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Author Recovers Emancipator's
Order to Sell Them

We all know that slavery is wrong always and everywhere.  What we don’t know is that Abraham Lincoln owned slaves and sold them, says Kevin Orlin Johnson, author of The Lincolns in the White House:  Slanders, Scandals, and Lincoln’s Slave Trading Revealed.  

Lincoln always aspired to the upper class, which meant owning slaves.  “He said explicitly that people who don’t have slaves are nobody,” Johnson says.  “And he married Mary Todd, the daughter of Kentucky’s largest slaveholder.”  Through that marriage, Lincoln came to own his slaves, whom he sold soon after his father-in-law’s death.  “That much is obvious:  the marriage, the inheritance, and the fact that the Lincolns kept no slaves at their homes in Springfield or in Washington.”  

Johnson’s book is the first to present this documentation, which wasn’t easily found.  “Lincoln’s order to sell should have been in the archived records of the Todd estate, but the files were docketed but empty, or just gone.”  At least that confirmed that the documents had existed, and that they’d been removed improperly.  

That’s not surprising.  Major figures in Lincoln Studies have stolen carloads of original documents from archives, courthouses and private collections over the years, Johnson says.  The worst offender was Rev. William Barton, who stole carloads of items from official and academic collections.  

In fact, after Lincoln died his son Robert Todd Lincoln confiscated the papers in the president’s office and burned almost all of them.  He then worked with Nicolay and Hay, Lincoln’s former secretaries, to confect an official history of the administration, Abraham Lincoln:  A History (New York 1890-1894).  With primary documents stashed or destroyed, this carefully censored Republican version was the only source available to historians.  

Johnson found that the file numbers of the Todd cases in Kentucky courthouses had been skipped over when the dockets were transcribed into the records of new counties.  That showed that most had disappeared before 1930, which narrowed the field of suspects:  “That was the year the Reverend Mr. Barton died.”

Barton, like William H. Townsend and other prominent Lincolnolators, bequeathed his hoard to various institutions across the country.  Finally, in a dusty box of uncatalogued miscellaneous documents at the Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago, Johnson found Abraham Lincoln’s order to sell the slaves whom he owned. 

The Lincolns in the White House is available for pre-order exclusively at or


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