Race and Racism: A Brief History

Today, many Americans presume that the debate over slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries turned on the question of race.  Though race was an ingredient in the Great Debate, it was no more than a pinch of salt.  Both proponents and opponents of slavery tended to hold the same view of blacks.  The superiority of the white race was a given from colonial times to long after the passage of the 13th and 14th amendments.

In 1784, Thomas Jefferson clearly believed in white supremacy.  In a segment of Notes on the State of Virginia often cited as an illustration of his opposition to slavery, he wrote,


Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.


Abraham Lincoln took great care in his ongoing quarrel with Stephen Douglas to suggest the ways in which he believed blacks to be inferior to whites.  In 1857, in a speech criticizing the Dred Scott decision, he said,

I think the authors of [the Declaration of Independence] intended to include all men, but they did not intend to declare all men equal in all respects.  They did not mean to say all were...

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