Was Abraham Lincoln a Racist?

Former Vice President Joe Biden’s mention of Abraham Lincoln’s name during the third presidential debate on Thursday, Oct. 22, was one of the most memorable exchanges in the final presidential debate of 2020. It also caused Lincoln to become a trending topic over much of social media in the hours after. Many celebrated the iconic president’s support for the Black community and the changes he helped to bring about. But others questioned the 16th President’s motives, pondering whether he may have even secretly been a racist himself.

DiversityInc visited this very question back in 2014 when news broke that Lincoln may have read a notorious book from the time period that justified racism and slavery. While the debate on whether this idea is true or not has raged on, experts in Illinois have already confirmed it as fact; state historians and handwriting experts have proved that Lincoln did indeed pen notes in a more-than-a-century-old book circulated through a local library.

Types of Mankind was published in 1854, and the Vespasian Warner Library in Clinton, Illinois, has circulated this particular copy for roughly a century. The authors, Josiah Nott and George Gliddon, theorize that natural order prevents different races from being equal. For example, they argue that Africans and American Indians are naturally inferior to whites, so slavery was just a natural step in the order of human existence. Civil War-era slave owners pointed to the book as a justification for slavery.

Inside the cover of this copy is a note from Lincoln claiming that the book belonged to Clifton Moore, an attorney and colleague of Lincoln’s who donated thousands of books to the library in the early 1900s. A separate inscription states that Lincoln wrote the message, which he did not sign, in 1861, just before he moved to Washington and assumed the presidency.

But one question historians sought to answer was why Lincoln had possession of the book in the first place; was the President who ended slavery in some way racist himself?

“Lincoln was worried that the whole idea that you could segregate one group of people based on some brand new thinking would just carry on into other realms,” said James Cornelius, curator of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. “He could foresee the whole country coming apart over the issue that different people could be barred from different things based on different qualities.”

Cornelius believes Lincoln, who was widely regarded as a brilliant tactician, read the book to better understand the frame of mind of slave owners.

As the book circulated, so did myths and questions about the authenticity of the handwriting inside it. “We didn’t know whether we should take it seriously,” said Vespasian Warner Public Library District’s Executive Director Bobbi Perryman, who decided to have experts, including Cornelius, examine the artifact.

“There are certain letters of the alphabet that Lincoln wrote in a way that were not common to his era,” Cornelius said, referencing Lincoln’s style of writing E’s and N’s. “A forger can typically do some of the letters in a good Lincolnian way. They’ll give themselves away on a couple of the others. This all adds up.”

Other museum staffers and an outside expert all verified Cornelius’s findings, and Perryman said the library is now preserving the publication as a historical artifact.


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