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School of Education, Health and Human Behavior
School of Education

Abraham Lincoln and Race


By the time most students reach Middle School they have absorbed many of the myths of Abraham Lincoln. When I ask students to discuss their prior knowledge of Abraham Lincoln, many students will say, "He freed the slaves!" It is important for students to analyze and explore Lincoln's nuanced views on race in the mid 19 th century. I like to use 2 speeches from Lincoln's 1858 senate campaign to introduce students to a side of Lincoln most are unfamiliar with. I also think these documents can be used to open up discussions on Lincoln's evolving views on racial equality.

Minnesota History Standards:

- U.S. History

F. Civil War and Reconstruction (1850's - 1870's)

1. Students will identify and analyze the main ideas of the debate over

slavery, abolitionism, states' rights, and explain how they resulted in

major political compromises.

Grade Level: 7-9


Students will…

- Read and examine primary sources pertaining to Abraham Lincoln in 1858.

- Identify and compare key points from the below listed Lincoln speeches.


1. Begin by posing the following set of anticipatory questions to students:

- What do you know about Abraham Lincoln?

- What did Lincoln think of slavery?

- What did Lincoln think of African Americans?

2. Distribute Handout 1 to the class. Allow students time to read the document and answer questions with partners. Bring the class back together and allow students to share their answers with the class.

3. Distribute Handout 2 and follow the same procedure. When students have finished sharing answers, ask the following concluding questions:

- How are documents related?

- Can you summarize Lincoln's views on slavery?

- Can you summarize Lincoln's views on equality of the races?


Assign two readings: A section in the textbook that discusses the Emancipation Proclamation and a copy of the Proclamation (Handout 3). After students have completed the readings, they should respond to the following writing prompt: "Compare and contrast the two speeches from 1858 with the Emancipation Proclamation. What similarities and differences do you notice? Do you notice any changes in Lincoln's opinions?" (1/2 page)

Handout 1

Lincoln 's Chicago Speech

Abraham Lincoln challenged Stephen Douglas for an Illinois Senate seat in 1858. The two agreed to a series of 7 debates that would run throughout the state. Prior to the debates, Douglas and Lincoln had been campaigning in front of Illinois audiences. The following passage is excerpted from a speech Lincoln gave to an audience of Chicago abolitionists:

Lincoln, Abraham. Speech at Chicago, Illinois. July 10 th 1958.

"My friend has said to me that I am a poor hand to quote Scripture. I will try it again, however. It is said in one of the admonitions of the Lord, "As your Father in Heaven is perfect, be ye also perfect." The Savior, I suppose, did not expect that any human creature could be perfect as the Father in Heaven; but He said, "As your Father in Heaven is perfect, be ye also perfect." He set that up as a standard, and he who did most towards reaching that standard, attained the highest degree of moral perfection. So I say in relation to the principle that all men are created equal, let it be as nearly reached as we can. If we cannot give freedom to every creature, let us do nothing that will impose slavery upon any other creature. [Applause.] Let us then turn this government back into the channel in which the framers of the Constitution originally placed it. Let us stand firmly by each other. If we do not do so we are turning in the contrary direction, that our friend Judge Douglas proposes-not intentionally-as working in the traces tend to make this one universal slave nation. [A voice-"that is so."] He is one that runs in that direction, and as such I resist him.

My friends, I have detained you about as long as I desired to do, and I have only to say, let us discard all this quibbling about this man and the other man-this race and that race and the other race being inferior, and therefore they must be placed in an inferior position-discarding our standard that we have left us. Let us discard all these things, and unite as one people throughout this land, until we shall once more stand up declaring that all men are created equal."


1. How would you describe Abraham Lincoln's views on race in this passage?

2. According to Lincoln, what agenda does Stephen Douglas have for slavery?

3. How might the context of Lincoln's speech affect the message? (Hint: Where did he give the speech? Who did he give it to?)

4. What connections does Lincoln make to the Bible and the framers of the Constitution?

5. Why might he make these connections?


Handout 2

Lincoln-Douglas 4 th Debate

The 4 th Debate between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas took place at Charleston, a community located in the east-central portion of Illinois. Between 12,000 and 15,000 people witnessed the event. While Lincoln was familiar with the community (his step-mother lived there), a large number of people from the area were opposed to him.

Lincoln, Abraham. Speech at 4 th Debate: Charleston, Illinois. September 18 th 1858.

"…I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, [applause]---that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will for ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied everything. I do not understand that because I do not want a negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. [Cheers and laughter.] My understanding is that I can just let her alone. I am now in my fiftieth year, and I certainly never have had a black woman for either a slave or a wife. So it seems to me quite possible for us to get along without making either slaves or wives of negroes. I will add to this that I have never seen to my knowledge a man, woman or child who was in favor of producing a perfect equality, social and political, between negroes and white men."


1. According to this passage, what are Lincoln's views on race?

2. Do you consider these viewpoints racist? Why?

3. Why do you think Lincoln made these statements?

4. How does this speech compare/contrast with Lincoln's viewpoints from the previous passage?

5. What might this speech tell us about Illinois's white citizens' views of blacks?


Handout 3

The Emancipation Proclamation
January 1, 1863

By the President of the United States of America:

A Proclamation.

Whereas, on the twenty-second day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-two, a proclamation was issued by the President of the United States, containing, among other things, the following, to wit:

"That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.

"That the Executive will, on the first day of January aforesaid, by proclamation, designate the States and parts of States, if any, in which the people thereof, respectively, shall then be in rebellion against the United States; and the fact that any State, or the people thereof, shall on that day be, in good faith, represented in the Congress of the United States by members chosen thereto at elections wherein a majority of the qualified voters of such State shall have participated, shall, in the absence of strong countervailing testimony, be deemed conclusive evidence that such State, and the people thereof, are not then in rebellion against the United States."

Now, therefore I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, by virtue of the power in me vested as Commander-in-Chief, of the Army and Navy of the United States in time of actual armed rebellion against the authority and government of the United States, and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion, do, on this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and in accordance with my purpose so to do publicly proclaimed for the full period of one hundred days, from the day first above mentioned, order and designate as the States and parts of States wherein the people thereof respectively, are this day in rebellion against the United States, the following, to wit:

Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, (except the Parishes of St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Jefferson, St. John, St. Charles, St. James Ascension, Assumption, Terrebonne, Lafourche, St. Mary, St. Martin, and Orleans, including the City of New Orleans) Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia, (except the forty-eight counties designated as West Virginia, and also the counties of Berkley, Accomac, Northampton, Elizabeth City, York, Princess Ann, and Norfolk, including the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth[)], and which excepted parts, are for the present, left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.

And by virtue of the power, and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.

And I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defence; and I recommend to them that, in all cases when allowed, they labor faithfully for reasonable wages.

And I further declare and make known, that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.

And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.

In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty three, and of the Independence of the United States of America the eighty-seventh.

By the President: ABRAHAM LINCOLN
WILLIAM H. SEWARD, Secretary of State

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