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Lincoln's Biography

African-American Experience and American Racial Attitudes

By Drew E. VandeCreek, Ph.D.

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Early French traders and settlers brought slavery to the Illinois country before statehood, as did immigrants from southern states. This fact made Illinois' social contours, laws, and politics more complex than those of the other states of the Old Northwest.

In the years in which Native Americans, Frenchmen, African-Americans and a few British and white Americans mingled in the Illinois backcountry's freewheeling society, blacks enjoyed considerable freedoms, including the rights to bear arms, buy and sell, and make contracts. While French masters held a significant number of slaves, free blacks thrived as trappers, traders, and explorers. In 1790 Jean Baptiste du Sable, a black man, opened a trading post at the mouth of the Chicago River, becoming the first non-Indian settler on the site of modern-day Chicago, Illinois.

The arrival of large numbers of white American settlers, who pushed the French and British out of Illinois and integrated the region into the United States, dramatically changed racial customs and laws in Illinois. While the United States ostensibly brought a democratic ethos to the Illinois country and brought an end to French slavery, Americans' customs and values significantly undermined the social fluidity of frontier society and especially damaged the position of free blacks.

The legacy of slavery loomed large in the founding of the State of Illinois. In 1818 the majority of the state's white population hailed from the American South, and a significant number of them held slaves. But the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which had chartered Illinois as a part of the Northwest Territory (along with Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and Wisconsin), explicitly forbade slavery.

A delicate compromise effected in the state's early days protected the holding of black indentured servants, who technically labored under some variety of contract in virtual slavery. Although an 1824 referendum officially banned slavery in Illinois, many of these indentured servants continued to toil in obscurity for years.

Illinois' free blacks lived their lives between the institution of slavery, which thrived in nearby Missouri and Kentucky, and many northern whites' hopes for an all-white society. Southern slave-catchers, ostensibly in search of runaways, often kidnapped free blacks into bondage. In 1830 residents of the Illinois capital of Vandalia founded a colonization society devoted to returning black Americans to Africa. Many such societies sprang up around Illinois and the North, and the young Abraham Lincoln endorsed the plan.

Illinois law severely restricted African-Americans' rights and liberties. An act of the first state legislature obliged all African-Americans settling in the state to produce a certificate of freedom. Blacks found without certificates were to be advertised in newspapers and hired out for a year. Free blacks could not testify against whites in court. Any person bringing slaves to Illinois in order to emancipate them faced the challenge of producing a bond of one thousand dollars for each, presumably to be forfeited at the discretion of a judge.

Despite these impediments, free blacks often found ways to make their mark in early Illinois. William Cooper, a free black man, settled in Cass County, Illinois in 1821. In 1826 he claimed public land and purchased it. His white neighbors, mostly of southern descent, seemed to accept Cooper and his white wife, who attended local Methodist services. Historians have speculated that Cooper possessed some rare skill or practiced an important trade that made him indispensable to his neighbors. In any event, circumstances such as Cooper's were exceedingly rare.

In 1819 "Free Frank" McWhorter purchased his freedom from his Kentucky master and moved, with his wife (whose freedom he had also purchased), to Pike County, Illinois. In the following years Free Frank and his sons purchased a considerable tract of land and laid out New Philadelphia, a biracial town. The town remained small, but thrived in the remote Pike County.

African-American women labored under difficult circumstances as well. Despite white Americans' poor treatment, most free black communities took on whites' gender roles. These customs placed great emphasis upon masculine independence and made it a symbol of freedom. Black women thus found themselves doubly burdened, by their race and their sex.

Nevertheless, an important group of African-American women became leaders in the abolitionist movement. In the northeast states, the writers Maria W. Stewart and Mary Ann Shadd Cary published important pamphlets and tracts. Sojourner Truth made herself into an inspirational spokeswoman in the fight against slavery, and Harriet Tubman donned bold disguises as she traveled south to lead slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad. In Illinois, the Chicagoan Emma Jane Atkinson and other African-American women collaborated with white activists to smuggle slaves to freedom as well.

Free black activists pulled together to found new organizations, such as the State Convention of Colored Citizens of the State of Illinois that met in Alton in November of 1856. Often these groups worked with white abolitionists in the fight against slavery, but many white antislavery activists themselves discriminated against African-Americans, and especially black women. While the Massachusetts editor and radical abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison welcomed women and African-Americans' contributions to the movement, his influence did not reach as far west as Illinois.

In addition to southern slavery, northern Black Codes (or discriminatory laws), and a federal government seemingly bent upon the extension of slavery, free blacks faced the discouraging prospect of white American culture's virulent racial stereotypes. As Stephen Douglas showed in the Lincoln-Douglas debates, most white Illinoisans did not consider free blacks to be their political or social equals. Douglas, like the Supreme Court of the United States, did not believe that African-Americans could ever be citizens.

American popular culture held African-Americans up to bitter ridicule as well. Cartoons published in the mid-nineteenth century's new magazines repeatedly lampooned blacks' supposed physical characteristics in crude outlines. American popular song, which took shape on the stage of touring minstrel shows and in popular songbooks aimed at the sing-along audience, revealed white Americans' fascination with black music.

Minstrel shows purported to bring southern blacks, "straight from the plantation," to the North to perform their exotic rhythms and melodies. These shows in fact usually reflected northern songwriters' vague impressions of life on a southern plantation, and thus brought stereotypes to a wide audience. Minstrel actors often played upon African-American stereotypes in broad brushstrokes in order to wring a chuckle from white northern audiences who had never met a black person in their life. Songbooks, widely popular in an era before mass media entertainments, also labored to present "authentic" African melodies, but usually flowed from the pens of northern song smiths.

Despite these considerable handicaps, African-Americans became the most significant Americans by the 1850s. The white American political system that had so effectively marginalized them found itself quite unable to resolve the question of blacks' political, social, and economic standing. The result was Civil War.

In the face of abolitionist pressure and the organization of the new Republican Party, President James Buchanan and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Roger Taney moved to resolve the questions of race and slavery in America in the years before the Civil War. Buchanan, a northern Democrat, cast his lot with pro-slavery southerners who vociferously demanded control of federal slavery policy. Abandoning such allies as Illinois' Stephen Douglas, Buchanan accepted a pro-slavery constitution for the new state of Kansas, despite clear evidence of intimidation, violence and electoral irregularities by pro-slavery "border ruffians" there. In Buchanan's political calculus, any action that could pacify outraged southerners stood to save the Union.

Taney struck another blow for white supremacy in the Dred Scott decision. Announced just days before Buchanan took office, Taney's verdict denied the petition of the slave Dred Scott, whose master had transported him from Missouri into Illinois and later Minnesota. Scott claimed that he had become free once he reached free territory. But Taney argued that African-Americans like Scott could not sue for their freedom because blacks could not be American citizens. Furthermore, individual states and territories could not prohibit slavery within their borders.

Buchanan and Taney's actions elicited howls of protest among northern abolitionists, and served to galvanize moderates like Abraham Lincoln to action. Regardless of their real intentions, the President and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court seemed to be moving in tandem to secure slavery's future in the United States. Such appearances fueled northerners' political fears of the southern "slave power," and boosted the Republican Party to rapid prominence as the vehicle of their fears.

When Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln took to the hustings in their famous debates around Illinois in the summer and fall of 1858, they debated few things quite so much as the role of African-Americans in the future United States of America. Douglas insisted that they would remain marginal for all time. Lincoln, despite his reservations about the workings of immediate black social equality and other concessions to American society's prevailing racial prejudice, boldly argued that blacks, as much as whites, deserved the Declaration of Independence's fundamental freedoms of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

This fundamental divide informed the sectional crisis that led to the Civil War and catapulted Abraham Lincoln from relative obscurity to the President's chair in 1861.


Bibliography

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Blackett, R.J.M. Beating Against the Barriers: Biographical Essays in Nineteenth-Century Afro-American History. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1986.

Fehrenbacher, Don E. The Dred Scott Case, Its Significance in American Law and Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Franklin, John Hope. Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Horton, James O. and Lois E. Horton. In Hope of Liberty: Culture, Community, and Protest Among Northern Free Blacks, 1700-1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Horton, James O. Slavery and the Making of America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Kolchin, Peter. American Slavery, 1619-1877. New York : Hill and Wang, 1993.

McFeely, William S. Frederick Douglass. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1991.

Pirtle, Carol Escape. Betwixt Two Suns: A True Tale of the Underground Railroad in Illinois. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 2000.

Simeone, James. Slavery and Democracy in Frontier Illinois: The Bottomland Republic. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2000.

©Copyright 2000 Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project