Free Blacks and American Racial Attitudes in Politics

By Michael F. Holt, Ph.D.


 In 1860 the African-American population of the United States consisted of almost 4 million slaves and 488,000 free blacks. About 226,000 of those free blacks lived in the free states of the North, and the remainder in the South. Wherever they lived, free blacks were often the targets of whites' racist contempt and legal discrimination by both state and national governments. Free blacks were denied the right to vote everywhere save five New England states that had only tiny black populations. Their schools were segregated in much of the North, if they had schools at all; they were barred from serving in state militias or the U.S. Army, from carrying the mails, or securing passports to travel abroad like other citizens. Several midwestern free states, including Illinois, even passed laws prohibiting free blacks from entering their borders, while almost everywhere blacks were discriminated against in jobs and on public transportation.

Widespread white racism, in sum, was a national, not just a southern phenomenon, and even northern politicians frequently exploited it in order to win office. Democrats tended to be the worst race-baiters and the strongest defenders of discriminatory anti-black laws. In the 1850s, they labeled Republicans as "Black Republicans" in order to charge that Republicans put the the freedom and rights of blacks ahead of those of whites, and they openly called on men to vote Democratic in order to preserve white supremacy. If only to defend themselves from such partisan attacks, however, even antislavery men deployed unseemly racist language and appeals. David Wilmot, for example, trumpeted his famous Proviso as the "white man's proviso" because he and many other free soil men argued that the best way to keep all blacks out of western territories and preserve them exclusively for whites was to keep slaves out of the territories. Similarly, a Connecticut Republican newspaper announced in 1856 that "the Republicans mean to preserve all of the country that they can from the pestilential presence of the black man," while a banner at a Republican rally in Illinois in 1860 pledged "NO NEGRO EQUALITY IN THE NORTH."

Though Abraham Lincoln personally was free of the worst of this bigotry, as an aspiring politician he appreciated how widespread racism was among even likely Republican voters in Illinois and elsewhere in the North. That knowledge clearly influenced the tack he took in his debates with Douglas in 1858 and his delay in moving against slavery or enrolling black troops during the Civil War.