Abraham Lincoln: Early Feminist Hero

One of the more interesting aspects of Abraham Lincoln is the way that he demonstrates the care that one has to take in judging historical figures anachronistically.  And while a great many people have sought to condemn Abraham Lincoln as a racist because of some of his statements that he made about black people not being equal to white people in color and “perhaps” not in other circumstances, it is perhaps less well known that in some aspects of his rhetoric, especially with regards to dealing with women and the issue of consent, that Abraham Lincoln was very much someone whose thinking would accord with our times.  In that light, I would like to discuss what he had to say about the issue of amalgamation.  It is difficult at this point for many people to understand the horrors that were expressed by many whites, especially in the South, about the threat of mixing the races, during the period between the 1850’s and the 1960’s.  That said, reading the political statements of leaders like Abraham Lincoln helps us to see that it was vitally important for anyone who desired to be elected to offices even in the North to respond to this reality.

In one of his speeches, made in Springfield, Illinois on June 26, 1857, Lincoln made the following statements about amalgamation:  “Could we have had it our way, the chances of these black girls ever mixing their blood with white people would have been diminished at least to the extent that it could not have been without their consent.  But Judge Douglas is delighted to have them decided to be slaves, and not human enough to have a hearing, even if they were free, and thus left subject to the forced concubinage of their masters, and liable to become the mothers of mulattoes in spite of themselves:  the very state of case that produces nine tenths of all the mulattoes–all the mixing of blood in the nation [1].”  One may quibble with the percentage of intermixing that occurred as a result of forced concubinage in a state of slavery or some other form of domination as a result of second-class citizenship, but it is likely that the vast majority of all cases of race mixture that took place in the period before the last few decades was the result of some situation where the coercion of power rape if not direct physical coercion was present.  This reality is deeply unpleasant to consider, especially for those who wish to point out the humanity of slaveowners, many of whose blood continues on in the best lines of both white and black Americans to this day.

What is most remarkable about Lincoln’s statements is that they presume that the best way of dealing with the supposed horror of mixing races is by raising the status of black women so that they were free to resist the interests of those who would seek to gratify their sexual lusts while opining for political affect about their supposed horror for miscegenation.  To the extent that no one can be forced into a sexual relationship against their will, it is likely that people will choose partners on the basis of some sort of common interests or common beliefs.  And while there are at least some people who are drawn to the exotic, by and large we do not find such matters to be a horror where there is a marriage of true minds and true spirits.  What made racial mixing in the period before the Civil War and for some time after it was not so much that the races were mixed, but that the mixture was done through exploitation of the vulnerable position of some people who did not have protection of the law against the desires and longings of others.  Lincoln’s strong statement in favor of the rights of women of color to have their right to consent to any sort of relationship recognized by the justice system would be an enlightened position even in this present day, and in his own day it must have seemed to be a particularly radical statement given the general tenor of the times.

Americans as a people have always been rather prickly about their right to consent.  Indeed, as an American I share this tendency to a high degree and approve of it in others.  Yet justice requires that our prickliness about our right to consent to that which other people say and do with relationship to us also requires us to value the right of consent of others just as highly as we value it for ourselves.  To the extent that we rightly bristle at the desire of tyrannical authorities to deny our right to consent to the policies that they conduct, frequently in error and folly, we must deny from ourselves the pleasure of being a tyrant in demanding that other people gratify us without their own consent.  The right to consent for the free was diminished by their relish in seeing others enslaved.  The right to consent for whites was diminished by their failure to recognize blacks as human beings with the same God-given rights by virtue of their common humanity with us.  And the right to consent for men was harmed by their lack of concern with the right of consent that women possessed with regards to them.  To the extent that we desire freedoms for ourselves that we are not willing to concede to other people on the same grounds that we demand them for ourselves, we are hypocrites.  This hypocrisy is nothing new–it was not new even when Abraham Lincoln spoke against it in the 1850’s.

Nor is this tendency to view the rights of women being equal to the rights of men unique to this 1857 speech by Lincoln.  Indeed, and somewhat jokingly, Abraham Lincoln made the same sort of statement in 1836, when he was but a young man early in his political career, when he announced he was running for the state legislature:  “Consequently, I go for admitting all whites to the right of suffrage who pay taxes or bear arms (by no means excluding females) [2].”  By and large, what we see consistently when we look at the political philosophy of Abraham Lincoln is a belief that those who bear responsibilities ought to be free accordingly.  This is a fair view.  Those who are free also ought to be responsible for that freedom, and part of the responsibility of the free is respecting the rights and dignity of other people.  To the extent that we all desire to be honored and respected and to have our consent for anything which they do to us, we have the same responsibility to respect the right of consent that others have.  And to the extent that these rights depend upon our access to having recourse to the law or to voting, Lincoln early recognized that these rights belonged to a far wider amount of the population than received their rights recognized at the time.  And if would caution the wisdom and justice of judging people in the past by our own standards, it is well worthy of praise when we can find someone whose view of the rights that belonged to women were far in advance of his own time and in accordance with what every fair-minded person, regardless of their identity, should recognize as being just and proper.

[1] Abraham Lincoln, The Writings Of Abraham Lincoln:  Volume 2 (New York:  G.P. Putnam’s Sons:  1905)  305.

[2] Abraham Lincoln, The Writings Of Abraham Lincoln:  Volume 1 (New York:  G.P. Putnam’s Sons:  1905)  131.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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