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On Racism in the Antebellum North – 3 – Lincoln

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Tonight I wrap up a short series of posts dealing with the topic of racism in the Antebellum North. In post 2, I discussed Stephen A. Douglas’ markedly white supremacist views in his debate against Abraham Lincoln in Ottawa, Illinois on August 21, 1858. Such open discussion of racial inequality is admittedly shocking to me, a liberal Midwesterner of another century. And yet this perspective was the norm in the Antebellum North. Even Lincoln, in his response to Douglas during the same debate, revealed a reticence to place the African American on the same level as the white man. He was a man of his times.

“I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which, in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality, and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a difference, I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position.” — Abraham Lincoln

Clearly, and epiphanic for me, northern white Americans in the 19th century considered themselves superior in all respects to African Americans, whether free or slave, and understanding this is critical to understanding the times and events of the Antebellum era.

This discussion makes all the more poignant the events of this day, on which we welcome President Obama.

Read the first post in this series here, the second here.

(1) Abraham Lincoln, Stephen A. Douglas, “First Debate: Ottawa, Illinois August 21, 1858,” (<http://www.nps.gov/liho/historyculture/debate1.htm> Accessed on 18 Jan. 2009).

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On Racism in the Antebellum North

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"How you find yourself?" Source: Lithograph by Edward Clay, Life in Philadelphia, plate 4 (Philadelphia: S. Hart, 1829); courtesy of The Library Company of Philadelphia.

There is much in Bruce Levine’s Half Slave and Half Free: The Roots of Civil War that informed my study of Antebellum America. Most of it fit with my understanding of the era and the issues with which Americans grappled. I gained much, however, from adding Levine’s insights to my own.

Several things stood out as surprising to me in my reading of Levine’s work. One epiphany came from Levine’s treatment of racism that existed in the North prior to the Civil War. It is easy for today’s generations to naively assume that since the North fought, in part, to end slavery, the peoples engaged in that effort felt some affinity for the black man. But Levine points out that “while deploring slavery as an institution,” many northerners “despised African Americans as much as southern whites did.” (1) But, Levine posits,

“Racism had a different significance in the free and slave states. Whereas in the South racism enlisted in the cause of keeping African Americans enslaved, in the North it aimed chiefly to force blacks out of the white population’s vicinity and path. Precisely because it served such very different practical ends, in different locales, antebellum America’s ubiquitous anti-black racism could not indefinitely reconcile northerners to southern demands and could not permanently calm slaveholders’ anxieties about northern intentions.” (2)

So while Northern religious and social values of the era were increasingly “antithetical to bondage,” they should not be interpreted as an invitation to the black man to fully join in Northern Antebellum white society.

About the image: The History Teacher provides an excellent description about this image in a larger lesson titled Free Black Activism in the Antebellum North and penned by Patrick Rael of Bowdoin College. He provides a description about the image that I believe will be helpful and which I quote here. I recommend a full reading of his essay which is available here.

“How you find yourself?”
Etchings such as this mocked the social pretensions of free black urbanites who, through their habits of consumption and display, were thought to desire social status above their stations. This image was one of a series, entitled “Life in Philadelphia” by political cartoonist Edward Clay, which lampooned the behavior of a range of city dwellers, white and black. The text on this image reads:

Mr. Ceasar: “How you find yourself did hot weader Miss Chloe?”
Miss Chloe: “Pretty well I tank you Mr. Cesar[,] only I aspire too much!”

The humor here, such as it is, depends on a malapropism, or a ludicrous misuse of words that signals their speaker’s inability to master proper English. This form of parody helped to define stereotypes of free blacks in nineteenth-century America, and continued well into the twentieth century.”

Image Source: Lithograph by Edward Clay, Life in Philadelphia, plate 4 (Philadelphia: S. Hart, 1829); courtesy of The Library Company of Philadelphia.

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(1) Bruce Levine, Half Slave and Half Free: The Roots of Civil War, Revised (Hill and Wang: New York, 2005), 251.

(2) Patrick Rael, “Free Black Activism in the Antebellum North,” The History Teacher February 2006 <http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/ht/39.2/rael.html> (18 Jan. 2009).