Lincoln Equivalent to Alexander Stephens? Of Course!

On CNN yesterday, there was a “debate” between Gordon Rhea and a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV). Unfortunately I cannot find the video. But, there was one point in their discussion when excerpts from Alexander Stephens “Cornerstone Speech” was read aloud:

“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

The SCV representative (I think his name was Dan Coleman) did not respond by saying that he disagreed with Stephens. NO, instead, he claimed Abraham Lincoln believed exactly the same thing, citing, as Lincoln’s enemies always do, his quotes on race from the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. This is a common tactic of Lincoln’s enemies, as I wrote about in Loathing Lincoln (page 292):

“These critics defended secession as an antislavery strategy in order to ennoble their own antigovernment cause, and discrediting Lincoln was a key element in that endeavor. As part of this effort, they claimed the president had no real commitment to racial equality. . . .  [John Remington] Graham argued that Lincoln, in his 1854 Peoria address, had “articulated the same basic thought” as Alexander Stephens, who believed that blacks were inferior to whites. Less emphasized, however, was the letter Lincoln wrote to Stephens in December 1860, in which the president-elect said, “You think slavery is right and ought to be extended; while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted.” To be sure, Lincoln denied in his Peoria speech that the black man was equal to the white man, but Graham for one left unmentioned that in the same speech Lincoln had argued that the issue was irrelevant: “If the negro is a man, is it not . . . a total destruction of self-government to say that he shall not govern himself? When the white man governs himself that is self-government; but when he governs another man, that is more than self-government—that is despotism. . . . there can be no moral right in connection with one man’s making a slave of another.” To say the least, this was not a viewpoint with which few, if any white, southern slaveholders would have concurred. It was a tactic of distortion by omission all too characteristic of those who sought to tarnish Lincoln’s reputation by whatever means available. But the point was not historical accuracy. Rather, it was to demonstrate for their audiences that neither secession nor the war was about slavery and that Lincoln had no commitment to racial justice; therefore the president must have had another agenda in mind.”

I wrote about the distortion of Lincoln’s utterances very early in this blog, and I reproduce it here:

1. Here is Abraham Lincoln to Michael Hahn (all italicized words are my emphasis):

Private Executive Mansion, Hon. Michael Hahn Washington, My dear Sir: March 13. 1864.

I congratulate you on having fixed your name in history as the first-free-state Governor of Louisiana. Now you are about to have a Convention which, among other things, will probably define the elective franchise. I barely suggest for your private consideration, whether some of the colored people may not be let in—as, for instance, the very intelligent, and especially those who have fought gallantly in our ranks. They would probably help, in some trying time to come, to keep the jewel of liberty within the family of freedom. But this is only a suggestion, not to the public, but to you alone. Yours truly A. LINCOLN

2. Here is Abraham Lincoln writing about Owen Lovejoy, perhaps one of the most radical members of Congress.

Hon. John H Bryant Executive Mansion, My dear Sir. Washington, May 30, 1864.

Yours of the 14th. Inst. inclosing a card of invitation to a preliminary meeting contemplating the erection of a Monument to the memory of Hon. Owen Lovejoy, was duly received.

As you anticipate, it will be out of my power to attend. Many of you have known Mr. Lovejoy longer than I have, and are better able than I to do his memory complete justice. My personal acquaintance with him commenced only about ten years ago, since when it has been quite intimate; and every step in it has been one of increasing respect and esteem, ending, with his life, in no less than affection on my part. It can be truly said of him that while he was personally ambitious, he bravely endured the obscurity which the unpopularity of his principles imposed, and never accepted official honors, until those honors were ready to admit his principles with him. Throughout my heavy, and perplexing responsibilities here, to the day of his death, it would scarcely wrong any other to say, he was my most generous friend. Let him have the marble monument, along with the well-assured and more enduring one in the hearts of those who love liberty, unselfishly, for all men. Yours truly A. LINCOLN

3. Here is Abraham Lincoln delivering a speech to the “One Hundred Sixty-Fourth Ohio Regiment”:

“SOLDIERS – You are about to return to your homes and your friends, after having, as I learn, performed in camp a comparitively short term of duty in this great contest. I am greatly obliged to you, and to all who have come forward at the call of their country. I wish it might be more generally and universally understood what the country is now engaged in. We have, as all will agree, a free Government, where every man has a right to be equal with every other man. In this great struggle, this form of Government and every form of human right is endangered if our enemies succeed.”

You can find all of these in the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. Sadly, these types of remarks are far less quoted by the president’s critics than those which they believe reflect poorly on him. I wonder why that is?



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