An award-winning look at Lincoln and Race
Widely praised and winner of the 2023 Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize, this book illuminates why Lincoln’s unprecedented welcoming of African American men and women to the White House transformed the trajectory of race relations in the United States. From his 1862 meetings with Black Christian ministers, Lincoln began inviting African Americans of every background into his home, from ex-slaves from the Deep South to champions of abolitionism such as Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth. More than a good-will gesture, the president conferred with his guests about the essential issues of citizenship and voting rights. Drawing from an array of primary sources, White reveals how African Americans used the White House as a national stage to amplify their calls for equality. Even more than 160 years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln’s inclusion of African Americans remains a necessary example in a country still struggling from racial divisions today.
Jonathan W. White is associate professor of American Studies at Christopher Newport University. He is the author of ten books and over 100 articles, essays, and reviews on Lincoln and the Civil War. His writing has appeared in Smithsonian, Time, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. He lives in Newport News, Virginia.
Preface. “There Was No Color Line There”
Chapter 1. “A Continual Torment To Me”
Interlude. The Office
Chapter 2. “The Political Wonders of the Year”
Chapter 3. “A Spectacle, as Humiliating as it was Extraordinary”
Chapter 4. “The Lord Has Work For Me Here”
Interlude. Foreign Diplomats
Chapter 5. “The Promise Being Made, Must Be Kept”
Chapter 6. “I Felt Big There”
Chapter 7. “Without Molestation or Insult”
Interlude. The Ballot
Chapter 8. “To Keep the Jewel of Liberty within the Family of Freedom”
Chapter 9. “The Object is a Worthy One”
Chapter 10. “A Testimonial of Her Appreciation”
Interlude. City Point
Chapter 11. “Douglass, I Hate Slavery as Much as You Do”
Chapter 12. “In the Presence of a Friend”
Chapter 13. “All the People . . . Are Invited”
Interlude. The House Chamber
Chapter 14. “I’ve Come to Propose Something to You”
Chapter 15. “A Sacred Effort”
Chapter 16. “She is My Equal, and the Equal of All Others”
Chapter 17. “The Great Guiding Hand that Now Lay Paralyzed in Death”
Epilogue. “Emphatically the Black Man’s President”
Appendix. Unconfirmed Meetings
White, a professor of American studies at Christopher Newport University, provides a granular study of Abraham Lincoln’s practice of welcoming African Americans to the White House. Pushing back against historians who have questioned Lincoln’s commitment to “racial egalitarianism,” White documents the president’s meetings with Daniel Payne, a leader of the African Methodist Episcopal Church; former slaves who joined the Union Army; and abolitionists including Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass.... this is a rich and comprehensive account of a groundbreaking aspect of Lincoln’s presidency.
White, the author and editor of several books on Abraham Lincoln, extends his recent work on Black Americans’ engagement with Lincoln to include their visits to Lincoln’s White House. Drawing heavily on the letters, speeches, memoirs, and newspaper accounts of such meetings, White shows that Black people were welcome visitors, both as invited guests and uninvited drop-ins. That Lincoln extended his hand in greeting them and treated them with dignity and respect spoke volumes about his attitudes toward Black people and gave lie to arguments then, and later by some historians, that Lincoln regarded Black people as inferior and unworthy of serious attention. Rather, as White tells it, Lincoln took Black leaders into his confidence, sought their advice, and encouraged them to promote his policies, especially those securing emancipation and raising Black troops. Lincoln’s unassuming nature in dealing with Black people earned him the respect of Black leaders, but it also cost him politically among northern whites who worried Lincoln’s practices opened the door to social and political equality. White argues these visits did much to move Lincoln toward ever stronger commitments to civil rights. An original and revealing book on a subject heretofore surprisingly missing from the large Lincoln literature.
White does not write about the enslaved people who helped build the White House but rather capably documents the experiences of African Americans who came to see President Lincoln. White shows Lincoln zigging and zagging in words and actions on race relations, and one key event is Lincoln's 1862 meeting with five African American leaders, during which he avidly pushed for them to leave the U.S. But White asserts that this meeting is the exception to Lincoln’s otherwise substantive, empathetic, and respectful discussions with African Americans thereafter. Using a format that is partly chronological and partly organized by subject, White describes, movingly, Lincoln’s meetings with many African Americans of all backgrounds, providing brief biographies of each participant and describing the conversation and its aftermath. Readers will perceive the sacred and the profane in White’s accounts of the historical context for these encounters. During this era, politicians, journalists, and the public often used biblical references in framing their opinions, yet their commentary was also laced with racial epithets. Images of 20 African Americans who met with Lincoln complete this unusual history.
Jonathan W. White's A House Built by Slaves steps into the debate about Abraham Lincoln’s attitudes and policies toward African Americans.... White, an important participant in the recent disputes over removing Lincoln statues and Lincoln’s name from public schools, brings impressive credentials to this pathbreaking book about Lincoln’s engagement with African Americans during his four years as president from 1861 to 1865. From the beginning, he pulls no historical punches.... Many historians have tried to understand Lincoln’s journey with slavery. How were Lincoln’s ideas about slavery affected by his 1828 journey to New Orleans, where, at 19 years old, he first encountered the horrors of slave markets? When the Kansas-Nebraska Act made it possible for slavery to extend west into the territories, how did it restart the political career of Lincoln the lawyer? What did he say about African Americans in his 1858 debates with Stephen A. Douglas, the Illinois senator who attacked Lincoln as the ‘Black Republican’? Recently, some have emphasized Lincoln’s advocacy for colonization right up to the moment when he first drafted an emancipation proclamation in 1862. Did he craft the final proclamation simply as a shrewd political or military act without any real feeling for African Americans? White references all these questions in Lincoln’s journey with African Americans, but this is not the story he has chosen to tell. By mining diaries, letters, and memoirs, he has uncovered the White House visits of multiple African Americans, either at Lincoln’s invitation or on their own initiatives. White’s analyses of the nature of those engagements are the depth and breadth of this impressive book.... White’s accessible book puts a human face — many human faces — on the story of Lincoln’s attitudes toward and engagement with African Americans.”
White shows how the Lincoln White House, in becoming an unprecedented venue for numerous black audiences with the president, served as a daring symbol of their prospects for social and political elevation at a time when sympathy for black Americans was not a majority sentiment even in the North.... A signal contribution of White’s book is his account of the manifold ways that black Americans did not wait to be treated with equal dignity and respect but constantly pressed for their rights as citizens and took the opportunity of social functions and private audiences provided by Lincoln to make their presence and demands known as American citizens.
A fascinating look at how our 16th president welcomed Black guests…. With his new book, White, a history professor at Christopher Newport University and a Lincoln scholar, has given me a fuller, more nuanced view of the Great Emancipator and his legacy. And shouldn’t that be the goal of all good historical writing?.... By chronicling the visits of Black guests to the White House — and Lincoln’s warm reception of them in an era that all but forbade it — Jonathan White has produced in A House Built by Slaves a valuable addition to the Lincoln canon. It’s one that captures not an infallible man, perhaps, but one who grappled to overcome his flaws and rise to the level of greatness later assigned to him.
This is an intriguing addition to the world of Lincoln scholarship that takes us inside the Executive Mansion at the dawn of the second founding of the nation. It’s more than a record of handshakes; it’s an attempt to size Lincoln up through the eyes of Black Americans who visited the “people’s house” that their people had built and in whose names they were determined to win the fight for freedom and citizenship.
In a pioneering work of original scholarship, Jonathan White sheds new light on Lincoln's lifelong encounters with Black Americans from his boyhood through his presidency. In our troubled times, A House Built by Slaves makes a brilliant, necessary, and convincing case for Abraham Lincoln's greatness as a towering American hero and as a valiant martyr to the cause of freedom and civil rights.
Jonathan White tells intimate stories of Black Americans—soldier and civilian, men and women, famous and obscure—often in their own words, who met Abraham Lincoln during the tumult of the Civil War. Those conversations often challenged Lincoln, leading him to embrace freedom and respect for all Americans as redemption of the war’s agony. This eloquent, humane, and important book helps us understand the crucial role played by Black Americans in guiding that journey.
Prior to Abraham Lincoln occupying the White House, Jonathan W. White reminds us, “African Americans were more likely to be bought and sold by a sitting president than to be welcomed as his guests.” The White House became a far more welcoming place for African Americans under Lincoln—and because of Lincoln. White leaves no detail unnoticed as he recreates the many visits to Lincoln’s White House by African Americans. Although Lincoln could be clumsy at first at such encounters, he grew to embrace and enjoy the visits—all the while facing in response a storm of racist invective by his political opponents. White’s excellent, deeply-researched book corrects recent factual inaccuracies and harsh judgments surrounding Lincoln’s treatment of African Americans. In the process, he offers a rich, vivid portrait of the White House in wartime, its vestibules and receiving rooms enriched with the presence of African Americans welcomed by a President eager to hear what they had to say.
A House Built by Slaves continues the discourse regarding Lincoln’s racial views and argues that the president’s treatment of African American visitors to the White House was an indicator of his willingness to accept black men and women as equals. Jonathan White has produced an important work that offers insight into Lincoln’s response to prevailing racial sensibilities and political fallout while attempting to be president to all the people.
Jonathan White’s A House Built by Slaves: African American Visitors to the Lincoln White House reveals a more complete picture of Lincoln through recorded visits of many African Americans, from humble stations to the intellectual elite. In the current climate of reassessing how America tells its history, A House Built by Slaves illustrates how Lincoln walked among his people as a common, flawed man and ultimately a singular purpose.... White masterfully shows the African American communities’ efforts to influence Lincoln in obtaining full rights for their people, and his choice to use their language of the day makes for a good read. Historians and Lincoln fans will enjoy this accurate retelling of the epoch where America almost came apart at the seams.
White’s careful accumulation of Lincoln’s unfettered interactions with black Americans provides a valuable resource for understanding a more farseeing Lincoln than the shriller voices of despair have described. Beyond that, it opens a tantalizing window into the enduring question of what would have happened had Lincoln lived.
A House Built By Slaves is...not simply a record of the visits to the White House by African Americans. The stories of these guests are fleshed out and they are placed in a historical context that is fascinating and informative. William J. Walker, a founding father of Fredericksburg’s Shiloh Baptist Church, was a guest at the White House in 1863 as part of a delegation of Baptist ministers who wanted Lincoln’s permission to minister to Black soldiers fighting for the Union. Lincoln granted their request and said “the object was a worthy one.” To purloin Lincoln’s words, A House Built By Slaves is a “worthy one” in the canon of Lincoln scholarship and shows White to be an able and welcome guide in preserving his legacy.
[This] is the work of a scholar in command of his subject and his craft—rendering the book instantly accessible to a wide audience, but also informative to readers possessing a range of expertise about the war.... Because of the richness of these stories, the book will be particularly enriching in classrooms at all levels.... In sum, this is a work that will long deserve a place on the bookshelves of Civil War historians and enthusiasts. To find something new to say about Abraham Lincoln is certainly an achievement; to tell the stories of countless others while doing so cements White’s work as some of the best in the field today.
[E]xcellent and highly readable.... White doesn’t merely discuss one visit after another, which might become tedious. Rather, he provides much background, and...creates a flowing narrative.
It is Abraham Lincoln, and his evolving relationship not only with policies aimed at reordering the lives of Black people in the United States but also his personal attitudes towards African Americans, that is addressed in this character study. By carefully assessing how Mr. Lincoln communicated with and welcomed Black people into the White House, historian Jonathan White, returns the focus on fact rather than emotion in terms of both Abraham Lincoln’s policies and his personal beliefs about race relations in America.... [W]ell-researched and compellingly written.
White narrates a familiar story of the Civil War transforming Lincoln’s thinking on race and emancipation. But the nature of Lincoln’s wartime evolution unveils White’s vital contribution. Lincoln’s myriad meetings with African Americans compelled him to recognize a new reality born by the fiery trial of war. The presidency was no longer an imposing obstacle to black liberation, the White House no longer a sealed edifice inhabited by powerful slaveholders…. Jonathan White’s fine book relates the many stories of black Americans who unsettled rigid racial barriers to confront an American president in their pursuit of authentic justice. Their appeals for freedom, petitions for equality, and stalwart loyalty to the nation presented unparalleled moral demands on the American regime. Without their full measure of devotion, Lincoln might well have never acted. And the Union might well have perished from the earth.
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.... White has written a readable and thought-provoking account of Lincoln's views and their reception, which is highly recommended.
White makes his case with ample, often touching, accounts of less momentous, but equally revealing, meetings with African American callers and petitioners…. A House Built by Slaves is a welcome and crucial contribution to the Civil War literature, and should be cited as long as Lincoln biography is written.
This is an exceptional and detailed look at a little discussed and often misunderstood aspect of Lincoln's presidency. The prolific White is known for his extensive research and this book is no exception. It's also eminently readable.
Through mining a wealth of anecdotes, White presents an engaging and convincing case that the surprisingly amenable relationship forged between President Lincoln and African American visitors to his White House is worthy of the sustained attention it receives across the book.… A House Built by Slaves (or enslaved African Americans) remains highly recommendable. Its short chapters make this an extremely accessible title for the undergraduate classroom. And the book has a beautiful and effective collection of photos.
White has written a readable and thought provoking account of Lincoln's views and their reception, and is highly recommended.
January 2022 Issue, Smithsonian: Jon White wrote an article about the Black men who changed Lincoln’s mind about equal rights. Link: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/men-changed-changing-lincolns-mind-180979230/
2/3/22, Current: Jonathan White did a Q&A about the book.Link: https://currentpub.com/2022/02/03/the-authors-corner-with-jonathan-white-2/
2/10/22, Choice: This book was featured in a roundup of upcoming titles in African American studies for 2022.
2/10/22, New Books Network African American Studies Podcast: Jonathan White joined Ian Drake to talk about his book.
2/10/22, Virginian Pilot: Jonathan White wrote an op-ed related to the book.
2/12/22, The Guardian: Jonathan White was interviewed by Martin Pengelly about the book.
2/15/22, The Hill: Jonathan White wrote an opinion piece with his book as the focus.
2/23/22, The Virginia Gazette: Wilford Kale wrote an op-ed piece on the book.
2/23/22, The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education: This book was included in a list of "Recent Books of Interest to African American Scholars."
2/23/22, US National Archives: Jonathan White talked about the book at an event hosted by the National Archives Museum.
3/2/22, Bill of Rights Institute (BRI): Tony Williams and Jonathan White discussed the book in a BRI Scholar Talk titled, “Abraham Lincoln and Black Freedom and Equality with Jon White.”
3/6/22, Virginian Pilot: An excerpt from the book was featured in this article.
3/6/22, History News Network: Author White wrote an article about Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and their role in emancipation.
3/6/22, Yahoo! News: Author White wrote an op-ed piece about Lincoln’s connection to the Black community during Civil War.
3/17/22, The Daily Progress: Jonathan White’s talk at the Virginia Festival of the Book was featured.
6/20/22, The Literate Lizard: This book was featured in a roundup of books about black history. Link: https://theliteratelizard.indielite.org/new-and-featured-black-history-adults
8/18/22, Washington Independent Review of Books: This is featured as a “Patriotic Pick” for August 2022.
12/11/22, The Civil War Monitor: This book landed at #7 on The Civil War Monitor’s annual bestselling books list.
3/26/2023, Virginian-Pilot: Jonathan White is interviewed for this feature about winning the 2023 Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize.
8/7/23, Civil War Memory: Influential historian Kevin Levin’s Substack features this book as one of the “Four Books About How African Americans Have Understood Lincoln and His Legacy.” Also, Kevin tweeted about the review copy sent by R&L for Shipwrecked saying “I made the mistake of starting this book this morning and now I can’t put it down. Oh well.”
Link to Substack: https://kevinmlevin.substack.com/p/four-books-about-how-african-americans
Tweet about Jonathan White’s Shipwrecked: https://twitter.com/KevinLevin/status/1688893334415171586?s=20