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Disputations: The Lost Lincoln

A response to Sean Wilentz's 'Who Lincoln Was'

Click here to read responses by Michael Kazin, John Stauffer, and Fred Kaplan. Click here to read Sean Wilentz's response to his critics.

When Thomas Jefferson wrote, "All men are created equal," he did not have African Americans in mind. Or so I claimed in Lincoln on Race and Slavery. Sean Wilentz ("Who Lincoln Was," July 15, 2009) is inclined to be skeptical. He cites a passage from a conciliatory letter Jefferson sent to the French abolitionist Henri Gregoire.

But a broader look at his writings suggests that Jefferson may not have been convinced that Africans and Europeans were even members of the same species on the great chain of being. Writing in Notes on the State of Virginia, published just six years after he wrote the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson delineates "the real distinctions which nature has made" between whites and blacks, physical and intellectual differences as "fixed in nature" as the color of their skin. He compares the "preference" that blacks have for mating with whites to the "the preference of the Oranootan for the black women over those of his own species."

Blacks, he continues, have a "disposition to sleep when abstracted from their diversions, and unemployed in labour" and "in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous." Nor was he sanguine about even their potential for intellectual equality: "Never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; never saw even an elementary trait of painting or sculpture." Moreover, these supposed limits on black intellectual or artistic capacity, Jefferson continues, could not be attributed to the harsh conditions of slavery: "Epictetus, Terence, and Phaedrus were slaves. But they were of the race of whites. It is not their condition then, but nature, which has produced the distinction."

In sum, Jefferson concludes sadly, "the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstance, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind." And so he explored the idea of combining emancipation with expatriation, lest the slave "stain" the blood of his master: "When freed, he is to be removed beyond the reach of mixture." It's little wonder that African-Americans--from Benjamin Banneker in the eighteenth century and David Walker, Frederick Douglass, and James McCune Smith throughout the nineteenth and many others well into the twentieth century--considered Jefferson’s views quite dangerous, and created a sub-genre devoted to their refutation.

But what about Jefferson's letter of February 25, 1809, to Gregoire, where Jefferson essentially says that he hopes that he is mistaken? Here, again, the broader context is illuminating. In a letter Jefferson wrote later that year to his friend Joel Barlow, he confesses that he had been merely humoring Gregoire. "You have done right in giving him a sugary answer. But he did not deserve it," Jefferson wrote, mocking the Frenchman's "credulity." And he went on, "I wrote him, as you have done, a very soft answer."

Thomas Jefferson was a great man, and in many ways an admirable one. But it is not fanciful to suppose that he was also a man of his time.

What about my claims about the role George Livermore's An Historical Research respecting the Opinions of the Founders of the Republic, on Negroes as Slaves, as Citizens, and as Soldiers played in Lincoln’s decision to let black men to join the Union Army? Wilentz finds the scenario to be absurd.

It's worth noting that Livermore was a respected figure, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the recipient of an honorary degree from Harvard. His two-hundred page work--detailing the role of slaves and Free Negroes (such as my maternal fourth great-grandfather, John Redman) as soldiers in the Continental Army--was completed by August 14, 1862, the day he read it, to great acclaim, at a session of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Lincoln added the provision about the right of blacks to serve in the military only after he had read Livermore’s book, in the final version of the Emancipation; it was not, pace Wilentz, part of the Preliminary Emancipation that he prepared over the summer and shared with his cabinet on September 22, 1862. So the testimony of Senator Charles Sumner should be given its due. Livermore’s book "interested the President very much," Senator Sumner wrote the author. "The President expressed a desire to consult it while he was preparing the final Proclamation of Emancipation; and as his own copy was mislaid, he requested me to send him mine, which I did."

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University.

Click here to read responses by Michael Kazin, John Stauffer, and Fred Kaplan. Click here to read Sean Wilentz's response to his critics.