'But the truth is that until very late in his presidency, Lincoln was deeply conflicted about whether to liberate the slaves, how to liberate the slaves and what to do with them once they had been liberated.
Whereas abolition was a central aspect of Lincoln’s moral compass, racial equality was not. In fact, Lincoln wrestled with three distinct but sometimes overlapping discourses related to race: slavery, equality and colonization.
Isolating these three—like the three strands of a braid of hair—helps us to understand how conflicted the man was about African Americans and their place in this country.
Interspersed among these three discourses is the manner in which Lincoln seems to have wrestled with his own use of the “N-word.” Lincoln used the word far less than did Stephen Douglas, his Democratic challenger for the U.S. Senate, but he did indeed use it in prominent contexts including debates and public speeches.
Even as late as April 1862, James Redpath recorded Lincoln’s saying of President Fabre Nicholas Geffard of Haiti (who had offered to send a white man as his ambassador to the United States), “You can tell the President of Hayti that I shan’t tear my shirt if he sends a nigger here!”
Lincoln despised slavery as an institution, an economic institution that discriminated against white men who couldn’t afford to own slaves and, thus, could not profit from the advantage in the marketplace that slaves provided.
At the same time, however, he was deeply ambivalent about the status of black people vis-à-vis white people, having fundamental doubts about their innate intelligence and their capacity to fight nobly with guns against white men in the initial years of the Civil War.
Even as he was writing the Emancipation Proclamation during the summer of 1862, Lincoln was working feverishly to ship all those slaves he was about to free out of the United States.
So taken was he with the concept of colonization that he invited five black men to the White House and offered them funding to found a black republic in Panama, for the slaves he was about to free. Earlier, he had advocated that the slaves be freed and shipped to Liberia or Haiti.
And just one month before the Emancipation became the law of the land, in his Annual Message to Congress on Dec. 1, 1862, Lincoln proposed a constitutional amendment that would “appropriate money, and otherwise provide, for colonizing free colored persons with their own consent, at any place or places without the United States.”
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