“I Am Naturally Anti-Slavery”
Young Abraham Lincoln and Slavery
Historian Eric Foner ’63, ’69 GSAS is the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia, where he did his Ph.D. under the supervision of Richard Hofstadter ’42 GSAS. Foner has been president of The Organization of American Historians, the American Historical Association and The Society of American Historians. His 1988 study Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877 won the Bancroft, Parkman and Los Angeles Times Book prizes, among others.
In his latest book, THE FIERY TRIAL: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, Foner takes a measured look at Lincoln and his changing views on slavery. He shows the Great Emancipator as a work in progress — from his earliest childhood in states steeped in racism, to his career as a moderate Whig politician, to the final challenge of the Civil War presidency. “Foner argues that Lincoln’s ‘greatness’ rests in his ‘capacity for growth,’ not in the consistency many have wished to see in him,” writes one reviewer in the San Francisco Chronicle.
In the following excerpt, Foner describes Lincoln’s earliest encounters with racism and slavery.
Rose Kernochan ’82 Barnard
“I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I cannot remember when I did not so think, and feel.” There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of Abraham Lincoln’s emphatic declaration, written in April 1864, three years into the American Civil War. But as with so much of his early life, the origins of his thoughts and feelings about slavery remain shrouded in mystery. Lincoln grew up in a world in which slavery was a living presence and where both deeply entrenched racism and various kinds of antislavery sentiment flourished. Until well into his life, he had only sporadic contact with black people, slave or free. In later years, he said almost nothing about his early encounters with slavery, slaves, and free African-Americans. Nonetheless, as he emerged in the 1830s as a prominent Illinois politician, the cumulative experiences of his early life led Lincoln to identify himself as an occasional critic of slavery. His early encounters with and responses to slavery were the starting point from which Lincoln’s mature ideas and actions would later evolve.
The historical record contains very little information about Lincoln’s early encounters with slavery or black persons. As a young child in Kentucky, he may have seen groups of chained slaves pass near his house on their way to the Lower South. He could not have had much direct contact with blacks in Indiana. In 1830, on the eve of the family’s departure for Illinois, the census reported no slaves and only 14 free blacks in Spencer County, where the Lincolns lived. When he settled in Sangamon County, Illinois, the population of around 12,000 included only 38 blacks. When Lincoln moved to Springfield in 1837, the town’s 86 blacks comprised less than 5 percent of its residents.
Lincoln’s first real encounter with slavery — the heart of the institution, rather than its periphery — came on two journeys down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers in 1828 and 1831, when he helped transport farm goods for sale in New Orleans. Lincoln and his companions made the southbound voyage by flatboat and returned north by steamboat (although on the second occasion, Lincoln walked home from St. Louis). Their trip exemplified how the market revolution of the early nineteenth century was simultaneously consolidating the national economy and heightening the division between slave and free societies. In the North, the building of canals and the advent of steamboats and, later, railroads set in motion economic changes that created an integrated economy of commercial farms and growing urban and industrial centers. In the South, the market revolution, coupled with the military defeat and subsequent removal of the Native American population, made possible the westward expansion of the slave system and the rise of the great Cotton Kingdom of the Gulf states. Southern society reproduced itself as it moved westward, remaining slave-based and almost entirely agricultural, even as the North witnessed the emergence of a diversified, modernizing economy. Eventually, the clash between societies based on slave and free labor would come to dominate American life and shape the mature Lincoln’s political career.
This, however, lay far in the future when Lincoln made his two trips. The first began at the end of December 1828 when James Gentry, an Indiana storekeeper, hired the 19-year-old Lincoln to join Gentry’s son Allen in shipping a cargo of corn, oats, beans and meat to New Orleans. The second trip, which started in April 1831, took place after Denton Offutt, an Illinois merchant, hired a crew including Lincoln, John Hanks (Lincoln’s mother’s cousin) and John D. Johnston (Lincoln’s stepbrother) to accompany him to New Orleans. These trips were among thousands that followed a similar route during this period, when the Old Northwest shipped its surplus farm produce downriver to be sold in New Orleans and then consumed on slave plantations or transported by sea to the Northeast or Europe.
What did Lincoln see on these journeys, which covered over 2,000 miles round-trip? The Ohio and Mississippi rivers were alive with vessels of all kinds. Lincoln could not have avoided contact with slaves, who worked on the huge cotton and sugar plantations that lined the Mississippi and on docks and steamboats. There were also bands of black robbers who preyed on shipping. One night as their flatboat lay tied up at the riverbank, one such group attacked Gentry and Lincoln. The incident left a vivid impression; in his brief autobiographical sketch written in 1860, the only black persons Lincoln mentioned were the “seven negroes” who tried to “kill and rob” him. He and Gentry, Lincoln recalled, succeeded “in driving the negroes from the boat.”
These trips must have been eye-opening for the young Lincoln. New Orleans, where he spent an undetermined amount of time in 1829 and a full month in mid-1831, was by far the largest city he had ever seen, with a population of some 50,000, including nearly 17,000 slaves and 12,000 free blacks. The diverse residents also included Creoles (descendants of French and Spanish colonial settlers), European immigrants, and Americans from every state. The French observer of American democracy Alexis de Tocqueville, who spent New Year’s Day of 1832 in New Orleans, six months after Lincoln’s second visit, took note of the city’s beautiful architecture, the “faces with every shade of color,” and what he deemed the “incredible laxity of morals” of the inhabitants. Every Sunday, the city’s vibrant black culture was on display at Congo Square, where slaves gathered for dancing, music-making, and other pastimes. The free black population included many propertied skilled artisans. The city’s back streets held numerous grog shops where slaves, free blacks, and whites mingled freely.
Situated at the mouth of the Mississippi River, New Orleans was, after New York City, the country’s second busiest port, the major export center for the staple crops of the Mississippi Valley. In 1828, vessels from throughout the Atlantic world arrived there, including some 750 steamboats and over 1,000 flatboats. New Orleans was also a major center of the domestic slave trade. Slave pens were scattered throughout the business district, newspapers carried daily advertisements for slave sales, and slave auctions took place not only at the central slave market — a major tourist attraction — but also at numerous other places, including the luxurious St. Charles Hotel. It would have been almost impossible to spend time in New Orleans and not witness the buying and selling of slaves.
John Hanks later claimed that on the second trip to New Orleans, “we saw negroes chained, maltreated, whipped and scourged. Lincoln saw it. His heart bled. … I can say knowingly that it was on this trip that he formed his opinions of slavery.” But, according to Lincoln’s recollection in 1860, Hanks left the crew in St. Louis and did not accompany the others to New Orleans. After Lincoln’s death, Hanks and Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon recounted that in later life, Lincoln did speak about these journeys and about the New Orleans slave market. The impact of these visits on Lincoln’s views of slavery, however, must remain a matter of speculation. His account of being assaulted by thieves is his only surviving reference to these two journeys. But the sight of slaves being bought and sold powerfully affected many a visitor to the South. Lincoln’s friend Orville H. Browning, an Illinois politician who had also been born in Kentucky, described his reaction to a slave sale in a diary entry in 1854:
Saw a negro sold at public auction in the court-house yard. ... Although I am not sensible in any change in my views upon the abstract question of slavery, many of its features, that are no longer familiar, make a much more vivid impression of wrong than they did before I lived away from the influence of the institution.
Lincoln had more to say about a subsequent encounter with slavery, which took place on an 1841 boat trip to St. Louis with his close friend Joshua Speed. The trip followed a visit to Farmington, the Speed family plantation near Louisville, where his hosts assigned a house slave to wait on their guest. Recovering from a period of depression after the temporary breakup of his relationship with Mary Todd, Lincoln remained for a month at Farmington. In September, he and Speed took a steamboat down the Ohio River to St. Louis, from where Lincoln returned to Springfield, Illinois, by stagecoach. On the ship, Lincoln observed a group of slaves being transported from Kentucky to a farm farther south. In 1855, Lincoln would vividly recall this episode in a letter to Speed:
You may remember, as I well do, that … there were, on board, ten or a dozen slaves, shackled together with irons. That sight was a continual torment to me; and I see something like it every time I touch the Ohio, or any other slave-border. … You ought ... to appreciate how much the great body of the Northern people do crucify their feelings, in order to maintain their loyalty to the constitution and the Union.
Lincoln’s oft-quoted letter, addressed to a good friend who by 1855 differed substantially with him about slavery, has been described as a “cry from the heart.” Lincoln’s response in 1841, when he encountered the chained slaves, was quite different. Then, he sent a vivid description of what he had seen to Mary Speed, Joshua’s half sister:
A fine example was presented on board the boat for contemplating the effect of condition upon human happiness. ... [The slaves] were chained six and six together. A small iron clevis was around the left wrist of each, and this was fastened to the main chain by a shorter one at a convenient distance from the others; so that the negroes were strung together precisely like so many fish upon a trot-line. In this condition they were being separated forever from the scenes of their childhood, their friends, their fathers and mothers, and brothers and sisters, and many of them, from their wives and children, and going into perpetual slavery where the lash of the master is proverbially more ruthless and unrelenting than any other where; and yet amid all these distressing circumstances, as we would think of them, they were the most cheerful and apparently happy creatures on board. ... How true it is that God … renders the worst of human conditions tolerable, while He permits the best, to be nothing better than tolerable.
Clearly, the chained slaves fascinated Lincoln, and he observed closely their method of confinement and their behavior. This letter is one of very few at any point in his life in which Lincoln muses on cruel punishments and the uprooting and separation of families — the concrete reality to which black men, women, and children were subjected. One cannot read the letter without a sense of revulsion at what the slaves experienced. Yet whether he did not wish to offend an owner of slaves, or his melancholy at the time affected his thinking, or his own views on slavery had not yet matured, Lincoln’s account was oddly dispassionate. He did not describe the scene, as he would in 1855, as a violation of rights, a way of illustrating a political outlook, or an affront to his feelings, but as an interesting illustration of how human beings have the capacity to remain cheerful even in the most dire circumstances.
Until they drifted apart in the 1850s over the slavery question, Lincoln’s relationship with the Speeds illustrated the close connection his circle of friends in Springfield had with slavery. His early political mentor and first law partner, John Todd Stuart, represented traders in indentured servants and slaves. Most important, when he married Stuart’s cousin Mary Todd in 1842, Lincoln became part of a significant slaveholding family. His wife grew up in Lexington, Kentucky, in the heart of bluegrass country, the focal point of slaveholding in the state and a major slave-trading center. One of Mary’s uncles bought and sold slaves. A prominent businessman, lawyer, and well-connected political figure, Mary’s father, Robert S. Todd, was a longtime member of the Kentucky legislature and an associate of Henry Clay.
Robert S. Todd’s first wife died in 1825. He soon remarried and four of his daughters, including Mary, eventually moved to Springfield as young women, in part because of difficulties with their stepmother. Mary’s uncle, Dr. John Todd, also took up residence in Springfield and owned five slaves there in 1830. Mary’s eldest sister Elizabeth married Ninian Edwards, who served in the legislature with Lincoln and was the son of the governor with the same name who had bought and sold slaves in territorial days. The Edwards family owned one of the six slaves still living in Springfield in 1840, in addition to black indentured servants. Yet Robert S. Todd, a follower of Clay, was one of the Kentucky slaveholders who disliked slavery and hoped to see it gradually abolished in the state. His daughter Mary, who had a strong interest in politics, seems to have imbibed his point of view. Robert S. Todd died in 1849 while running for reelection to the state senate. His opponent had castigated him as the “emancipation candidate.”
The Todds were a proud, self-important family whose pretensions Lincoln frequently ridiculed. “One ‘d’ was good enough for God,” he quipped, “but not the Todds.” Nonetheless, Lincoln remained extremely close to his wife’s family. When the death of Robert S. Todd unleashed a bitter squabble over his estate, Lincoln became involved in the ensuing litigation. (His wife ended up losing money as a result of the eventual court decisions.) During the Civil War, as the New York World observed, referring to the Todds, Lincoln “appointed his whole family to government posts.”
On several occasions, Lincoln came into contact with slavery on visits to his in-laws’ home in Lexington. With his wife and two young sons, he spent nearly a month there in 1847 on his way to taking up a seat in Congress. They enjoyed another extended stay in 1849, and Lincoln visited Lexington again while handling lawsuits in 1850, 1852 and 1853. The city’s newspapers were filled with advertisements seeking the recovery of runaways and offering slaves for sale. It is unknown whether Lincoln witnessed a slave auction during any of these visits. If so, he never mentioned it.
Thus, before his emergence in the 1850s as an antislavery politician, Lincoln lived in Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois, all of which had histories of slavery and severe laws effectively denying black persons the rights of citizenship. All three, in fact, at one time or another prohibited free blacks from entering their territory. Lincoln had seen the small-scale slavery of Kentucky and the plantations and slave markets of the Mississippi Valley. He had married into a family of slaveholders.
From an early age, Lincoln demonstrated an independent cast of mind. He diverged in many ways from the boisterous and sometimes violent frontier culture in which he grew up. He did not drink, hunt or chew tobacco, tried to avoid physical altercations, never joined a church, and early in life embarked on a program of self-improvement, bent on escaping the constraining circumstances of his youth. Despite his penchant for thinking for himself, however, for most of his life Lincoln shared many of the racial prejudices so deeply rooted in the border region in which he grew up.
Yet Lincoln, had he desired, could have easily moved back to Kentucky like his friend Joshua Speed and, with the support of his prominent father-in-law, established himself as a member of Lexington’s slave-owning high society. He chose not to do so. “Every American,” Tocqueville observed, “is eaten up with longing to rise.” Lincoln was even more ambitious than most of his contemporaries. But to him, success meant advancement in a society based on free labor, not slave.
Excerpted from THE FIERY TRIAL: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery by Eric Foner. Copyright (c) 2010 by Eric Foner. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.