On November 2nd, Roanoke College hosted a lecture entitled “Lincoln and Race”, from noted Lincoln historian Dr. Lucas E. Morel.
Dr. Morel, who serves on the faculty at Washington and Lee University as the Lewis G. John Term Professor of Politics, authored Lincoln’s Sacred Effort in 2000. The talk Morel gave is based off research for a forthcoming book about Lincoln and race.
The original framers of the United States Constitution specifically left out the word slavery. Their intentions were to allow slavery to exist, but slowly phase it out, so by the time that Lincoln would have been president, slavery would no longer exist in the United States. However, with Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin in 1791, cotton became viable as a monster business enterprise in the United States. Whereas slavery was meant to be phased out with time, cotton created a greater demand for slaves.
In 1858, Lincoln made his first big splash on the political scene when he faced off against incumbent Stephen Douglas for a seat in the United States Senate in a series of debates in Illinois. Slavery was one of the key issues discussed. Douglas, a noted white supremacist, was a proponent of popular sovereignty, believing new territories should decide for themselves whether slavery would be legal. Douglas charged Lincoln with abolitionist thoughts, and for opposing the 1857 Dred Scott case.
Lincoln has been controversially quoted as saying, “I agree with Judge Douglas he [Dred Scott] is not my equal in many respectsâ€”certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment. But in the right to eat the bread, without the leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man.”
Dr. Morel’s talk focused on Lincoln’s hatred of indifference towards slavery. Lincoln believed that indifference towards the issue would lead to a spread of slavery, and dissolution of the United States as a whole. Lincoln, Morel added, was also clever at using qualifying words, like “perhaps”. Lincoln knew that an immediate disbandment of slavery would cause problems.
The word “abolitionist” at the time also had negative connotations, especially to those in the northern parts of Illinois. That Douglas tried to tarnish Lincoln’s reputation as an abolitionist is somewhat ironic. During Lincoln’s time in office, abolitionists, namely Frederick Douglass, became some of Lincoln’s harshest critics.
Lincoln’s political stance on race may not have been one of pure equality. He valued the unity of the United States too much to take that stance. What is indisputable, though, was Lincoln’s hatred slavery, and his fear of the effects of Americans’ indifference toward it.
Dr. Morel’s lecture was the second in a series of lecture con-sponsored by Roanoke College’s Henry H. Fowler Program and the James C. and S. Maynard Turk Pre-Law Program. The theme for this year’s series of lectures falls under the theme, “Mystic Chords of Memory: Results of the Civil War”. The next offering in this program will be entitled, “The Role of Roanoke College during the Civil War Era”, by history department professor Mark Miller, on November 16th.