To My Fellow Citizens:
Recent controversy over the killing of a black teenager in Florida reminds us that America’s racial dilemmas did not end with the election of our first black president; they evolved. The episode is the latest intersection of equality, the general principle of democratic politics everywhere, and race, the particular issue that has been the greatest political challenge throughout America’s history.
Abraham Lincoln, who thought more profoundly than any figure in our history about the intertwined questions of equality and race, took the questions up in 1857 in a speech criticizing the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision. The Court, and politicians like Lincoln’s great opponent Senator Stephen Douglas, who defended the Court’s decision, argued that when the American revolutionaries famously wrote that “all men are created equal,” they did not mean to include black men (this is a view still widely insisted on by many academics and intellectuals who write on these subjects). Lincoln denied this. As he said:
Chief Justice Taney and [Senator] Douglas argue that the authors of [the Declaration] did not intend to include negroes, by the fact that they did not at once, actually place them on an equality with the whites. Now this grave argument comes to just nothing at all, by the other fact, that they did not at once, or ever afterwards, actually place all white people on an equality with one or another.
It is worth quoting Lincoln at length explaining what the authors of the Declaration of Independence did mean:
I think the authors of that notable instrument intended to include all men, but they did not intend to declare all men equal in all respects. They did not mean to say all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social capacity. They defined with tolerable distinctness, in what respects they did consider all men created equal—equal in "certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness". They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet, that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact they had no power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit. They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.
Establishing a true understanding of equal human rights in the public mind was—and is—a mountainous challenge in itself. Giving the best possible effect to that truth in the “circumstances” in which the country finds itself at any given time can be an even greater challenge. Lincoln wrote that the Founders intended the enforcement of Americans’ equal natural rights to “follow as fast as circumstances should permit.” As he said repeatedly throughout the 1850s, this meant, among other things, that the Founders intended to put slavery in the “course of ultimate extinction.”
In Lincoln’s time, he and Stephen Douglas were politicians competing at the highest levels of American politics for the same mid-19th century voters, who were overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly opposed to sharing their political and social rights with blacks. To gain advantage with such an electorate, Douglas—in Lincoln’s words— sought to exploit the “natural disgust in the minds of nearly all white people, to the idea of an indiscriminate amalgamation of the white and black races.” He did this by saying of those who, like Lincoln, affirmed that the declaration’s “all men are created equal” meant all men, that they “do so only because they want to vote, and eat, and sleep, and marry with negroes!”
Appealing to the same voters, Lincoln protested “against that counterfeit logic which concludes that, because I do not want a black woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. I need not have her for either, I can just leave her alone. In some respects she certainly is not my equal; but in her natural right to eat the bread she earns with her own hands without asking leave of any one else, she is my equal, and the equal of all others.” The only “preventive”—if there was any preventive—for amalgamation of the white and black races, he said, was the “separation of the races.” The only way—if there was any way—to effect the separation of the races was “colonization,” transporting “the African to his native clime” or to some other foreign parts that he would consent to go to.
With such appeals, Lincoln got himself elected president. Secession and Civil War followed. The circumstances of the war made it possible for Lincoln to promote the immediate abolition of slavery; this led, quickly, to the constitutional guarantee of black citizenship and voting rights and, slowly, to the federal enforcement of those guarantees. After a century of the uncertain and painful unfolding of circumstances, in1964 Congress outlawed the local ordinances and private practices that required blacks to eat in separate sections of restaurants and sleep in separate sections of hotels. Three years later the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that legal restrictions on marriage, if based on race, were unconstitutional.
Nothing changes circumstances like war. By the time the Civil War ended it became clear that all the options Americans had been exploring were dead ends. We were not going (though the rebelling states tried) to split into two countries, one free and one slave. We were not going to exist in perpetuity as one country in which we agreed to disagree about slavery. A house divided against itself, half-slave and half-free, could not stand, as Lincoln had predicted. And we were not going to end slavery only to send the descendants of Africans who had been brought here against their will throughout the 17th and 18th centuries back to Africa or on to some other part of the world. The only option left was the one that most white Americans before the Civil War considered morally intolerable and practically impossible: find a way to make American democracy work in a nation where different ethnic and racial groups formed one people. Some thoughts on the course of that endeavor will be the subject of a future letter.