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Christopher Wills
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Abraham Lincoln and the ‘science’ of race

Presidential library confirms Lincoln’s handwriting in tattered library book used to justify slavery

SPRINGFIELD – A tattered book in a small-town library reveals a new example of Abraham Lincoln keeping up on scientific debates about race and studying the arguments used by his opponents on the issue of slavery.

Experts at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum have confirmed that a book at the Vespasian Warner Public Library in Clinton, Ill., bears Lincoln’s handwriting. He wrote the name of the book’s owner, fellow attorney Clifton H. Moore, inside the book, probably because he had borrowed it and wanted to ensure the volume was returned to the correct person. 

The book was “Types of Mankind,” which used pseudo-science like skull shape to make the case that different races were formed at different times and places. According to the authors, that meant Africans and Native Americans were fundamentally different from Caucasians, so enslaving them was part of the natural order. “Types of Mankind” suggested the Biblical invocation to be kind to one's fellow man did not apply, since Africans and Native Americans were not “fellow men.” Slave owners seized upon the book as support for their way of life.
"Lincoln had long been upset by national legal codes that treated blacks and whites so differently, and as president he took great strides to fix the imbalance. 'Types of Mankind' tried to make the scientific case that all men are NOT created equal, so everything we know about Lincoln's legal, religious and scientific thinking tells us that he rejected that argument," said James Cornelius, curator of the ALPLM’s Lincoln Collection.

Lincoln could have borrowed the book at a couple of different points.

In 1855, he represented a DeWitt County resident, Bill Dungey, who sued for libel because his brother-in-law was going around town claiming Dungey was secretly African-American. The brother-in-law was represented by Clifton Moore, who owned the book, so Lincoln might have asked to study it for the trial, which Lincoln won.

Or Lincoln might have learned Moore had the book during that trial and then borrowed in 1858 to prepare for the Lincoln-Douglas debates or in 1860 during the campaign for president.

Whatever the exact circumstances, Lincoln’s decision to read the book matches his practice of keeping up on his opponents’ thinking so that he could rebut it more effectively. 

"’Types of Mankind’ was the sort of book Lincoln was bound to loathe but also felt it important to understand," said James Lander, author of the 2010 book “Lincoln and Darwin: Shared Visions of Race, Science, and Religion.” Lander, an American who writes and teaches in England, is at work on a scholarly article that will place Lincoln and Moore's legal work in context.  

Moore amassed thousands of books, an​d they formed the basis of the Vespasian Warner Library’s circulating collection when it opened in 1908. “Types of Mankind” suffered significant wear and tear before it was retired from circulation. The front cover and Lincoln's inscription page have become detached from the rest of the book, and the spine is mostly gone.

Lincoln’s inscription says:

C. H. Moore, Esq
De Witt Co

Following that is an attestation by Lawrence Weldon, another attorney well known to both men.

The above was written by Prest Lincoln
in 1861 - Just before he left for
Washington.  L Weldon.

The staff of the Vespasian Warner Public Library had heard rumors for decades that one of their books contained Lincoln’s writing. To settle the matter, new Library Director Joan Rhoades brought the book to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, in Springfield. Cornelius quickly recognized the writing as Lincoln's. Other staff confirmed his assessment.  

"We are beyond excited that we have held a book that Lincoln read and which also bears his handwriting,” Rhoades said. “We are currently raising the funds to restore the book, along with other important pieces of local history, after which it will be on display to the public."