Power  /  Book Review

Calling on Lincoln

A new book explores Abraham Lincoln's interactions with African Americans during his presidency.

Jonathan W. White's A House Built by Slaves steps into the debate about Abraham Lincoln’s attitudes and policies toward African Americans. What was Lincoln’s disposition toward African Americans? Did he think of them as moral, political, or social equals? Did he move too slowly in issuing his Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863? Where did Lincoln stand in the vanguard of antislavery and abolitionist advocates, and did he change his views over time?

White, an important participant in the recent disputes over removing Lincoln statues and Lincoln’s name from public schools, brings impressive credentials to this pathbreaking book about Lincoln’s engagement with African Americans during his four years as president from 1861 to 1865.

From the beginning, he pulls no historical punches. “Historians have underestimated the racial egalitarianism that emerged in the Lincoln White House during the Civil War.” He writes that historians have made an array of assumptions about Lincoln’s views on race, which stopped them from doing the day-by-day historical detective work that is the heart of his extensive research about who actually visited the White House.

Many historians have tried to understand Lincoln’s journey with slavery. How were Lincoln’s ideas about slavery affected by his 1828 journey to New Orleans, where, at 19 years old, he first encountered the horrors of slave markets? When the Kansas-Nebraska Act made it possible for slavery to extend west into the territories, how did it restart the political career of Lincoln the lawyer? What did he say about African Americans in his 1858 debates with Stephen A. Douglas, the Illinois senator who attacked Lincoln as the “Black Republican”? Recently, some have emphasized Lincoln’s advocacy for colonization right up to the moment when he first drafted an emancipation proclamation in 1862. Did he craft the final proclamation simply as a shrewd political or military act without any real feeling for African Americans?

White references all these questions in Lincoln’s journey with African Americans, but this is not the story he has chosen to tell. By mining diaries, letters, and memoirs, he has uncovered the White House visits of multiple African Americans, either at Lincoln’s invitation or on their own initiatives. White’s analyses of the nature of those engagements are the depth and breadth of this impressive book. Careful to authenticate his sources, an appendix includes a number of other meetings, which he says may or may not have taken place and thus defines as “unconfirmed.”