Posted on February 17, 2020

What Did America’s Presidents Think About Race?

Thomas Jackson, American Renaissance, June 1993

American Statesmen on Slavery and the Negro, Nathaniel Weyl and William Marina, Arlington House, 1971, 448 pp.

Nations, like people, often give only partial accounts of their past, and what they leave out says a great deal. It is no accident, therefore, that few aspects of American history are so consistently ignored as the fact that so many of the men our country professes to admire were confirmed “racists.” The thinking of these men is, by today’s standards, so reprehensible that one must turn to books long out of print to find a candid summary of what they thought.

American Statesmen on Slavery and the Negro, published by the now defunct Arlington House, is in most good libraries and can occasionally be found in used book stores. It is an invaluable guide to what America’s most influential men have thought about the race question and is also an enlightening summary of the centuries-long struggle to understand the question that has dogged our nation ever since its beginning: Can a multi-racial nation be made to work?

American Statesmen on Slavery and the Negro by Nathaniel Weyl and William Marina

As the authors point out, the United States inherited a race problem. Negro slavery had already been established by the southern states before the nation was even founded. In fact, the question of whether slaves were people or property was the most intractable problem at the constitutional convention in Philadelphia. Representatives of slave states insisted that slaves be counted as people for the purpose of deciding how many Congressmen a state was to have but that they be counted as property for all other purposes. The delegates reached an acrimonious and strictly utilitarian compromise according to which each slave was counted as three-fifths of a person. James Madison was not the only delegate to fear that slavery would be the greatest source of national conflict in the years to come.

Of course, opposition to slavery was not the same as acceptance of blacks as political or social equals. Almost without exception, men who opposed slavery for moral reasons were also convinced that blacks were an inferior race that should never have been brought to America.

Benjamin Franklin was unusual for his time in thinking that blacks were not intellectually inferior. As one of the most “liberal” Americans then alive, he nevertheless believed that the nation should be purely Anglo Saxon and opposed immigration by groups of any other stock. He also thought blacks were unattractive in appearance and he would have barred them from the country for this reason alone.

Five of the first seven American presidents — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and Andrew Jackson — owned slaves. For 40 of its first 48 years of existence, therefore, the republic was governed by slaveholders. In his early years, Andrew Jackson even tried his hand at trafficking in slaves.


During this period, it was Jefferson, Madison and Monroe who best represented what leading men of their time thought about blacks and slavery. Of the three, Jefferson wrote at greatest length and with the greatest clarity. His observations of blacks had convinced him they were intellectually inferior to whites, even though he had a life-long interest in seeking out blacks of high reputation who might prove him wrong.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson’s formulation of the race dilemma, which was common among Northerners up through Lincoln’s time, can be summarized thus: Slavery was wrong. However, blacks were inferior to whites and could not be accepted as free men in white society. Blacks should therefore be freed and then deported. So long as blacks remained within the United States, the immorality of slavery was a lesser evil than the chaos of a mixed society.

“We have the wolf by the ears,” wrote Jefferson, “and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.” Separation was the only remedy.

There were then 750,000 blacks in America and Jefferson was willing to expand the powers of government if that was what was required to expel them. He considered various destinations for “colonization” and concluded that Africa or the West Indies would be best. He ruled out Central or South America because he felt that whites would eventually inhabit the Americas from north to south, and he did not want to set obstacles in the path of expansion.

Like Franklin, Jefferson found blacks esthetically displeasing. He wrote that just as it was normal for men to prefer good conformation in their horses and dogs, it was natural to distinguish plain from handsome races. As a livestock breeder, Jefferson knew that young animals inherit the characteristics of their parents. He saw no reason why eugenic principles should not be applied to humans and toyed with the idea of regulating human breeding.

Today, it is fashionable to call Jefferson a hypocrite, both because he condemned slavery but owned slaves and because he considered blacks inferior but may have had a black mistress. The authors of this book think it entirely possible that Jefferson had a liaison with his slave, Sally Hemmings. As they point out, she was, at most, only one quarter black and was widely described as beautiful. The affair would have begun after the death of Jefferson’s wife.

American Colonization Society

Aside from unanswerable questions about Sally Hemmings, Jefferson was certainly not a hypocrite by his own standards. If it had been possible to remove all blacks from the United States he would have made considerable sacrifices to bring that about. The only real attack on his integrity can be to ask if he might not have done more to achieve this goal. James Madison, who followed Jefferson as President, was also a strong partisan of colonization. He estimated that it would cost $600 million to buy, transport, and colonize the entire black population of the United States, and he would have been prepared to sell 200 to 300 million acres of public land to raise the sum. However, he felt that a Constitutional amendment was necessary to permit the federal government to transport blacks, and he faced strong opposition from the slave states. After his two terms in office, he devoted his efforts to the American Colonization Society, of which he became president.

As Mr. Weyl and Mr. Marina point out, in its time, the Society enjoyed the support of the most powerful and prestigious men in America. Its first meeting was called to order in 1816 by Henry Clay. At various times it had, not merely as members but as officers, James Madison, Andrew Jackson, Daniel Webster, Stephen Douglas, William Seward, Francis Scott Key, Gen. Winfield Scott, Matthew Carey (the prominent Philadelphia publisher), Edward Everett (governor of Massachusetts and president of Harvard) and two Chief Justices of the Supreme Court, John Marshall and Roger Taney. The purpose of the society was, in Henry Clay’s words, to “rid our country of a useless and pernicious, if not dangerous portion of the population.”

The Society never managed to persuade the government to do this, but it was through the efforts of its members that Liberia was established as a home for freed slaves. President James Monroe was a active proponent of colonization and in 1824 Liberians named their capital Monrovia as a gesture of thanks.

The authors of this book make it clear that the dividing line of respectable opinion before the Civil War was not whether the Negro should be slave or free but whether he should be a slave or be driven out of the country. Even in the North, a great many people were perfectly content for the black man to remain a slave. Abolitionists, who dared not even show their faces in the South, were seen as busybody subversives in the North as well. They were often beaten up or tarred and feathered.

In 1837, in Alton, Illinois, a mob killed an abolitionist editor named Elijah Lovejoy. He was no egalitarian by today’s standards, and argued that one of the benefits of abolition would be the end of miscegenation, which he called “that wretched, shameful, and polluted intercourse.” He was killed for proposing freedom for a race that many in the North were happy to leave as they were.

From today’s vantage point, the great irony in the antebellum slavery debates is that there was virtually no constituency for racial equality; “liberals” were for deportation and “conservatives” were for slavery. This difference could not be reconciled peaceably and in the end neither side got what it wanted. The result was the very thing whites feared most: a multi-racial society.

‘The Great Emancipator’

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln was the last great champion of colonization, but in his desperation to save the Union he took measures that made colonization much more difficult. In an attempt to court world opinion and prevent European nations from recognizing the Confederacy, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which led inevitably to abolition. Once blacks were citizens rather than slaves, forced deportation became a much less plausible option.

Had Lincoln not been so hard pressed on the battlefield he would surely not have attempted to free the slaves without providing for deportation. Before and even during the war, he had repeatedly said that abolition was unthinkable without colonization.

Mr. Weyl and Mr. Marina describe the many efforts Lincoln made to promote colonization even during the darkest hours of the war. He persuaded Congress to appropriate money to buy up the slaves in the District of Columbia and send them out of the country. He invited a delegation of prominent blacks to the White House — the first time blacks had ever received such an invitation — to ask them to persuade other blacks to go to Haiti or Central America. He even considered setting aside Texas as an asylum for blacks so that the rest of the country could be free of them.

If Lincoln had not been assassinated, he might well have devoted the rest of his life to promoting colonization. With the pro-slavery faction thoroughly beaten, the nation might then have followed the wishes of the President. Instead, war and emancipation — neither of which might have happened without Lincoln’s force of will — brought into being the mixed society that he most dreaded.

Since the war, all but the most recent presidents have struggled to find middle-ground solutions to the race problem — solutions that Jefferson and Lincoln were convinced did not exist. Up through Eisenhower’s era, this meant acknowledging the inferiority of blacks but trying to treat them fairly.

Theodore Roosevelt, for example, thought blacks were “a perfectly stupid race,” and he bitterly blamed Southerners for having saddled the country with them. “There is no solution to the terrible problem offered by the presence of the Negro on this continent,” he wrote in 1901; “he is here and can neither be killed nor driven away.” He also thought that Haiti had suffered terribly from independent rule by blacks and that it would have benefited from another hundred years of slavery.

Theodore Roosevelt at Union Station, Washington DC, May 1914 (Credit Image: © Circa Images/Glasshouse via ZUMA Wire)

Nevertheless, blacks could not be deprived of all rights. Roosevelt recognized that some were able and deserved to hold appointed office. Although he never instituted a method for selection, he also thought that some blacks should be given the vote.

The authors of this book point out that the early socialists hardly took the liberal view of race that we now associate with the left. As they tell the story:

In 1903, the Socialist Party was taken to task by the Second International for its indifference to the rampant mob violence against Negroes. The Socialist National Quorum replied that only the abolition of capitalism and the victory of socialism could prevent the procreation and production of ‘lynchable human degenerates.’ This extraordinary response seems to have satisfied the international socialist organization.

At the 1910 Socialist Party Congress, the Committee on Immigration called for the ‘unconditional exclusion’ of Chinese and Japanese on the grounds that they were politically backward and because America was already afflicted with the Negro problem.

Later, under Norman Thomas, the party campaigned for racial equality, but this was well after the socialist high-water mark of 1912. Today’s socialists are mostly intellectuals, but early in the century they were working men with the ordinary instincts of working men. During the 1920s, as the party withered, many of its members joined the resurgent Ku Klux Klan.

Mr. Weyl and Mr. Marina report that Woodrow Wilson was a firm segregationist, who, as president of Princeton, used evasive means to prevent blacks from enrolling. As Chief Executive, he ordered the segregation of government offices and was surprised by the opposition of blacks and liberals. However, he was publicly supported by Charles Eliot, president of Harvard and probably the man with the most intellectual prestige in the country. The great sage observed that “civilized white men” could not be expected to work along side “barbarous black men.” Nevertheless, Wilson did appoint blacks to government office when he thought them qualified.

Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson

Warren Harding was dogged throughout his life by rumors that his great-grandmother was part black. He was never able to silence his critics for he himself was uncertain about the facts. The authors of this book conclude that there is a good chance that the rumors were true. As President, Harding took the position that blacks and whites were different and preferred to live apart. In one of his most famous speeches he said, “a black man cannot be a white man . . . He should seek to be, and he should be encouraged to be, the best possible black man, and not the best possible imitation of a white man.” He was one of the first Presidents to promote the view that blacks could have political and economic equality even if they were denied social equality.

Truman and Eisenhower continued to struggle with this slippery idea. However, Truman finally concluded that even though private citizens could discriminate in employment, the government could not. He integrated the armed services, even over the strenuous objections of the Navy, thereby enforcing for others the social mixing he himself avoided.

Eisenhower likewise believed that although blacks should have political and economic opportunity this did not mean that the races should be forced together “or that a Negro should court my daughter.” Nevertheless, when Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas defied a court order to integrate Little Rock’s schools in 1957, Eisenhower took the unprecedented step of sending federal troops to enforce the order. School integration meant that more blacks would be courting white people’s daughters.

Mr. Weyl and Mr. Marina end their narrative with John Kennedy, who was the first President wholly to disavow, at least in public, all racial consciousness. He even went so far as implicitly to support the right to riot, observing that if Congress did not pass civil rights laws, blacks had no choice but to take to the streets. Of course, blacks got civil rights laws but rioted anyway; the major civil rights acts were passed in 1964 and 1965, and the worst race riots were two years later.

The Modern Era

Kennedy ushered in the beginning of the modern era in American race relations, and the nation embarked on its naive project of trying to build a nation in which race is supposed not to matter. If Jefferson and Lincoln could return from the grave they would hardly be surprised to find that the modern era has been one of continuous friction and irresolvable problems. Certainly in the black slums, they would find the very “negro pandemonium” that many opponents of slavery saw as the only alternative to colonization.

Lincoln and Jefferson would be astonished, however, to discover that whites now attempt to solve these problems by passing laws that punish whites in order to advance blacks. They would be crestfallen to learn that the nation they had always envisioned as a white republic has established an immigration policy that will reduce whites to a minority in just a few decades. They would be bewildered to find that the slightest expression of their own deeply considered views on race now makes a man unfit for public office and suspect as a citizen.

Indeed, American race relations have changed. The last two hundred years have seen a steady dismantling of racial boundaries. The next two hundred will see either their reerection or the complete racial amalgamation that Jefferson and Lincoln found abhorrent.