Be Careful What Standards You Use to Judge Historical Figures: The Case of Abraham Lincoln

abraham_lincoln2It’s always tricky to judge anyone’s moral character, much less that of historical figures who lived during times very different from our own. Most of the great people who founded the United States, for example, had slaves. Some even sired children with those slaves – like Thomas Jefferson. Hard to know how to judge that.

But most people feel pretty comfortable judging Abraham Lincoln, as being a great man with views on race well beyond those of his times. And that, indeed, is the truth. But take a closer look at what enlightened thinking looks like in those times. Here are words from a speech Lincoln gave where he tried to draw on the distinction between freeing slaves versus giving Negroes complete equality:

I have never seen to my knowledge a man, woman or child who was in favor of producing a perfect equality, social and political, between Negroes and white men. I recollect of but one distinguished instance that I ever heard of, so frequently as to be entirely satisfied of its correctness – and that is the case of Judge Douglas’s old friend Col. Richard M Johnson.

This drew laughter from the audience, as Lincoln anticipated, because Johnson was known to have had children with a woman of “mixed race.” Lincoln then continued milking the crowd for laughter:

I will also add… That I have never had the least apprehension that I or my friends would marry Negroes if there was no law to keep them from it, [more laughter from crowd] but as Judge Douglas and his friends seem to be in great apprehension that they might, if there were no law to keep them from it, [even more laughter] I give him the most solemn pledge that I will to the very last stand by the law of this State, which forbids the marrying of white people with Negroes.

Remember that what Lincoln was espousing back then, as awful as it sounds to us now, was a dangerously progressive view at that time.

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