Book Review: A House Built by Slaves: African American Visitors to the Lincoln White House


by Jonathan W. White

Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2022. Pp. x, 280. Illus., append., notes, biblio., index. $26.00. ISBN: 153816180X

Lincoln, the White House, and African Americans

Black American views on Lincoln changed over time. After the President's death Frederick Douglass viewed him as having had a vital role in African American freedom and as the Black man’s President, noting that at their first meeting, early in the war, Lincoln had treated him “just as you have seen one gentleman receive another.” But Douglass – along with other Black leaders – had initially seen him as “the abolitionist’s most powerful enemy”, an imperfect man not doing enough or quickly enough to secure the liberty of African Americans. White uses the voices of Lincoln’s visitors, whether critical or favorable, to explore the evolution of opinions about the president's views and actions.

White shows us how political and military developments, the evolution his own views on slavery and race, and even what would today be thought of as minor acts, such as his unprecedented reception of African American men and women as guests in the White House, influenced public opinion, which in turn helped further the cause of emancipation. By the end of the war, Lincoln saw that African Americans were part of “the people” who established the nation and thus fully deserving of the same natural rights as anyone else, including the vote.

Despite this, White notes that over the last few decades, some historians and cultural influences, Lerone Bennett, Tupac Shakur, and Nikole Hannah-Jones, stressed that Lincoln was “a firm believer in white supremacy”, moving toward emancipation "from necessity, not conviction”, and that the enslaved, by their rejection of enslavement, forced emancipation on a reluctant president, who was in effect “an opportunist.” For example, often cited is Lincoln's August 1862 meeting with five black leaders, at which he made a case for a return to Africa for African Americans, when, as some of the attendees noted, he was suggesting colonization as an option, for those who might prefer to begin a fresh existence somewhere else. Similarly offered as evidence of Lincoln's opportunism is his oft quoted remark "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," which appeared in The National Intelligencer on August 22, 1862, one month to the day before he published the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.

White provides many examples of intimate political conversations Lincoln had with African American ministers, formerly enslaved individuals and those born free citizens, soldiers, and notables, such as Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Paschal Randolph, Henry McNeal Turner, Bishop Daniel Payne, and many others.

White has written a readable and thought-provoking account of Lincoln's views and their reception, which is highly recommended.


Our Reviewer: David Marshall has been a high school American history teacher in the Miami-Dade School district for more than three decades. A life-long Civil War enthusiast, David is president of the Miami Civil War Round Table Book Club. In addition to numerous reviews in Civil War News and other publications, he has given presentations to Civil War Round Tables on Joshua Chamberlain, Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the common soldier. His most recent previous reviews here include When Hell Came To Sharpsburg, Lost Causes, Six Miles From Charleston, Five Minutes to Hell, "If We Are Striking for Pennsylvania", James Montgomery: Abolitionist Warrior, Cedar Mountain to Antietam, Lieutenant General James Longstreet, Count the Dead, All Roads Led To Gettysburg, Unhappy Catastrophes, The Heart of Hell, The Whartons' War, Gettysburg’s Southern Front , Civil War Monuments and Memorials, The Tale Untwisted, The Confederate Military Forces in the Trans-Mississippi West, The Civilian War, The Carnage was Fearful, The Civil Wars of Joseph E. Johnston, Confederate States Army, Vol. I, Navigating Liberty: Black Refugees and Antislavery Reformers in the Civil War South, Gettysburg In Color, Vol 1, "The Bullets Flew Like Hail", John Brown's Raid, and Searching For Irvin McDowell


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: David Marshall   

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