DALLAS — Abraham Lincoln stands in history as the Great Emancipator, but the discovery of an affidavit in which he ordered the sale of his own slaves shows that his iconic image isn’t quite accurate, says Kevin Orlin Johnson, Ph.D., author of The Lincolns in the White House: Slanders, Scandals, and Lincoln’s Slave Trading Revealed, published by Dallas-based Pangaeus Press.
Johnson was never particularly interested in Lincoln. But readers of his books on Catholic Christianity wanted to know why we don’t understand our holidays any more. “I found that our civil holidays changed after the War of 1861,” he says, “which led to the discovery that the whole history of the Lincoln years needed to be rewritten.”
Historians have always known that Lincoln handled lawsuits involving runaway slaves, but only to return them to their masters. In fact, Johnson was also surprised to find the diary of an Illinois lady who recorded that when Lincoln represented a slaveholder suing her abolitionist husband for the return of a runaway slave, he actually brought shackles with him into the courtroom to take the slave and his family away if he won ― which he did.
Even as President, Lincoln didn’t change his views. In his First Inaugural he proclaimed that he had “no lawful right [and] no inclination” to “interfere with the institution of slavery.” He never advocated equal civil rights for blacks, Johnson says, “and to the end of his life Lincoln planned to exile all Americans of African heritage to Africa or Central America — ‘colonization,’ as they called it.” On his own, he nearly provoked a war with Nicaragua about the project.
It’s not so well known that Lincoln always aspired to ownership, either, Johnson says. “In his own words, ‘People who don’t own slaves are nothing,’” even in Illinois.
And even before Johnson’s discovery of documentary proof, Lincoln’s official history established his slaveholding beyond any doubt. “Lincoln married Mary Todd, who inherited slaves from her father. The law in those days automatically transferred those slaves to her husband. Obviously, the Lincolns didn’t keep any slaves, so Lincoln must have sold them.”
But primary evidence that Lincoln owned slaves hadn’t surfaced. The decades-long settlement of the Todd estate left thousands of court documents, Johnson says. “But for more than a century Lincoln Studiers have been scritching through those archives, and documents about slavery were prime targets for destruction or theft.”
So Johnson started searching the private collections of prominent Lincoln Studiers of the past, such as William H. Townsend of Lexington, Kentucky, and the notorious Rev. William E. Barton, whose plunder filled several railroad boxcars when shipped to the various libraries mentioned in his will. Sure enough, Johnson found the document in a dusty box at the Regenstein Library of the University of Chicago, uncatalogued since it was bequeathed to the library in 1930.
The affidavit was written in 1850 by the family attorneys Kinkead and Breckinridge ― John Cabell Breckinridge, who’d run against Lincoln for the presidency a decade later. It’s the Lincolns’ answer to a Bill in Chancery filed in Fayette County about the disposition of the property that the couple had inherited from Robert Todd. It certifies that Lincoln and his wife “are willing that the slaves mentioned in the Bill shall be sold on such terms as the Court may think advisable.”
This particular document is now fully accepted as genuine by the scholarly community and therefore included in the official online collection, The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln. It’s doc. no. 137259, in Parker v. Richardson et al., case L05935.
Like the Inaugural and Lincoln’s other declarations on slavery, this was a matter of public record. Then why isn’t Lincoln’s ownership of slaves already part of our understanding of the Great Emancipator? Johnson has a simple answer: “Professionals in Lincoln Studies just refuse to ask the right questions.”
The Lincolns in the White House, which includes a photo image of the document, is available at bookstores everywhere and at www.pangaeus.com for fastest delivery.
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