Slavery and the “Race” Notion (E11)

A question often asked by folks interested in the history of the “race” notion is why Northern Whites fought for a “race” they considered inferior. The answer is that they did no such thing. In the Midwestern heartland of Abraham Lincoln’s new Republican party, voters opposed the spread of slavery precisely because they wanted to keep despised Blacks away. They wanted to preserve the United States a White man’s nation forever.

A mirror-image question is why Southerners fought to preserve slavery when so many were biracial. Again, the two issues are skewed. Most biracial slave traders believed slavery was good because, among other benefits, it led to genetic amalgamation (as in Iberia, Mexico, or Argentina), and so would lead to America rejecting the “race” notion.

It is hard to get your brain around these concepts because, when we were kids, we learned in school that slavery and “race” were somehow connected. And so, as adults, we are surprised to learn that whether a person supported the “race” notion is separate from whether he supported slavery. We automatically ascribe “racial” motives to slaveowners, and color-blind motives to abolitionists, because slavery and “race” go together in our minds. But slavery and “race” could be very differently related in the mind of a 19th century person. To see this, contrast the beliefs of Abraham Lincoln and Anna Kingsley.

Abraham Lincoln

To recap the Civil War: Abraham Lincoln became our sixteenth president after campaigning to halt the spread of slavery into the northwestern territories. He vowed not to attack slavery where it was solidly in place. But Southern leaders disbelieved him or feared that other Republicans would overcome Lincoln’s scruples. They thought the new administration would work to end slavery everywhere, so they tried to break away from the United States. Led by Lincoln, the loyal states fought to keep the nation intact and America’s bloodiest war ensued. The treason could have been crushed quickly (New York state alone, for example, had almost as many military-age White males as the entire Confederacy), but Lincoln spent three years on a soft-war policy meant to persuade misguided rebels to return. Finally, the soft-war policy was scrapped and Sherman was unleashed. Within twelve months the Confederacy was smashed to kindling, the United States survived, and Lincoln was assassinated by the Confederacy’s final spasm (Booth was on Jeff Davis’s payroll).

Consequently, Lincoln was mythologized as “The Great Emancipator.” But from his first political campaign in Illinois until the day he attended Ford’s theater, Abraham Lincoln worked to banish Blacks, preferably “back to Africa.” He truly represented his constituents.

Why did most Midwesterners, like Lincoln, support involuntary “colonization” as the final solution to keeping America forever White? It was because the Midwest was settled a generation earlier, when their parents fled the South. Thousands of penniless refugees had crossed the Ohio River in the early 1800s to escape a regime unique in the annals of tyranny—a planter aristocracy which deliberately kept non-slaveowning Whites in squalor, ignorance, and poverty. As South Carolinian James Hammond successfully argued against public schools, “teach [poor Whites] to read, and next thing you know they will become abolitionists.” And so, men seeking a better life uprooted their families and fled the oppressive slave states. Their children never forgave the slaves.

That they blamed the victims should not surprise you. The “race” notion is the supreme irrationality of the last three centuries, and it spins off eddies of weirdness to this day. Try to imagine a planet whose inhabitants label themselves “tall” or “short” with no in-between, and who justify labeling physically tall people as “short” (passing for tall), or vice-versa, with the excuse that tallness is hereditary. It gives you a headache.

The South was wrong about Lincoln. The evidence shows that Lincoln honestly did not intend to interfere with slavery in the South. This was not true of all Northerners, of course—some New Englanders plotted to abolish slavery everywhere. But Lincoln truly meant what he said. He was often asked, if slavery was evil, why he merely opposed its spread? His answer was that slavery was evil because it brought in Black people.

According to Lincoln, some slaves would become free. And wherever slaves became free, they wanted to join American society. They wanted what Lincoln called “social or political equality.” Free Blacks wanted to attend schools, hold jobs, own businesses, attend theaters, ride public transportation, go to church, vote, marry whom they chose, serve on juries, and testify in court. This was something Lincoln bitterly opposed. Like most men born and raised in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, Lincoln considered Blacks an inferior sub-species. Let slavery expand to Kansas, and the next thing you know, Kansas would be infested with Black people trying to act White.

Lincoln’s plea that slavery allowed the worst evil of all—race mixing—was first articulated in Springfield, Illinois, on June 26, 1857. He repeated this speech in a dozen later venues, and referred back to it for the rest of his life. The following is a verbatim copy of its midsection. It is quoted in its entirety to avoid suspicion that Lincoln’s words are taken out of context.

Judge Douglas is especially horrified at the thought of the mixing blood by the white and black races: agreed for once—a thousand times agreed. There are white men enough to marry all the white women, and black men enough to marry all the black women; and so let them be married. On this point we fully agree with the Judge; and when he shall show that his policy is better adapted to prevent amalgamation than ours we shall drop ours, and adopt his. Let us see. In 1850 there were in the United States, 405,751, mulattoes. Very few of these are the offspring of whites and free blacks; nearly all have sprung from black slaves and white masters. A separation of the races is the only perfect preventive of amalgamation but as an immediate separation is impossible the next best thing is to keep them apart where they are not already together.

If white and black people never get together in Kansas, they will never mix blood in Kansas. That is at least one self-evident truth. A few free colored persons may get into the free States, in any event; but their number is too insignificant to amount to much in the way of mixing blood. In 1850 there were in the free states, 56,649 mulattoes; but for the most part they were not born there—they came from the slave States, ready made up. In the same year the slave States had 348,874 mulattoes all of home production. The proportion of free mulattoes to free blacks—the only colored classes in the free states—is much greater in the slave than in the free states. It is worthy of note too, that among the free states those which make the colored man the nearest to equal the white, have, proportionably the fewest mulattoes the least of amalgamation. In New Hampshire, the State which goes farthest towards equality between the races, there are just 184 Mulattoes while there are in Virginia—how many do you think? 79,775, being 23,126 more than in all the free States together.

These statistics show that slavery is the greatest source of amalgamation; and next to it, not the elevation, but the degeneration of the free blacks. Yet Judge Douglas dreads the slightest restraints on the spread of slavery, and the slightest human recognition of the negro, as tending horribly to amalgamation.

This very Dred Scott case affords a strong test as to which party most favors amalgamation, the Republicans or the dear Union-saving Democracy. Dred Scott, his wife and two daughters were all involved in the suit. We desired the court to have held that they were citizens so far at least as to entitle them to a hearing as to whether they were free or not; and then, also, that they were in fact and in law really free. Could we have had our way, the chances of these black girls, ever mixing their blood with that of white people, would have been diminished at least to the extent that it could not have been without their consent. But Judge Douglas is delighted to have them decided to be slaves, and not human enough to have a hearing, even if they were free, and thus left subject to the forced concubinage of their masters, and liable to become the mothers of mulattoes in spite of themselves—the very state of case that produces nine tenths of all the mulattoes—all the mixing of blood in the nation.

Of course, I state this case as an illustration only, not meaning to say or intimate that the master of Dred Scott and his family, or any more than a per centage of masters generally, are inclined to exercise this particular power which they hold over their female slaves.

I have said that the separation of the races is the only perfect preventive of amalgamation. I have no right to say all the members of the Republican party are in favor of this, nor to say that as a party they are in favor of it. There is nothing in their platform directly on the subject. But I can say a very large proportion of its members are for it, and that the chief plank in their platform—opposition to the spread of slavery—is most favorable to that separation.

Such separation, if ever effected at all, must be effected by colonization; and no political party, as such, is now doing anything directly for colonization. Party operations at present only favor or retard colonization incidentally. The enterprise is a difficult one; but “when there is a will there is a way;” and what colonization needs most is a hearty will. — Abraham Lincoln

Other Abolitionists

Lincoln was by no means unique. Most Midwesterners became peculiarly enraged at the idea of intermarriage. In 1862 Ohio, abolitionist newspaperman Calvin Kingsley wrote, “Where is this social equality, the fruits of which appear in amalgamation, to be found but among the slaveholders of the South? In the North it is a strange and disgusting sight to see a white man with a colored wife. In the South it can be practically seen everywhere. As to political equality, it has nothing whatever to do with the question of emancipation.”

In 1863 Illinois, The Chicago Tribune said Republican doctrine was to “let the African race alone; neither marry or cohabit with them; … separate the whites from adulterous communication with them; and preserve the purity of Caucasian blood from African admixture.” In 1863 throughout the North, Democratic editors responding to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation by saying that Republicans were “actively promoting miscegenation, the most dreaded form of equality.” They said this would destroy “the identity of both [races] and substitute in their stead human mongrels.”

In 1864 Washington, the Government-appointed American Freedman’s Inquiry Commission reported that amalgamation between the races led to degeneration. In 1864, Democrat General John McClernand said, “We wanted no intermixture of white blood with theirs…” and Republicans answered that it was the Democratic slaveowners… who had long been guilty of trying “to bleach out the black race.” An Iowa Republican contended, “Copperheads and niggers have perfect right to mix, but it is improper for any loyal man or woman to be parties to such a case.”

The Chicago Tribune said, “not more than ten of the 700,000 mulattoes in the United States had Republican fathers.” Antebellum Congressman George W. Julian “recoiled in disgust” at the prospect of miscegenation, saying that in the North there were “no such intimate relations as there were in the South where slave mothers and slave masters are brought on to the level of social equality in its most loathsome forms.” An influential antebellum Methodist preacher in Illinois said he looked forward to the time when the Africans would find homes and liberty in a warmer climate than ours. “Let them go [to Mexico] and the mongrel population of that country will have nothing to fear from amalgamation.”

In fact, measure Black/White exogamy and permeability today (from the 1990 census, available online through and you will find that Illinois, the “Land of Lincoln” is one of the nine worst states in the nation even as we speak. It is where Americans most zealously enforce the color line even now. (The other eight are Mississippi, South Carolina, North Carolina, Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas and Tennessee.)

In summation, Midwesterners of Lincoln’s time did not “fight for a race they deemed inferior.” They hated slavery’s spread precisely because they hated Blacks even more.

The South’s Color Line Was Shifted Darkwards

Abolitionist Calvin Kingsley’s claim that “In the North it is a strange and disgusting sight to see a white man with a colored wife. In the South it can be practically seen everywhere,” was not an exaggeration. Northern eyes saw mixing where Southern eyes did not. Even the most zealous of Southern “race” purists saw a color line shifted from its position in the North or in Europe. In much of the antebellum South, free people of fractional African descent were considered White if they were fair complexioned. The North, in contrast, had adopted the notion of invisible hereditary blackness early in the century.

The North-South difference in color line perception startled newcomers. Union General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (of Little Round Top, Gettysburg fame) in occupied Virginia after Appomattox, saw…

wild-looking men in homespun gray, standing sulkily by, or speaking only to insist that they are civilians and not soldiers; sometimes white men, or what seem to be, declaring that they are not white, but colored;–a claim not often set up in that part of the Republic, though there may be some truth in it for all that; for there was in those days a whimsical variance between law and fact,–between being actually white and legally white…

Of course, a borderline racial identification that was “legally but not actually” White to Maine-born Chamberlain was as “actual” as can be to a swarthy South Carolinian.

Alexis de Tocqueville was similarly startled by the South’s dark-shifted color line. He was a French political scientist whose government sent him on a nine-month study of the American penal system in 1831-32. De Tocqueville took advantage of his visit to write Democracy in America, a combination travelogue and social commentary on the United States, which he published upon returning to Europe. He wrote:

There are parts of the United States where the European and Negro blood are so crossed that one cannot find a man who is either completely white or completely black; when that point has been reached, one can really say that the races are mixed, or rather that there is a third race derived from the two, but not precisely one or the other.

In fact, census records of 1850 and 1860 available online through confirm that Black/White intermarriage among free people was higher in most Southern states than in most Northern ones. The pattern reversed after Reconstruction. We cannot grasp the North’s fear of slavery’s spread until we see it in the light of their much deeper fear of the spread of “racial” contamination.

Anna Kingsley

Anna Kingsley (no relation to Calvin Kingsley) was kidnapped by slave traders from her home in Senegal, sold to the highest bidder, and shipped to Florida. Five years later she was free and running a business. By 1826 she was among the wealthiest business owners in Florida.

For the next seventeen years, while increasing her wealth, she wrote hundreds of: editorials, letters to Congress, public circulars, petitions to state and federal courts, and memos to state legislators. All were on the same topic—the need for a color-blind society. Anna passionately believed that the United States could never reach its full potential until black, brown, and white people were treated equally and had identical rights. She understood that both the law and public prejudice had to change. She strove to make them change in step. She honestly believed that no society could call itself civilized unless everyone, black, white or beige, could attend schools, hold jobs, own businesses, attend theaters, ride public transportation, go to church, vote, marry whom they chose, serve on juries, and testify in court. Eradicating the “race” notion once and for all was her unwavering goal for seventeen years.

Why was Anna Kingsley so zealous about a color-blind society? She was a slave trader. By 1843 she owned a chain of slave plantations stretching from Haiti to the Florida-Georgia line. A study of her business accounts reveals that she did not make her money growing and selling cotton or timber or turpentine. The heart of her business was growing and selling slaves. Her husband, a ship’s captain in the triangle trade, brought them from Africa or the Caribbean. Her plantations seasoned them, trained them and sold them for phenomenal profit.

A recently published collection of writings by the Kingsley family (Anna, her husband Zephania, and their son George) pleads their case. The book is: Zephaniah Kingsley, Balancing Evils Judiciously: The Proslavery Writings of Zephaniah Kingsley, ed. Daniel W. Stowell, Florida History and Culture (Gainesville: University of Florida, 2000). Anna felt that slavery was noble, good for both slave and owner. She thought that the way to safeguard slavery forever was to make it an equal opportunity employer. Each plantation, she wrote, should have the same mix of White slaves, Black slaves, and biracial slaves as in the population as a whole (the way her plantations did). She said slavery should also be an equal opportunity business. There should be the same mix of Black slaveowners (like her), White slaveowners (like her husband), and biracial slaveowners (like their children) as in the population as a whole.

Other Biracial Slaveowners

The Kingsleys were by no means unique. Biracial slave businesses were common during the centuries of the transatlantic slave trade. Although the financiers of the slave trade were mostly Europeans and North Americans, most of the collection centers (called “factories”) and depots on both sides of the Atlantic were family owned.

As explained in Hugh Thomas’s massive work, The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade: 1440-1870 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997), the purchase of slaves in Africa, their coastal warehousing, ocean shipping, acclimatization, and retailing in the New World were mainly conducted by people who called themselves by the Portuguese word lançados. These were generations-removed descendants of European colonizers who married Africans and sought their fortunes in the slave trade. According to Ira Berlin, in Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (Cambridge: Harvard University, 1998), these families considered themselves uniquely qualified to negotiate slave purchase on one side of the Atlantic and sales on the other side precisely because they “played fast and loose with their mixed heritage, employing whatever identity paid best.”

In this light, we can understand that the Kingsleys’ closest friends were John and Phenda Fraser, James and Molly Erwin, and Job and Nansi Wiggins. In addition to owning plantations with 370 slaves, the Frasers operated a slave factory on the Pongas River in West Africa, where Phenda, of the Pongas tribe, had been born. The Erwins worked 50 slaves on their rice plantation on the St. Marys River, just north of the Cow Ford (later renamed “Jacksonville”), some of whom were of Molly’s own African tribe. The Wiggins owned slaves of Nansi’s Serer tribe (also from Senegal, like Mrs. Kingsley).

Of course, that most slave-trading families were of dual heritage does not mean that most families of dual heritage were slave traders. Many biracial slaveowners were farmers, shopkeepers, professionals, or planters. Florida, a Spanish colony until 1821, was merely an extreme example of Southern color-blindness.

The parents of José Hernandez, Florida’s first U.S. congressman, had been among the original slaves of the New Smyrna Colony. In 1768, several hundred bondsmen and women from the Balearic Islands, southern Italy, Sicily, Africa, and Greece had been bought to work indigo plantations in New Smyrna by Scotsman planter Andrew Turnbull. In a rare example of successful servile insurrection, they had fled the plantations during the chaos of the American Revolution and migrated to St. Augustine. By 1821, the “Minorcans” (as they are still called today, despite their genetic diversity) had become yeomen, shopkeepers, tradesmen, and professionals. A few, like Hernandez, had become wealthy planters.

The father of David Levy, Florida’s first U.S. senator, was born in Africa. According to the diary of John Quincy Adams, “Levy is said to be a Jew, and what will be, if true, a far more formidable disqualification, that he has a dash of African blood in him, which sub rosa, is the case with more than one member of the house.”

Like the Kingsley, Hernandez, Levy, Fraser, Erwin, and Wiggins clans, other powerful Florida families were racially mixed: Luis Mattier, Juan Leslie, the province’s royal treasurer Miguel Ysnardy, Eduardo Wanton, the merchant brothers Jorge and Carlos Clarke, the physicians Tomas Tunno and Tomas Sterling. Less prosperous middle class folks were also mixed, including George Clarke, an official with the Spanish government, and Francis Richard, both of whom had African wives. Indeed, one searches in vain for a pre-1821 slaveowning Hispanic Florida family that did not openly display some biracial roots. All owned slaves. All strove for color-blind equal rights for non-slaves.


To summarize, according to their own writings, Lincoln and his supporters opposed slavery’s spread, not just because slavery was wrong where it existed in the South. They opposed its spread because slavery would bring Black people, who would eventually want equal rights—in their eyes, something that could never, must never be granted.

According to their own writings, Anna Kingsley and other biracial slaveowners advocated a color-blind society, not just because social and political equality were desirable in themselves. They fought for color-blind civil rights in order to safeguard slavery—in their eyes, a noble institution that could never, must never be allowed to die.

Do not misunderstand. We are not offering a new myth, reversing the myth taught in U.S. grade schools. Equating slave owning with racial tolerance would be equally puerile. We merely point out that whether one supported the “race” notion had nothing to do with whether one supported slavery. Many abolitionists (e.g.: William Garrison) zealously supported the “race” notion. Many others (e.g.: Frederick Douglass) opposed it. Many slaveowners (e.g.: Anna Kingsley) fought for a race-free society. Many others (e.g.: Alexander Stephens) believed in the “race” notion to their marrow, as do most Americans of every shade today.

The “race” notion (like religion or like patriotism) was used both to defend and to attack slavery. Bigoted slaveowners defended slavery with racist arguments, just as religious slaveowners defended it with the Old Testament, and patriotic ones quoted the Constitution. Bigoted abolitionists opposed slavery with racist arguments, just as religious abolitionists quoted the New Testament, and patriotic ones the Declaration of Independence.

The point of all this is that in the first half of the nineteenth century, the two moral positions—advocacy of slavery or of the “race” notion—were orthogonal; they were uncorrelated.

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Frank W. Sweet is the author of Legal History of the Color Line (ISBN 9780939479238), an analysis of the nearly 300 appealed cases that determined Americans’ “racial” identity over the centuries. It is the most thorough study of the legal history of this topic yet published. He was accepted to Ph.D. candidacy in history with a minor in molecular anthropology at the University of Florida in 2003 and has completed all but his dissertation defense. He earned an M.A. in History from American Military University in 2001. He is also the author of several state park historical booklets and published historical essays. He was a member of the editorial board of the magazine Interracial Voice, and is a regular lecturer and panelist at historical and genealogical conferences. To send email, click here.

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