You hate to generalize about people, but modern apologists for the Confederacy tend to be really, really bad at using primary sources. As Andy Hall once said while discussing a particularly hilarious example, “Forget interpretation. Forget analysis. Forget trying to understand the document within the context of the time and place it was written; these people don’t even seem capable of reading the documents they cite.”
Now Brooks Simpson has drawn our attention to the latest instance of a neo-Confederate trying to make sense of a document and failing spectacularly. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s a doozy.
Over at Cold Southern Steel, a diligent researcher and defender of Southron Heritage presented what he believed to be evidence that Lincoln had a slave. This supposed evidence had been hiding in plain sight in the 1860 U.S. census, but had apparently gone unnoticed for lo these 150 years.
Here’s a close-up of the census list which was posted to Cold Southern Steel. As you can see, it indeed names one Abraham Lincoln of Springfield, IL, occupation “Lawyer,” along with the members of his household.
Included in the list is “M. Johnson,” an eighteen-year-old female. Her occupation?
So right there it is, proof that Abraham Lincoln had a “servant” in 1860. Ergo Lincoln was a slaveowner. Right?
Well, no. “M. Johnson” was not a slave. She was Mary Johnson, a free white girl employed by the Lincolns.
In this context, “servant” doesn’t mean an enslaved person. It’s a job description. In the nineteenth century, many middle-class families employed young women and girls as house servants, often on a live-in basis. A lot of these women were immigrants from Ireland or Germany. In Springfield, about one-fourth of the homes had hired help of this kind around the time Lincoln lived there.
As a prospering family headed by a respectable lawyer, the Lincolns employed several women over the years, some of them as live-in servants. For example, eighteen-year-old Catharine Gordon was working and living with the Lincolns in 1850, and appears in the census for that year. In 1860, the same year that Mary Johnson turned up in the census, Mary Todd Lincoln employed a Portuguese teenager named Charlotte Rodruiguis as a seamstress. A woman named Margaret Ryan claimed that she witnessed some of Mary Todd Lincoln’s worst behavior during her employment in the house, although the chronology behind her claims is iffy. (Richard Lawrence Miller discusses the Ryan evidence in the third volume of Lincoln and His World.) These women and girls were not slaves bound to work for life. They were not the property of the people in whose homes they worked.
Now, here’s the really funny part. The proof that Mary Johnson was a free woman is right there in the 1860 census, the very source being offered as evidence that she was a slave. In other words, the problem here is that the blogger in question simply doesn’t know how to read the document.
Here’s the page in question.
See the very top, where it says “SCHEDULE 1.—Free Inhabitants”?
That’s sort of an indicator that all the folks in that list were, you know, free inhabitants of Springfield. The 1860 census counted slaves separately. You’re not going to find any slaves officially listed in a census list of free inhabitants.
Of course, you’re not likely to find many slaves documented in the census lists for Illinois at all, since Illinois was a free state. (Funny thing you’ll notice about slave states and free states: the slave states tended to be the ones with slaves. An interesting coincidence, that. You know how Peanut M&M’s are the ones with peanuts, whereas the plain M&M’s are the ones without them? It runs somewhat along those same lines.)
Now, check out the very bottom of the list, where all the individuals are tallied up by race and gender.
Twenty-six white males, fourteen white females. All forty people on the page present and accounted for, and each one of them white. This list does not include any African-American residents of Springfield, let alone enslaved ones. Incidentally, the Lincolns did employ a free black woman named Mariah Vance as a cook and laundress a couple of days a week for ten years.
Now, just because these women and girls were free doesn’t mean their lives were all beer and skittles. By many accounts, Mary Todd Lincoln was an absolute Gorgon as a boss, difficult to please and tight-fisted. She was particularly critical of Irish girls—the “wild Irish,” as she referred to them in a letter to a relative. According to the NPS, Mary Johnson was of Irish background herself, so she was probably on the receiving end of Mrs. Lincoln’s temper at one time or another. (For information on Mary Todd Lincoln’s domestic help, check out Jean Baker’s fine biography, pp. 105-08).
But the women and girls who worked for the Lincolns were not chattel slaves, and were not the family’s property, despite the fact that they worked in the home and sometimes lived there.
There’s a lot of neat information to unpack in that list of names. It shows us a time when middle-class Americans were very conscious of their status, when hired help was an indicator of that status, and when working in someone else’s home was the fate of many a young European-born immigrant girl. It tells us a lot about the Lincoln family’s economic and social circumstances, about how they saw themselves and wanted to be seen by others. It offers us a glimpse of a world somewhat similar to our own, but also strikingly different in terms of the way people conceived of their ranks and roles.
But it doesn’t show us evidence of slavery, and it takes a spectacularly negligent misreading to make it say otherwise. Primary sources are wonderful things, but only if you know how to make sense of them.
UPDATE: Now the guy is claiming that he never said the Lincolns had slaves, despite the fact that he titled his post “Lincoln and his slave.”