A House Built by Slaves offers a portrait of Abraham Lincoln, as seen through the eyes – the usually-but-not-uniformly-sympathetic eyes – of black visitors to the White House. The narrative also combines accounts of these visits with accounts of the background circumstances which prompted the visits.
The book comes out at a time of debate about whether Lincoln was a racist. The short answer is “yes, but as the war went on he got a lot better.”
But be that as it may, many people today are genuinely interested in the question of Lincoln’s racism. Professor Jonathan White is largely on Lincoln’s side, emphasizing Lincoln’s fellow-feeling with those held in bondage, and his willingness to strike at slavery when political or military needs aligned with his own antislavery values.
The book also shows Lincoln evolution from a colonizationist – who wanted to free the slaves and then send them outside the country- into someone willing to have blacks and whites live together in the United States, on terms seemingly evolving toward equality.
Professor White, when confronting one of Lincoln’s racist prewar public statements, calls Lincoln “a man of his times.” Lincoln was also a man for his times, and as circumstances evolved, he was affected by that evolution and sometimes gave it a push, all in the direction of more freedom and equality for blacks. Though this was not always done as swiftly as black leaders would wish.
Professor White’s narrative shows that Lincoln saw no intrinsic need to put his personal antislavery principles into politics. I would suggest that Lincoln only mixed his antislavery views with his antebellum politics when he came to believe that an organized Slave Power was scheming to extend American slavery’s reach into new lands, like Mexico and Kansas. Unlike abolitionists, in short, Lincoln only took on slavery when he thought the Slave Power had introduced the question into national politics, to the detriment of the free states.
Lincoln went into the Civil War at first as a “mere” Unionist – forcing the country back together, not waging a war of slave-liberation. He even supporting sending back fugitive slaves under the fugitives-from service clause of the Constitution. If the war had ended promptly with an early Northern victory, Lincoln might not have evolved beyond this stance – keep the South in the Union, keep the slaves in the South, keep slavery from spreading to new areas.
But – spoiler alert – the war turned out to be prolonged, and the more prolonged it got, the more Lincoln was willing to free slaves where slavery actually existed. He hoped this could hasten the aid of the war and rid the country of an evil institution which had become an incubus and a threat to national unity.
When Lincoln began receiving prominent black people in the White House, it was in the context of this evolving stance on slavery and race in connection with the military and political situation.
We come to a White House meeting which Professor White calls one of Lincoln’s most “regrettable” moments: the lecture he gave to several prominent black figures on August 14, 1862, about the alleged need for blacks to emigrate out of the United States and enjoy whatever freedom they gained…elsewhere. “Without your race among us,” said Lincoln, “there would be no war.” Unlike other political meetings with black visitors, which were generally cordial and informal, this meeting came complete with a secretary to note down Lincoln’s remarks for publication in the newspapers.
The Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was coming up, and so were the 1862 midterm elections. Lincoln was aware that racist Northern white voters would be worried about their communities getting flooded with slaves who had been freed by the Proclamation. So as Professor White suggests, Lincoln made his remarks with an eye to these white voters. And from Lincoln’s own point of view at the time, freedom did not necessarily mean equality, at least not equality within America.
But as Lincoln came to accept the recruitment of freed slaves, and black people generally, into the ranks of Union private soldiers, his enthusiasm for emigration may have faded as he realized that those who were good enough to fight for their country were good enough to live in it. In his final speech – in a passage which angered a listening John Wilkes Booth – Lincoln suggested that some black people should vote, showing that he’d changed considerably from his insulting leave-America remarks in August 1862.
Between the August 1862 meeting and the Booth-provoking speech, when Lincoln’s views were still in evolution, several black visitors came to Lincoln to have serious discussions (not just lectures) about the state of the country. Frederick Douglass visited the White House on more than one occasion to urge Lincoln to greater boldness in vindicating black rights. Douglass was accustomed to disrespectful treatment from whites, even whites who were fellow-abolitionists. But Lincoln impressed Douglass with a courteous and friendly attitude, such as the President might assume in talking to a white person.
Lincoln also showed his genius as a politician – saying “no” in a charming and ingratiating way. When Douglass pressed for the appointment of black officers to lead the black troops, Lincoln said he’d be happy to sign commissions for black officers – if Secretary of War Stanton sent the commissions for Lincoln to sign. The thing is, Lincoln wouldn’t order Stanton to send commissions, and Stanton wouldn’t do it on his own initiative, so Lincoln’s answer was basically a no. Even this slipperiness didn’t sour Douglass on Lincoln.
Also, Lincoln, on paper, had authorized reprisals against Confederate prisoners if Confederate forces killed or enslaved black Union soldiers. But Lincoln indicated to Douglass a squeamishness about actually carrying out such threats, especially when it came to killing Southern hostages. Reprisals might lead to a cycle of killing against victims who were personally innocent. Douglass believed that only by enforcing the reprisal policy could the Union protect its black soldiers against enemy atrocities. Yet Lincoln did not enforce the reprisal policy, and black soldiers continued to face far more risks than white soldiers if they fell into Confederate hands.
Without going over every meeting covered by Professor White, black visitors who came to the White House for policy-related discussions tended to react as Douglass had – with gratified surprise at being treated on equal terms vis-à-vis white visitors. Some of the fulsome praises in black visitors’ accounts are revealing – not only of Lincoln’s personal friendliness but of the insulting and demeaning treatment these black leaders were otherwise accustomed to getting from white people. And of course, by the time of most of these meetings, Lincoln had ordered the freeing of most U. S. slaves, and had urged the freeing of still others. Would it be too much to say that long-suffering black leaders went into these meetings giving Lincoln more benefit of the doubt than in the case of some other white man?
Policy discussions didn’t mark the only occasions in which black people visited the Lincoln White House. Professor White describes Lincoln’s kindly relations with his black servants, his help to a black woman begging at the gate, and so forth. This all shows Lincoln to be a very kind man, but such stories could probably be gathered about many “benevolent whites.” These particular stories don’t show Lincoln making a distinctive contribution to race relations in the broader sense.
Professor White notes, with regret, that Lincoln sometimes allowed racial discrimination at the White House. This was not a consistent policy – some daring black visitors broke the color barrier at White House receptions, which previously been as all-white as the house itself. But at the White House New Year’s ball in 1865, cops who were guarding the door kept blacks from attending as guests. The cops may have been acting without specific orders, but to coin a phrase, Lincoln bore “command responsibility” for the policies of his own White House.
The most intriguing parts of the book, as I’ve suggested, are about those black leaders like Frederick Douglass who came to the White House to discuss policy with the President. Except with the emigration speech, the Great Emancipator treated these visitors as fellow-citizens to be consulted about urgent issues facing the country – a first for a White House denizen.
A House Built by Slaves
Jonathan W. White
Rowman & Littlefield
249 pp. with notes and index; $26.00