Abraham Lincoln, 1864

Anthony Berger at the Mathew Brady Studio
Albumen silver print

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

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A new birth of freedom”


The abolition of slavery did not automatically give civil rights to African Americans. Except for some radicals, the issue of slavery was viewed largely by how it affected whites, not blacks. The assumption of black racial inferiority was almost universal, and Lincoln initially shared the racism of the day.


But as Lincoln sharpened his thinking about the Union, he was forced by his own logic—a logic founded in the universal rights of man—to recognize that race could not be used to define citizenship. Even if blacks were racially inferior—a proposition that Lincoln came to doubt—that did not exclude them from the protections of the law and the advantages of full citizenship.


Frederick Douglass made the first official visit by an African American to the White House, and when asked how Lincoln had treated him, Douglass said, “Like a gentleman.”

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