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John Hope Franklin

February 2024
1min read

HISTORIAN

I thought that I became acquainted with Lincoln when he asked his audience in Peoria in 1854, Would it be right to free the slaves and make them “politically and socially our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this, and if mine would we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not.” If he was revolted by the idea of political and social equality of blacks and whites. I was revolted by his stand.

Later I thought I met Lincoln in the second year of the Civil War, when he was pondering how he could emancipate the slaves. In the Proclamation, he set those slaves free that he did not control and kept those in bondage that he did control. Even in his ambivalence he showed some movement. Then, when the Confederate Congress decreed that Negro soldiers who were captured by the Confederate Army would be treated as fugitive slaves, Lincoln warned the Confederates that “for every soldier killed in violation of the laws of war, a rebel soldier of the United States shall be executed; and for every one enslaved by the enemy, or sold into slavery, a rebel soldier shall be placed at hard labor on the public works.” This was the Lincoln I wanted to meet. When he signed the bill, in June 1864, providing for equal pay retroactively for Negro soldiers, I knew that I wanted to meet him.

Looking ahead, almost a full year before the end of the war, Lincoln declared that “the restoration of the rebel states to the Union must rest upon the principle of civil and political equality of both races.” At his urging Congress established the Freedmen’s Bureau, which had a mandate to promote the educational and economic well-being of the slaves as they moved toward freedom. He once said, “No man is good enough to govern another man without that other’s consent.” He also said that “if the Negro is a man, is it not to that extent a total destruction of self-government to say that he too shall not govern himself?” This is the Lincoln for whom I had searched, and when I found him, I was happy to meet him.

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