have learned a little bit about Abraham Lincoln‘s complicated ethnic back story.

Mr. Lincoln used his razor-sharp awareness of the subtleties of case law to help some of these multi-ethnic Illinois citizens avoid legal troubles in the years just before the Civil War.

Trouble which arrived because certain racist Illinois citizens and lawmakers began to find creative ways around the state’s 1848 anti-slavery constitution.

This “trouble” involved attempts to strip all civil rights from free persons of color – the right to own property, the right to attend schools, the right to vote, the right to state citizenship.

Even more terrifying for free people of color was the constant fear of violence or being kidnapped outright by thugs and sold “down the river” into slavery.

If Lincoln moved with legislative caution as president (as regards slavery and the rights of people of color), it was not due to any latent racism or lack of empathy on his part.

Lincoln was himself part of Old Mix America, and he knew it.

And as a man trained and experienced in law, while proceeding with compassion and steady wisdom, he also had an acute awareness of the practical limitations of power.

A saint?  No.

The mass hanging of Dakota prisoners of war the day after Christmas 1862 was an outrage, and a permanent stain on American history.

Lincoln could have refused to sign the order.

But it is likely that Euro-American coloniser militias would have then promptly withdrawn political support for Lincoln in the middle of a Civil War, and probably launched their own local war seeking the outright extermination of every Indian in Minnesota.

I’m not wise enough to know whether, on balance, Lincoln’s presidency made the world a better or worse place.  But in his youth at least, he did seem to advocate for some of those being chewed-up by a white supremacist Manifest Destiny.

No, Lincoln was not a saint.  But then, who is?

Was he about as good as the USA is ever likely to get from a leader?



#BeforeWeWereWhite #AbrahamLincoln #SystemicRacism

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *