Which U.S. Presidents Owned Slaves?

Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865)

1841: “We got on board the Steam Boat Lebanon… By the way, a fine example was presented on board the boat for contemplating the effect of condition on human happiness. A gentleman had purchased twelve Negroes in different parts of Kentucky and was taking them to a farm in the South. They were chained six and six together.A small iron clevis was around the left wrist of each, and this fastened to the main chain by a shorter one at a convenient distance from the others; so that the Negroes were strung together precisely like so many fish upon a trot-line.  In this condition they were being separated forever from the scenes of their childhood, their friends, their fathers and mothers, and brothers and sisters, and many of them, from their wives and children, and going into perpetual slavery where the lash of the master is proverbially more ruthless and unrelenting than any other where; and yet amid all these distressing circumstances, as we would think them, they were the most cheerful and apparently happy creatures on board.  One, whose offense for which he had been sold was an over-fondness for his wife, played the fiddle almost continually; and the others danced, sung, cracked jokes, and played various games with cards from day to day.”(Lincoln, 1953, v1, p 260)  (But see his letter to Joshua Speed,in 1855.)


1854?: “The most dumb and stupid slave that ever toiled for a master, does constantly know that he is wronged…although volume upon volume is written to prove slavery a very good thing, we never hear of the man who wishes to take the good of it, by being a slave himself.”(Lincoln, 1953, v2, p 222)


1854?:“It is color, then; the lighter having the right to enslave the darker?  Take care.By this rule, you are to be slave of the first man you meet, with a fairer skin than your own. You do not mean color exactly? You mean the whites are intellectually the superiors of the blacks, and, therefore have the right to enslave them.  Take care again.  By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with an intellect superior to your own.”(Lincoln, 1953, v2, p 222-3)


1854:  “Inasmuch as you [the Southern states] do not object to my taking my hog to Nebraska [Territory], therefore I must not object to your taking your slave. Now, I admit this is perfectly logical, if there is no difference between hogs and Negroes…In 1820 you joined the north, almost unanimously, in declaring the African slave trade piracy, and in annexing to it the punishment of death.  Why did you do this? If you did not feel that it was wrong, why did you join in providing that men should be hung for it?  The practice was no more than bringing wild negroes from Africa, to sell to such as would buy them.  But you never thought of hanging men for catching and selling wild horses, wild buffaloes or wild bears.”(Lincoln, 1953, v2, p 264)


1854:  “You [the slave owner] despise [the slave-trader] utterly.You do not recognize him as a friend, or even as an honest man. Your children must not play with his; they may rollick freely with the little Negroes, but not with the ‘slave-dealers’ children. If you are obliged to deal with him, you try to get through the job without as much as touching him.”(Lincoln, 1953, v2, p 264)


1855:  Lincoln wrote to Joshua Speed, a slave-owning friend.“I confess I hate to see the poor creatures hunted down, and caught, and carried back to their stripes, and unrewarded toils; but I bite my lip and keep quiet… In 1841 you and I had together a tedious low-water trip, on a Steam Boat from Louisville to St. Louis. You may remember, as I well do, that from Louisville to the mouth of the Ohio there were, on board, ten or a dozen slaves, shackled together with irons. That sight was a continual torment to me; and I see something like it every time I touch the Ohio [River], or any other slave-border. It is hardly fair for you to assume, that I have no interest in a thing which has, and continually exercises, the power of making me miserable.”(Lincoln, 1953, v2, p 320)


1856: Lincoln said that the condition of the Democrats, after losing a state election in Illinois, reminded him:“of the darky who, when a bear had put its head into the hole and shut out the daylight, cried out, ‘What was darkening de hole?’ ‘Ah,’ cried the other darky, who was on the tail of the animal, ‘if de tail breaks you’ll find out.’ Those darkies at Springfield see something darkening the hole, but wait till the tail breaks on the 1st of January and they will see.”(Lincoln, 1953, v2, p 384)


1857: “But Judge [Stephen] Douglas is especially horrified at the thought of the mixing blood by the white and black races: agreed for once – a thousand times agreed…  In 1850 there were in the United States 405,751 mulattoes.Very few of them are the offspring of whites and free blacks; nearly all have spring from black slaves and white masters…  These statistics show that slavery is the greatest source of amalgamation; and next to it, not the elevation, but the degradation of the free blacks.”(Lincoln, 1953, v2, p 407-8)


1857: “Now I protest against that counterfeit logic which concludes that, because I do not want a black woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife.  I need not have her for either, I can just leave her alone.  In some respects she is certainly not my equal; but in her natural right to eat the bread she earns with her own hands without asking leave of any one else, she is my equal, and the equal of all others.” (Lincoln, 1953, v2, p 405)


1858: "'A house divided against itself cannot stand.'  I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free.  I do not expect the Union to be dissolved -- I do not expect the house to fall - but  I do expect it will cease to be divided.  It will become all one thing, or all the other." (Appelman, p14)

1858:  "The Republican party think [slavery] is wrong - we think it is a moral, a social, and a political wrong...  We think it is a wrong not confining itself merely to the persons or the States where it exists, but that it is a wrong which in its tendency, to say the least, affects the existence of the whole nation." (Appelman, p19)

1858:  "Before proceeding. let me say I think I have no prejudice against the Southern people.  They are just what we would be in their situation.  If slavery did not now exist among them, they would not introduce it.  If it did now exist among us, we should not instantly give it up...  If all earthly power were given me, I should not know what to do as to the existing institution.  My first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia - to their own native land...  [But this is not practical.] What then?  Free them all, and keep them among us as underlings?  Is it quite certain that this betters their condition?  I think I would not hold one in slavery at any rate; yet the point is not clear enough to me to denounce people upon.  What next?  Free them, and make them politically and socially our equals?  My own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not." (Appelman, p20)


1858:  "All I ask for the negro is that if you do not like him, let him alone.  If God gave him but little, that little let him enjoy." (Lincoln, 1953, v2, p520)


1858?:  "As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.” (Lincoln, 1953, v2, p532)


1858:  "I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will for ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.  And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.” (Lincoln, 1953, v3, p145-6)


1858:  Newspaper report of a campaign speech: "We profess to have no taste for running and catching n****rs, at least I profess no taste for that job at all. Why then do I yield support to a fugitive slave law?  Because I do not understand that the Constitution, which guarantees that right, can be supported without it.” (Lincoln, 1953, v3, p317, see also p91 and p94))


1859:  "Negro equality!  Fudge!  How long, in the government of a God, great enough to make and maintain this Universe, shall there continue knaves to vend, and fools to gulp, so low a piece of demagogism as this." (Lincoln, 1953, v3, p399)


1860: “[Douglas’s comment] ‘In the struggle between the white man and the negro,’ assumes that there is a struggle, in which either the white man must enslave the negro or the negro must enslave the white.There is no such struggle!  This good earth is plenty broad enough for white man and negro both, and there is no need of either pushing the other off.”  (Lincoln, 1953, v4, p20) 


1862:  (To an audience of free Blacks.)  “I think your race suffer very greatly, many of them by living among us, while ours suffer from your presence…I need not recount to you the effects upon white men, growing out of the institution of Slavery.  I believe in its general evil effects on the white race.”  (Lincoln, 1953, v5, p37-3) 


1862:  "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery.  If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that...  I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free."  (Appelman, p29)


1862:  In September President Lincoln announced that in January 1863 he would issue an emancipation proclamation, freeing any slaves in states that were still in rebellion at that date. (Lincoln, 1953, v5, p433)


1862:  Lincoln proposed three constitutional amendments: The first would have banned slavery in the year 1900, with compensation being made to the slave owners. The second would have kept free all slaves who were freed during the war; owners who had not been rebels would be compensated.  The third would have authorized Congress to appropriate money to set up colonies of willing Blacks outside of the United States.  (Lincoln, 1953, v5, p530)


1863: From the Emancipation Proclamation:  "I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States [that is, all parts of the Confederacy not under Union control] are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.  And I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defence; and I recommend to them that, in  all cases when allowed, they labor faithfully for reasonable wages.  And I further declare and make known, that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service. And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of almighty God." (Lincoln, 1953, v6, p29-30.)


1863:  "The most that can be said, if so much, is, that slaves are property. Is there - has there ever been - any question that by the law of war, property, both of enemies and friends, may be taken when needed?  ...some of the commanders of our armies in the field who have given us our most important successes, believe that the emancipation policy, and the use of colored troops, constitute the heaviest blow yet dealt to the rebellion; and that at least one of those important successes, could not have been achieved when it was, but for the aid of black soldiers...  You say you will not fight to free negroes.  Some of them seem willing to fight for you; but, no matter.  Fight you, then, exclusively to save the Union.  I issued the proclamation on purpose to aid you in saving the Union...  negroes, like other people, act upon motives.  Why should they do any thing for us, if we will do nothing for them?  If they stake their lives for us, they must be prompted by the strongest motive - even the promise of freedom.  And the promise being made, must be kept."  (Lincoln, 1953, v6, p408-9.)


1864:  "I am naturally antislavery.  If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong...  If  God now wills the removal of a great wrong, and wills also that we of the North as well as you of the South, shall pay fairly for our complicity in that wrong...impartial history will find therein new cause to attest and revere the justice and goodness of God." (Appelman, p40-3)


1864:  "When brought to my final reckoning, may I have to answer for robbing no man of his goods; yet more tolerable even this, than for robbing one of himself, and all that was his.  When, a year or two ago, those professedly holy men of the South, met in the semblance of prayer and devotion, and, in the name of Him  who said 'As ye would all men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them’ appealed to the Christian world to aid them in doing to a whole race of men, as they would have no man do unto themselves, to my thinking, they contemned and insulted God and His church, far more than did Satan when he tempted the Saviour with the Kingdoms of the earth.  The devil’s attempt was no more false, and far less hypocritical." (Lincoln, 1953, v7, p368)


1864: "There have been men who have proposed to me to return to slavery the black warriors of Port Hudson & Olustee to their masters to conciliate the South.  I should be damned in time  & in eternity for so doing.  The world shall know that I will keep my faith to friends & enemies, come what will. My enemies say I am now carrying on this war for the sole purpose of abolition.  It is & will be carried on so long as I am President for the sole purpose of restoring the Union.  But no human power can subdue this rebellion without using the Emancipation lever as I have done." (Lincoln, 1953, v7, p507)


1865: From his second inaugural address, referring to conditions at the start of the war: “One eighth of the whole population  were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it.  These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war.  To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union, even by war; while the government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it.” (Lincoln, 1953, v8, p332)