Lincoln, Racism, and Slavery
The HP was delighted to hear basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar skillfully counter Bill Maher’s leading negative question about President Lincoln on Maher’s show Real Time last week.
The two were having a discussion about Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who had just been heavily censured by the NBA commissioner for his racist screed on the phone a week or two earlier. They ventured into many different issues of racism in America society and history, including the question of, as Maher put it, whether to cut the Founders slack for their slaveholding because they were “of their era”—i.e., they grew up with slavery and didn’t know any better. Kareem said no, no slack is allowable, because there was never a time when people did not know that racially based slavery was a tool for destroying the enslaved race (our paraphrasing). Kareem mentioned Alexander Hamilton’s abolitionist views, and Bill Maher proffered Ben Franklin as well, but then fell into the usual trap about Lincoln: that he was an unrepentant racist and proslavery president with an unjust reputation for ending black slavery in the U.S.:
Maher: But you know Lincoln had some harsh words about the black people…
Kareem: Yes he did, but you have to say that Lincoln evolved. In 1858 he had some harsh things to say, [but] by the time the middle of the war had come around he realized what needed to be done, so you have to give him his credit for evolving quickly and understanding what really was at stake.
Kareem must be reading the HP! For this is the point we make in the first post of our series on Lincoln, Slavery, and Racism. Everyone is of their time in that they imbibe certain attitudes, beliefs, and social/political systems as children, but when they grow up, they inevitably re-evaluate those attitudes, beliefs, and systems. Most people decide to uphold them, for various reasons (tradition, the desire to avoid trouble, real support, no new ideas to offer). But some, like Lincoln, decide to reject them. They decide to be better than their society, and to forge a new attitude, belief, or system to bring more justice to the world.
We appreciate Kareem’s easy yet firm rebuff of the anti-Lincoln myth, and hope it does a lot of Americans and others a lot of good.
(P.S.: The tags for this post group together what are surely the strangest bedfellows in the world: “Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Maher, Abraham Lincoln, Donald Sterling”.)Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
We just finished our long series on the flaws in Oliver Stone’s new TV series “The Untold History of the United States”, and now we found an article on a speech by Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan that calls for the same analysis. We are grateful to Politifact Wisconsin for the article and for providing the analysis, which we need only sum up here.
Here is Politifact’s report of what Ryan said the following in an April 11 speech to a group that works to elect anti-abortion women to political office:
“Our forebears knew to strive for perfection, not to expect it—because mankind is flawed. Progress takes time. It takes work. And it takes common sense… Take Lincoln. He hated slavery as much as anyone. But he defended a law that preserved it. He supported the Compromise of 1850, which prohibited slavery in California but allowed it in New Mexico. He even backed a law to return runaway slaves to their owners.” Lincoln agreed to compromises, Ryan asserted, “if they brought him closer to his goal–even in just a small way. We all know what happened. After years of turmoil, he helped pass the Thirteenth Amendment, which ended slavery for good.”
Politifact Wisconsin actually asked eight experts on Lincoln to evaluate Ryan’s statement. What they found was that, like Stone’s series, Ryan’s statements are partially true, but twist facts just past the breaking point of accuracy. We’ll let Politifact do the talking here:
“While Ryan said Lincoln ‘supported’ the Compromise in 1850, Lincoln was actually semi-retired from politics at the time, having left Congress a year earlier (he wasn’t elected president until 1860). At the time of the compromise Lincoln did not express support for it, according to several experts, including Lincoln biographer Ronald C. White Jr., Michael Burlingame, a Lincoln scholar at the University of Illinois-Springfield, and Columbia University historian Eric Foner. As president, Lincoln did agree to a proposal that would have admitted New Mexico as a state, said Lincoln biographer James McPherson. So in that sense, he could be said to have supported the Compromise of 1850, in that New Mexico had opted to approve a slave code. On the other hand, McPherson said, no slaves were counted in New Mexico in the 1860 census, which indicates slavery had not taken hold there.
“Similarly, Lincoln as president held that the federal government needed to abide by the Fugitive Slave Act, mandating for the return of runaway slaves, given that it was the law of the land. But, McPherson noted, Lincoln wanted legislation to give alleged fugitive slaves a trial before they could be returned. ‘He did feel there was no choice but to defend the legality of the Fugitive Slave Act once it became law, and even said so in his first inaugural address—but here some context is needed, too,; said Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer. ‘He refused to oppose so-called ‘personal liberty laws’ that were passed by northern states to justify disobedience to the Fugitive Slave Act. So, in sum, Lincoln always opposed slavery,’ said James Cornelius, curator at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum. ‘But he also held, privately and out loud, that federal law must be obeyed.’”
Politifact sums up by saying “Ryan’s statement is partially accurate, but leaves out important details. That fits our definition for Half True.”
Unfortunately, this is too often the case when public figures and average people decide to use history to support their positions: they pick up a few facts and string them together in the way that best suits their purposes, either deliberately or accidentally. In the case of the former, they know what they are leaving out or distorting. In the case of the latter, they do not. But either way the result is negative.
In this case, the idea that Representative Ryan would seek to inspire anti-abortion partisans to work with pro-life activists if necessary to achieve their goal of banning abortion by claiming that Lincoln worked with pro-slaveryites to achieve an ultimate goal of abolition is beyond odd. It equates pro-life supporters with people who supported slavery. It makes the case that no group is too repugnant to secretly use to achieve your goals. It condones hypocrisy. It recommends lying to achieve your goals by pretending to work with people you plan to destroy. It drags Lincoln’s name through the mud by claiming he operated in these ways. And it implies that Ryan himself operates in these ways.
It shouldn’t be necessary to parse such a short text to fully comprehend its meaning; it shouldn’t even really be possible. But the Gettysburg Address, delivered on November 19, 1863 at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, by President Abraham Lincoln, packs a great deal of meaning into a very few words, and the fact that some of its phrases have become iconic, used liberally in everyday society, has actually blurred some of their meaning. Let’s go through it, attempting to be as concise as the author was, but knowing we will fail [this article is many times longer than his speech]:
“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
—Yes, the first five words may be the most well-known; there’s probably no American alive today over the age of 5 who hasn’t heard those words, usually used in jest, or presented as impenetrable. It’s the one archaic rhetorical flourish Lincoln included. “Score” means 20, so the number is four times 20 plus seven, or 87 years ago. In 1863, that was, of course, 1776, the year the Declaration of Independence was written and signed.
The important thing about that number and that date is how recent it was; just 87 years ago there had been no United States. Adults in the crowd at Gettysburg had heard their parents’ stories about colonial days, and the Revolutionary War. Their grandparents might never have known independence. So the nation brought forth so recently, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, possessed all the vulnerability of youth. It was not a powerful entity that could be counted on to withstand a civil war, particularly one that amassed casualties such as those at the Battle of Gettysburg.
“Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.”
—The point is reiterated: can the U.S. survive the war? But Lincoln’s real question is about the precarious state of world affairs that the U.S. Civil War represented. The U.S. was founded as a nation dedicated to liberty for all. The Confederacy that fought the war was fighting for slavery, the opposite of liberty, and there seemed to be a real possibility that other nations, primarily England and France, would join the war on the Confederate side. If the Union lost the war, the only attempt at real democracy, personal liberty, and equality on Earth would be no more, and there might never be another. The U.S. had the best chance at making it work; if the U.S. failed, who could succeed? The worst fears of the Founders and of all patriotic Americans were realized in this war, and in losses like the ones at Gettysburg.
“We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.”
—This was a recent battlefield. The bodies were cleared away, but the landscape was devastated by three days of cannon and gunfire. This photo was taken during the battle:
The soldiers are awash in fields and surrounded by trees. Here is a photo from the day of the Address:
Yes, it’s now November instead of July, but the ground being completely stripped of vegetation is not the result of the onset of winter, and the lack of a single tree speaks volumes about the ferocity of the battle. There is a tree stump taken from the battlefield at Spotsylvania on display at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC that is all that’s left of a tall tree that was shot away to nothing by rifle fire during the fighting.
Gettysburg’s trees must have suffered the same fate. Under that stripped-bare ground many men from both sides were already hastily buried. There was a strong need on the part of the families of the dead, who could not travel to Pennsylvania to find and retrieve their bodies, to find some way to set this battlefield aside as sacred ground.
“But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”
—You can make the battlefield into a cemetery, but that action is not what makes the field sacred. It is the unselfish sacrifice of the dead, who fought to keep democracy and liberty alive in the world, that makes the land sacred—not just the land of the cemetery, but all lands of the United States. They are buried now in the cemetery, but they will live forever in the memory of the nation.
“It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.”
—The “unfinished work” the soldiers were doing is the work of keeping democracy alive as well as the nation.
“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—”
—”The last full measure of devotion” must be one of the most powerful ways to say “they gave their lives” ever conceived of. The men buried here did not just die for a cause, they died because their faith in liberty was so devout that they put the life of their nation above their own lives.
“—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
—We tend to think that the last phrase, “government of the people, by the people, for the people”, must have appeared somewhere before this, in the Constitution or some Revolutionary War speech. It’s surprising that it had not. This was Lincoln’s own description, and it is simple and powerful. This final statement in the Address is far from a gentle benediction. It is a steely resolve to continue the fighting, continue the bloodshed, allow more men to die, and to dedicate more cemeteries to the war dead in order to guarantee that the United States will not perish and take freedom along with it. We “highly resolve” to continue the work of this war, knowing that it will not be easy and success is not assured.
Delivering this final line, the president sat down. People in the audience were surprised. They had expected a longer speech—something more along the lines of the “translation” we’ve just provided, something more didactic that pounded points home over and over, and expressed its patriotism in more familiar, jingoistic language. Some felt insulted, and the press reviews were mixed: The Chicago Times said “The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly flat and dishwattery [sic] remarks of the man who has to be pointed out as the President of the United States.” The local Harrisburg Patriot and Union said “…we pass over the silly remarks of the President: for the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall no more be repeated or thought of.”
Part of the problem was that the elder statesman of Massachusetts politics, Edward Everett, had spoken for over two hours in a much more conventional way before Lincoln. Technically, Everett was right to speak longer, as he was on the program to deliver an “oration” while the president was listed as giving only “dedicatory remarks”. It was an age of very long speeches, and the longer the speech, the more seriously the speaker was taken.
But there were many people who realized they had just heard an historic speech. We’ll close with the opinion of the reporter from the Providence Daily Journal who felt the same way we do today after he heard Lincoln speak: “We know not where to look for a more admirable speech than the brief one which the President made…. It is often said that the hardest thing in the world is to make a five minute speech. But could the most elaborate and splendid oration be more beautiful, more touching, more inspiring than those few words of the President?”Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 4 so far )
The New York Times’ interesting series on the Civil War, “Disunion”, continues with “How Lincoln undid the Union”. Join the series and get even more on Lincoln, Slavery, and Racism and the unfolding of the Civil War here at the HP.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
It was a good start to the year in 1863. In honor of the 147th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, I would direct you to two HP posts on the topic:
Just so we can all start the new decade on a myth-free and positive note. Happy New Year!Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
I was dismayed by the Gates program shown on PBS this week. Clearly Prof. Gates does not read my blog.
“Looking for Lincoln” is a multi-episode show about Gates’ search for “the real Lincoln.” Unfortunately, he succumbs to a powerful myth from the start—that Lincoln was an incorrigible racist who never stopped being racist and never wanted to free enslaved black Americans even though he believed slavery was wrong.
I was excited by the open of the show, which promised that Gates would indeed find Lincoln to be as, even more, amazing than he had previously thought. But a doubt about the level of the discourse was raised when Gates was discussing William Herndon’s biography of Lincoln. Herndon, a friend of Lincoln, decided to write a biography after Lincoln’s death, and so wrote to everyone he could think of who knew Lincoln before he was president, asking them for details and stories. One of the letters claimed Lincoln had visited prostitutes. Throughout this section, photos of Lincoln were overlayed with writing: summaries in one font, actual quotes from the letters in cursive. When prostitutes were mentioned, over Lincoln’s face were the words DESIROUS… HE ASKED WHERE HE could get some. Yes, this documentary was purporting to show that in the 1830s Lincoln used the 21st-century phrase “get some” to refer to sex, and that he actually wrote someone to ask where he could get some (sex with prostitutes).
I’m sure the editors had a few laughs over this, thinking it was funny. But the red flag went up for me: this program was not fully believable.
Around 25 minutes in, the Lincoln-Douglas debates come up, and with them discussion of Lincoln’s views on race. And here, in a program supposedly dedicated to myth-busting, myth took over. David Blight, a historian, talked about Lincoln’s statement in one of the debates that there was a physical difference between black and white people that would keep them from ever living in equality, and Lincoln was happy for whites to occupy the superior role. “That shows Lincoln as a white supremacist,” Blight stated.
Any real historian who has studied Lincoln and the debates knows that at this point, Lincoln was very divided (see my post on his position on race at the time and how he overcame his own racism). He knew racism was wrong, but he was not comfortable with full desegregated equality. He was a racist. But unlike most people, then and now, he was irritated by his own racism, his own inability to rise to the ideal of racial justice, and he continued to wrestle with his racism until he conquered it.
That’s what’s missing from any claim that Lincoln was a permanent white supremacist that is based on his statements in the Douglas debates: he changed. It would be like someone quoting you on how babies are made when you were 10 years old and then claiming that’s still what you believed at 30. When I was a teenager I, like most straight people, was homophobic—it’s how I was raised. I’m not homophobic anymore. So if someone quoted the 17 year-old me on gay people and used that to state that I am a homophobe now, it would be inaccurate.
So all statements about Lincoln’s racism that are based on what he said in 1858 are unfair and dishonest in the extreme, because Lincoln was a racist in 1858 but was not one by 1863—a remarkably rapid transformation. Frederick Douglass recognized Lincoln’s change from racist to non-racist; so many people today refuse to.
Blight even claims that maybe we have to just accept Lincoln’s “permanent” racism because of Lincoln’s time. “He grew up with the standard white prejudices about race of the early 19th century,” Blight says. This is beyond lame, first because Lincoln shook off those prejudices, and second because in the same program the white abolitionists of the time are praised. Either white people in the early 19th century were incapable of accepting racial equality or they were not.
Blight goes on to add, “He was not an abolitionist. He did not like radical change.” This about the man who wrote the Emancipation Proclamation (which did, indeed, free the enslaved Americans—see “The Emancipation Proclamation was not useless”) and set in motion not only that extremely radical change but was planning, at his death, to push voting rights for black Americans.
Again, this shows that all the negative statements about Lincoln as a racist make sense only if you refuse to see his comments in 1858 as transitional. When you realize that Lincoln changed between 1858 and 1863, they do not make sense.
The show continues down this path of stating that the stance Lincoln had on race in 1858 was forever his stance on race by talking with Lerone Bennett, Jr, a man who has made and staked his reputation on Lincoln-hating. Bennett cannot forgive Lincoln for supporting and even pushing the plan to have black Americans freed from slavery and convinced to go “back home” to Africa.
This stance is a little odd. Lincoln “only” wanted to end slavery and then allow voluntary colonization. Name the president before Lincoln who wanted to end slavery. I can’t think of one. Even if that was all Lincoln wanted, to free enslaved people and send them away to Africa, that’s a radical, massive change in American law and society in 1860.
But that isn’t, of course, all Lincoln wanted. Yes, he originally was very keen on sending black Americans “back” to Africa. He didn’t see how black Americans could live with the whites who had enslaved them. He predicted unending violence between the races, and a very hard time getting white Americans to treat black Americans equally. And he was right. We have struggled for equality, there has been violence, and there are many black Americans who completely agree with Lincoln that they will never be treated equally. So these seem like statements of fact rather than racism. Would Bennett describe black Americans who feel this way as having a “core belief that the races were not equal,” as he describes Lincoln?
But once Lincoln met with black leaders at the White House, to which he invited them, for the first time in American history, and heard them explain that they would never, ever leave their country, he let the colonization plan go. And that’s when he turned his full attention to emancipation and reconstruction.
When Gates asks Bennett why it’s so important to him to bust myths about Lincoln—so inaccurate a statement as to make one gasp—Bennett replies that “You can’t defend Abraham Lincoln without defending slavery.” Blight chimes in, adding that “In order to remember the redemptive, progressive Lincoln, we have to forget what he said in the Lincoln-Douglas debates about racial inequality. Remembering is always about forgetting.”
Again, the basic illogic here is that Blight describes Lincoln as progressive while stating that he was a permanent racist. Again: Lincoln started out racist and changed. He progressed. He redeemed himself by shaking off racism. We don’t need to forget what he said in the debates, it’s crucial that we remember it, to see that Lincoln changed, and therefore we can change, and racism can be overcome. Lincoln is a hero because he changed, not because he was a saint. That’s worth remembering.
Gates then visits a U.S. history class in Chicago taught by Kyle Westbrook, who is also dedicated to “myth-busting” Lincoln. The proof is that his students make these statements: “He was not that radical.” “He stayed on the fence.” “Before this class I thought he was a great person. Now I know he was blatantly racist.” “I was bamboozled (into thinking he was a hero).”
Westbrook himself says he knocks Lincoln off his pedestal, though he then backtracks to say he sometimes puts him back up there. This is never explained. Here again students are taught that the man who wrote the EP and then demanded that it be put to public referendum by putting it before Congress rather than issuing it as an executive order, so that white Americans could validate racial justice, was “not that radical”, a “blatant racist,” and “on the fence.”
As part 1 draws to a close, Gates states that he has “chipped away a little at some of the marble and granite” of Lincoln’s legacy. What’s so odd is that Gates has talked before the end of the show about Lincoln’s political astuteness, his ability to learn from others, even those he opposes, and to grow. Yet neither Gates nor his guests can see or grant any ability of Lincoln’s to grow emotionally and intellectually from racism to equality. That, apparently, is just not possible.
And that stance is the myth that seems will never be busted about Lincoln. You would think that by now, 200 years after his birth in 1809, we would be doing better.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
I noticed on my blog stats page that someone had clicked into my series of posts on Lincoln and slavery from a site called “Stuff Black People Hate”, which is either the precursor or follower of the site “Stuff White People Love.” I clicked the link to the site and there, posted on March 27, 2008, was an article about how vile Lincoln was and why black Americans hate him.
It’s good to know that my series on Lincoln was timely.
The post quotes one of Lincoln’s 1858 Senate race speeches, in which he talks about how he will never let inferior Negroes mix with whites. Then, it quotes an 1865 speech in which Lincoln says he wishes that only those black Americans who served in the Union army could have the vote.
Both quotes are used to prove Lincoln’s racism in the most dishonest way. First, yes indeed, Lincoln was flailing during that Senate race, battling with his own racism. He wanted the grand ideal of equality for all, but was totally unequipped mentally to bring it about.
You could use that quote to lambast Lincoln’s racism–IF that was the end of the story. But, unlike most people then and now, Lincoln’s attitude toward race changed pretty radically over a pretty short period of time. Five years after that 1858 speech, he had fought hard to get Congress to pass the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing enslaved people in war zones permanently and setting the legal stage for abolition. Seven years after that 1858 speech, he convinced the Congress and the people to abolish slavery in the U.S., driving the Thirteenth Amendment through a skeptical Congress and nation.
In 1865, his musings on allowing only intelligent or veteran black Americans to vote can be viewed as racist–unless you know something about American history. At that point, no black Americans could vote. The Fifteenth Amendment would not come into existence until 1870. So Lincoln is saying that even though black Americans are not yet allowed to vote, those who served their country in war should be allowed to.
Having pushed through the EP and the Thirteenth Amendment in just two years, Lincoln was likely waiting to include the right to vote for black Americans until his Reconstruction plan began.
So once again I’m gravely unconvinced by the same old misinformed and tired arguments against Lincoln. Yes, he began as a racist. But he didn’t end that way. To insist on slandering him is only to insist on spreading the myth that American freedom and principles mean nothing. They only mean nothing when we ignore them.
If black—and white—Americans want to hate someone, how about Bing Crosby? I saw “Holiday Inn” on TV the other night. In it, Crosby runs an inn open only on holidays. For Lincoln’s birthday, the inn was set up like a plantation, with all the whites in black face, including Bing, who sang a song in “negro dialect” while his blonde girlfriend, with her hair sticking straight up in her role as “pickaninny”, rolled her eyes and also sang about “ol fadder Abraham” (after complaining, while her blackface was put on, that she had thought she was going to get to look pretty). This was in 1942. It was perhaps the most revolting thing I’ve ever seen on television, or anywhere else. Sometimes the 20th century looks worse than the 19th.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 1 so far )
Here we are at the last post of my Truth v. Myth series on Lincoln and slavery.
With the Emancipation Proclamation, and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, Abraham Lincoln finally abolished slavery in the United States. By which I mean to say, slavery was finally abolished, someone finally acted to end it, and Lincoln finally lived up to his principles. “Finally” seems harsh to apply to someone whose actions and convictions changed so radically in just four years (1858 to 1862). “[Viewed] from the abolition ground, [Lincoln was] tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent… Measuring him by the sentiment of his country… he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined,” said Frederick Douglass. Abolishing slavery through the Emancipation Proclamation “is the central act of my administration, and the great event of the nineteenth century,” Lincoln said. [Guelzo, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, 250, 186]
So how can it be that Lincoln is called a proslavery racist so often today? Lincoln was, of course, slowly but surely tarnished by education in this country after the Civil War, when he slipped from hero to villain as southern Confederate sympathizers rewrote his motives and actions to make him a fool. Texas and Florida are two of the largest textbook markets in America, and their textbook committees made sure the “right” information was published in their American history books throughout the 20th century.
And as the dream of true equality seemed to slide farther and farther away from black Americans during Jim Crow, Lincoln’s deeds and promises did seem hollow. By the 1960s, when the horrors of violence inflicted on black civil rights protesters and leaders had been witnessed by the entire nation, a few key black scholars and leaders rejected all white efforts on behalf of race equality as empty, including Lincoln and his Emancipation Proclamation. Lerone Bennett’s work, naming Lincoln as “a reactionary white supremacist” was particularly damaging.
But this kind of treatment of Lincoln was just an early symptom of Americans losing faith in America. “The withdrawal from Lincoln by African-Americans has moved in step with the emergence of a profound nihilism in the minds of many Americans who see no meaning in American freedom and no hope for real racial progress,” Allen Guelzo says, and I think he is right. [Ibid. 248] I also agree with him when he says that “It would be special pleading to claim that Lincoln was in the end the most perfect friend black Americans have ever had. But it would also be the cheapest and most ignorant of skepticism to deny that he was the most significant.” [Ibid. 11]
Myth: The Civil War was not fought over slavery.
Truth: It was, and deliberately so.
Damage done when we believe in a myth: Guelzo has it cold: when we believe the absolute worst of myths, we see—and are part of—“the emergence of a profound nihilism in the minds of many Americans who see no meaning in American freedom and no hope for real racial progress”. There is meaning in the Civil War when it comes to racial progress, and if there was hope that was realized in 1863—in the middle of a nightmare war, after 203 years of entrenched slavery—then there is hope today.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
“If I could save the union without freeing any slaves…” – The victory of the Emancipation Proclamation
This post is part 3 of my series on Lincoln, racism, and slavery. Here we conclude our study of the Emancipation Proclamation.
The EP is short and legalistic and has been criticized for lacking moral rhetorical flourishes, but this is deliberate. It is a canny legal document designed to outmaneuver Taney and the courts. In its short lines, the EP gives its legal rationale for freeing certain enslaved people, a schedule for doing so, a definition of who is freed, and their new legal condition. In its short lines, Lincoln overrode centuries of power located in state slave codes, property ownership laws, and civil court rulings and procedures. Lincoln offers no monetary compensation. And, at last, he drops all mention of shipping freed black Americans to Africa. [Ibid. 120] There would be no more colonization, compensation, or caviling. Slavery would no longer be a part of the southern United States. If the Confederate states returned to the Union, it would be without slaves.
So we see the reason Lincoln did not extend the terms of the EP to the Border states, or the western territories. (This is what he is lacerated for, for only freeing slaves in Confederate states at war.) First, the Border states were not at war with the U.S. but a part of it; Lincoln could not use his war powers on them when they were not in a state of war with the U.S. The same applies to the west, which was not at war with the U.S.
And Lincoln did not apply the EP to the North, to the Union, to the United States as it stood in 1862, because slavery had already been outlawed in all the states then remaining in the Union. We’ll come back to this later, though; Lincoln would.
In the months before Lincoln published his proclamation, Horace Greeley, of the New York Tribune, wrote an editorial letter on August 20, 1862 blasting the president for not abolishing slavery already. No one outside Lincoln’s cabinet knew he had the EP written and waiting. Lincoln’s response is famous, or infamous, to us now. It is the letter in which he said that if he could save the Union by freeing all the slaves, he would, and it he could save it by freeing none, he would, and if he could do it by freeing some and leaving others, he would do that.
We take that as the basest kind of position. This is the quote most people use to show how racist and pro-slavery Lincoln was. They are wrong. Let’s look at the whole letter.
Lincoln starts by saying that his main aim in the war is to preserve the Union. He sees a few options when it comes to saving the Union. He might be able to do it by freeing all the slaves. If that was the best option, he would take it. He might, though, be able to save the Union without freeing any slaves. If so, he would take that option. Or, he might be able to save the Union by freeing some slaves.
You, by now, should see that he is hinting very broadly at his Proclamation, which did just that: it freed some enslaved people and left others (in the border states) enslaved. (For the reasons we have already described—under war powers, he could only free slaves in territory at war with the U.S. without Taney and the courts striking the measure down.)
We still shudder at Lincoln calmly talking about not freeing anyone. But people at the time saw what was really shocking: Lincoln was saying that ending slavery was on the table. For the first time in the history of the United States, a president was saying he would outlaw slavery. This had never been on the table before.
It would be like an American president today saying, “If I can bring peace to the Middle East without using nuclear weapons, I won’t use them. If I have to launch a few nuclear strikes to bring peace, I’ll do that.” We would say, wait a minute—when did nuclear weapons come into this question? No one has ever talked about nuclear war in the Middle East before, but now the President is saying it’s on the table.
So with Lincoln’s statement that suddenly abolition was on the table. No longer could anyone in the U.S. or the Confederacy believe that slavery was protected and would not be abolished. Lincoln was telling the nation that he was thinking about abolishing it—that he would abolish it, if that would win the war. To Americans at the time, it didn’t matter that it might be partial abolition. Any move toward abolition coming from Washington was unheard of, and again, certainly no president had ever moved to abolish slavery at all, anywhere, ever.
Lincoln underlined this new attitude by adding, “I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free.” This was a pretty clear message—or warning—to the nation and the Confederacy that slavery was not going to make it out of the war intact. Lincoln was just waiting for the moment to make a move that would be effective and lawful. As Lincoln said himself after his letter appeared, his intention was to make clear that “he would proclaim freedom to the slave just as soon as he felt assured he could do it effectively…” [my italics; Ibid., 135-36]
Lincoln put the Proclamation out to the nation right before the November 1862 Congressional elections. This was dangerous. People might have voted all Republicans out of Congress because of the Republican president’s Proclamation. The Congress might have come under Democratic control, and those Democrats would have fought the Proclamation. But it had always been Lincoln’s wish to give the people a chance to vote on any emancipation order he issued. And 31 Republicans did lose their seats in Congress, as voting for Republicans fell 16 percent from 1860 [Ibid. 167] But the Republicans maintained their majorities in the House and Senate, and Lincoln pressed them to support the Proclamation. He knew that the Proclamation would not only free enslaved people, but galvanize the North. Once the Proclamation took effect… “the character of the war will be changed. It will be one of subjugation and extermination [of slavery],” Lincoln told T. J. Barnett.
He was right. After January 1, 1863, when the Emancipation Proclamation took effect, emancipation was “wedged into the war’s equation as a sine qua non of victory.” And Lincoln added that he intended to shape a follow-up policy that would be “more radical than ever.” [Ibid. 156, 228]
What was this radical move? To pass an Amendment to the Constitution outlawing slavery. Lincoln knew his Emancipation Proclamation would hold up during the war, and that those freed by it would remain free after the war. But what about enslaved people in the Border states, who were not freed by it? What about slavery in the west, or even in the North, unlikely as that may have seemed? Slavery was still technically possible in those areas. And Lincoln couldn’t be president forever. Once he was out of office, a new president could re-affirm slavery.
Lincoln could not accept this kind of risk. He began to push the new Congress to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, outlawing slavery in the United States. It seemed like a good sign when Lincoln’s legal nemesis Chief Justice Roger Taney died in October 1864. The vote on the Thirteenth Amendment came on January 31, 1865, and, as we know, it passed.
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In part 2 of my series on Lincoln and slavery, we address the Emancipation Proclamation.
Ever since I was a kid, I have read that the Emancipation Proclamation was a sham. It only freed a fraction of enslaved people, and only freed them where the federal government had no power to enforce it, and therefore had no real power or purpose. It was an empty gesture by a president who was pro-slavery. Let’s set that straight right now.
The main problem people have with the EP today is that it only freed enslaved people in areas that were rebelling (in the Confederacy), and not in areas of the Confederacy occupied by Union troops, and not in the border states of Missouri, Kentucky, Delaware, and Maryland that were slaveholding but not part of the Confederacy. As one of Lincoln’s witty critics at the London Times put it in 1863 put it, “Where he has no power Mr. Lincoln will set the negroes free; where he retains power he will consider them as slaves.” Abolitionists then and most people today wish Lincoln had freed all slaves in the Proclamation, and don’t understand why he wrote what he did instead.
People have also been discouraged by Lincoln’s moves to overturn and rescind orders some Union generals sent out once they occupied a Confederate area that freed enslaved people in that area. Why would he do that?
Because he knew that if slavery was going to be abolished in the United States, it was going to have to be made illegal. That sounds a little redundant. But it’s the heart and soul of Lincoln’s actions and planning and his eventual Proclamation. Slavery was still legal in the United States during the Civil War (until 1863). The northern states had passed emancipation laws, but there was no federal law outlawing slavery (it seemed a moot point with slavery already outlawed on the state level). Lincoln realized that if army officers or even he himself, the president, sent out orders freeing enslaved people during the war, once the war was over, those newly freed people would have absolutely no legal protection from being re-enslaved. Because slavery would still be legal in the United States, even if the Confederacy was beaten. And until 1863, many people in the U.S. and the Confederacy figured that if the Union won the war, and the Confederate states returned to the Union, they would be allowed to keep slavery (but not be allowed to expand it into the west). Some people thought this would be temporary, others thought it would be permanent.
It’s hard for us to picture this now, because we know slavery was abolished by and during the war. But that’s only because of Lincoln’s Proclamation. Before he published a draft of the EP in August 1862, slavery was still on the table, and very much alive as an option.
So Lincoln rescinded those orders his generals sent out, because he knew they would have no legal power if the war ended and slavery was not abolished. If a general freed enslaved people, and then those people were successfully forced back into slavery, it would damage any future attempt to abolish slavery in general.
Lincoln also knew that whatever he did to end slavery would come in for powerful court challenges, as people fought it, and that Supreme Court Chief Justice Taney would be more than eager to strike down a Lincoln law against slavery. Ever since Lincoln had suspended habeas corpus (which allows people to know what they are being arrested for, and guarantees them a speedy court trial by jury) during the war, Taney had hated Lincoln. Lincoln knew that Taney would be ready to attack any attempt to end slavery that Lincoln tried to push.
Therefore, Lincoln knew that he could not go with “the satisfaction of a ‘spirit’ overriding the law… not the exercise of [his] will rather than reason,” as Guelzo puts it. [Guelzo 5]
Whatever Lincoln did to end slavery had to be fully legal, stand up in court, and have the buy-in of the American people, whom he would have liked to have vote on any such measure.
His first plan was the Delaware Plan. Delaware was one of the four neutral Border states. Lincoln was fearful that a Union general would go into one of these Border states and start freeing enslaved people, enraging slaveholders and driving all of the Border states into the Confederacy. (If Maryland left the Union, Washington, DC itself would be located inside the Confederacy.) Before that could happen, Lincoln tried to get the neutral, slaveholding Border states to give up slavery in return for a cash compensation. He called representatives from those states to Washington to make them the offer, infuriating abolitionists who hated the idea of slaveholders getting a reward for giving up their enslaved people.
If the Border states would give up slavery peacefully, it would destroy the Confederacy’s chances of getting them to leave the Union, and it would make it much easier for Lincoln to abolish slavery legally in the U.S., because then no state actually in the U.S. would be slaveholding. Then, if the Confederacy lost the war and had to come back into the Union, it would have to give up slavery because slavery would be illegal in the U.S.
But the Border states would not go for the Delaware Plan. Delaware slaveholders were not ready to give up slaveholding, and state papers cast doubt and mockery on the government’s promise to pay $900,000 to slaveholders for giving up their enslaved people. [Ibid. 92] The other reason for the rejection of the Delaware Plan was that many Americans realized that for the first time, an American president was making moves to eradicate slavery. “The great, transcendent fact is, that for the first time… we have the recommendation from the presidential chair of the abolition of slavery…” said the Daily National Republican on March 10, 1862. The debate was no longer about how to contain slavery or where it would be allowed, but about getting rid of it, forever.
Lincoln was, at this point, still adamant about shipping the black Americans who were freed by the Delaware Plan “back” to Africa. This was not about racism. It was a cold, hard assessment of the facts, of what enslaving one group of people because of their race does to both the enslaved and enslaving races. “You and we are different races,” said Lincoln, “[and] your race are suffering, in my judgment, the greatest wrong inflicted on any people. [But] even when you cease to be slaves, you are yet far removed from being placed on an equality with the white race. [This is] a fact with which we have to deal.” In this, Lincoln was prescient, for we are still working, 144 years later, on getting all white Americans to place black Americans “on an equality.”
Lincoln figured black Americans would be happy to leave a place and a people that had enslaved them so bitterly. “I do not know how much attachment you may have toward our race,” he said. “It does not strike me that you have the greatest reason to love [us].” [Ibid. 142] Lincoln said these things to a committee of black American leaders he called to the White House to discuss colonization of formerly enslaved people. (The first time any president had invited black leaders to a White House conference.) These men bravely stood up to Lincoln and told him they did not want to leave their own country, but work in it and have the benefits of it. Lincoln, doubtful, clung to colonization, but only voluntary colonization. He never planned to have black Americans forcibly shipped to Africa.
We are irritated and disappointed to hear Lincoln talk about colonization, but the one silver lining in it is that it shows how serious he was about ending slavery. He felt he had to have a plan in place to remove all the people he was determined to free from slavery. That plan was the EP.
When it became clear that there was no way the Delaware Plan was going to be accepted, in any shape or form, Lincoln might have given up. He might have just hoped that the war would end slavery by itself, that if the Confederacy was defeated, slavery would soon be abolished in the South. He could have been like the Founders and looked ahead to distant, better times. But instead he moved ahead with what he felt was his only remaining option to end slavery: using the war powers given to the president by the Constitution.
He would write an emancipation proclamation, freeing enslaved people in the Confederacy. It would be in the same vein as the Confiscation Acts that allowed Union soldiers to take food, weapons, horses, or any other thing from the Confederate army or civilian public that was helping the Confederate war effort. Under the Confiscation Act, enslaved people had been considered property and labor that helped the Confederate war effort, and had therefore been “seized” by Union generals.
But unlike the Confiscation Act, the EP would be eternally binding. Lincoln knew that the Confiscation Act would not be binding if the war ended and slavery had not been repealed. The Confiscation Act could only free enslaved people during a war, when they were part of a war effort. If the war ends and slavery still exists, those people are returned to slavery.
So his Emancipation Proclamation, unlike the Confiscation Act, would free enslaved people in the Confederacy, not until the war was over, but forever. We tend to miss that word—and henceforward shall be free. From this time forward. By abolishing slavery in the states in rebellion, Lincoln was saying that once the war was won by the Union, and the southern states in rebellion returned to the Union, they would have to return without slavery. Most of the country would be free because northern states had individual anti-slavery laws and the southern states were banned from holding slaves by the EP.
The only problem would then be the border states and the west. The border states were slave states, and the west was technically open to slavery. To fix this, and end slavery in the United States completely and permanently, Lincoln would present an amendment to the Constitution to abolish slavery on the national rather than individual state level. This would be the Thirteenth Amendment, passed in December 1865.
For now, in 1863, the goal was to ensure that the Confederate states returned to the Union as free states after a Union victory in the war. That’s what the EP did. Read on for the details by clicking below.
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