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What Did Lincoln Really Think?

April 2024
1min read

My favorite historical puzzle is the question of what Lincoln actually thought about Reconstruction and black rights in the period just before his assassination. Was he on the verge of accepting the radical commitment to federally enforced racial equality, or was he closer to the conservative position that would be defended by his successor, Andrew Johnson? Two key documents, supporting one side or the other, have been discredited or at least called in question. One is a letter to Gen. James S. Wadsworth advocating universal manhood suffrage for blacks, which was apparently concocted after Lincoln’s assassination to support the black-suffrage cause. The other is the uncorroborated testimony of Gen. Ben Butler that as late as 1865 Lincoln still considered the “colonization” or deportation of the freedmen the best policy that the federal government could pursue. The remaining evidence is inconclusive, and we still don’t know whether Lincoln embraced public equality at the time of his death or remained a moderate white supremacist. A plausible solution is that he had not yet made up his mind.

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