Yes, the Lincolns had servants…but not slaves

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.

Lincoln 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.

1860 Census Lincoln


See the very top, where it says “SCHEDULE 1.—Free Inhabitants”?

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.

Race Inhabitants

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.”



Filed under Abraham Lincoln

12 responses to “Yes, the Lincolns had servants…but not slaves

  1. Pingback: The (Bent Out Of) SHAPE of Confederate Heritage | Crossroads

  2. This was so much fun to read that I clicked on the “squirrel” video for dramatic effect even though I’ve seen it 8 million times.

  3. Thanks for sharing, great post. We’re a historical site with an emphasis on manumission, so this post was very interesting.

  4. Why am I just now seeing this post? I loved it. George blocked me forever over this post.

    • Jimmy Dick

      Another case where the facts contradicted what he wanted to believe? Isn’t that the case with him on everything? He wants to use facts to support his beliefs, but rejects them every time when his twisting of them blows up in his face.

      • George has already made up his mind on numerous issues. When he comes across sources, or what he calls “facts,” he decidedly interprets those documents to fit into the narrative he has already created. Even if that document contradicts what he already believes, he will ignore the document or spin it to ‘prove’ his ill-conceived point. He’s did that here with the Lincoln’s. He does it routinely with this mythical black confederates; believing an index card, because it says “Confederate” at the bottom, means that said person on that card was a Confederate Soldier.

        In short, he’s lying or a complete imbecile.

        • Jimmy Dick

          I think he is both, but I will leave it to the public to judge him. The card was hilarious. It actually proved he was wrong and he couldn’t accept the truth. He just discredits his beliefs every time.

  5. Mack

    Few key points. 1st, Don’t you think it ironic that the white “servants” are listed in census and the black “servant” is not? 2nd, There is not financial records ever found showing the Lincoln family ever PAID anybody. Remember, by your own admission “They couldn’t afford it.” 3rd, and maybe the biggest point. What in your feeble mind makes you think that being “African American” is a requirement for slavery? The Chinese were slaved in America long before the Spanish invasion of Africa.

    Just because Mary Johnson’s skin was white and she was called a servant means nothing. She wasn’t paid. As to her being a free inhabitant… I teenage Irish girl with no means of self support forced to work for her room and board… that’s slavery!

    • Mack

      Oh, and there is historical proof the blacks did in fact fight for the south. As to if they did it freely or not… who is to say. None the less, check your facts before you shoot off your mouth.

    • Michael Lynch

      1. Pardon my saying so, but you seem to be completely ignorant regarding how the federal census operates. It’s only recorded every ten years, and only records people living in the house at the time it’s taken. It doesn’t record every person who has ever lived and worked in the residence. I’m a bit baffled that I have to point this out to you.
      2. Here’s a thought exercise. If there are no financial records showing that the Lincoln family purchased food during the month of September 1852, should we conclude that they went without eating for thirty days?
      3. The race of the Lincoln family’s servant is actually rather irrelevant here, because slavery of any sort was illegal in Illinois, which is the state where they lived. If the family of a prominent lawyer kept a lady enslaved at home illegally, I doubt they’d be admitting as much to the census taker.
      4. Could you explain what you mean by the Spanish invasion of Africa, and provide some evidence for your claim that there were Chinese slaves in America before that time? I suspect you have the Spanish confused with the Portuguese, who were heavily involved in the African slave trade.

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