Lincoln, Racism, and Slavery

“If I could save the union without freeing any slaves…” – The victory of the Emancipation Proclamation

Posted on April 30, 2008. Filed under: Civil War, Lincoln, Racism, and Slavery, Politics | Tags: , , , , |

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.

Next time: the final Lincoln post

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Truth v. Myth: The Emancipation Proclamation was not useless

Posted on April 26, 2008. Filed under: Civil War, Lincoln, Racism, and Slavery, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , , |

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.

Next post: Confiscation v. Emancipation

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Truth v. Myth: President Lincoln, Slavery, and Racism

Posted on April 25, 2008. Filed under: Civil War, Lincoln, Racism, and Slavery, Politics | Tags: , , , |

One of the most damaging myths about American history is that Abraham Lincoln was a terrible president. That he was a racist who loved slavery, and worked hard to keep the Civil War from ending it. That Abraham Lincoln was a pro-slavery weasel whom black Americans should scorn and whose memory we should all trample in the dust.

I will stamp out this malevolent myth about Lincoln in a series of posts. To help me, I will lean heavily on the great historian David Potter, and his invaluable book The Impending Crisis: 1848-1861, and just about drown in the fantastic, should-be-required-reading-for-all-Americans Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America, by Allen Guelzo.

To get to the truth about Lincoln, we have to go back to his statements and personal thoughts about slavery when he was on the road campaigning in Illinois to win the 1858 senate race against Stephen Douglas.

When Lincoln and Douglas spoke to the people, and debated each other, slavery was a major topic. Douglas had a typical “moderate” position on slavery: since black people were not the equal of white people, black people had to be kept in check somehow. Slavery took that too far; there was no need to enslave black people. But when it came to figuring out exactly what else to do to keep them in line, Douglas had no real ideas. He was willing to grant black people their freedom as a gift, rather than a real right, but he was in no hurry to do so, since there didn’t seem to be a clear way to keep black people in order once they were free. Douglas firmly stated that black Americans were not equal to white, and that black people ought to be treated with the charity one gives to inferior beings. “To a man who, as Lincoln observed, had ‘no very vivid impression that the Negro is a human,’ slavery did not appear either as a great moral issue or as an agonizing dilemma. The most important thing about it was to avoid a violent national quarrel about it…” [Potter, 340-341, 342].

Lincoln knew slavery was wrong. He knew that the reason the Founders didn’t put the word “slavery” into the Constitution was because they were ashamed of it and hoped that slavery would die, or, as Lincoln put it, they “intended and expected the ultimate extinction” of slavery. Lincoln believed black people were the equals of white people. “Let us discard all this quibbling about [this] race and that race and the other race being inferior… Let us discard all these things and unite as one people throughout this land until we shall once more stand up declaring that all men are created equal.” (Ibid., 342-3] Lincoln also believed slavery could not be allowed to spread, and that containing it would indeed set it on a course to die.

But then, like many Americans at the time, Lincoln ran into problems. Like the Founders, he believed that the existence of the United States was crucial to the quotient of good in the world. Lincoln believed he was obligated to live with slavery on this basis, waiting for it to die on its own. He also didn’t know how black people could be integrated into white American society. He did not believe black and white people could live peacefully together, not after hundreds of years of slavery had driven them so far apart. Lincoln felt that black people would never be given their full rights as Americans. He knew that there was no point in “[freeing black Americans] and [keeping] them among us as underlings.” Therefore, he decided the only solution was to send all the black people in America back to Africa, “their own native land.” This despite the fact that America was their own native land.

So Lincoln aspired to high ideals, and knew intellectually that black and white people were equal, but in his daily life and habits he was he was not ready to end slavery or begin the work of racial integration in the United States. And when he was addressing racist audiences during his senate campaign, he ramped up the racism in his own comments, assuring people he would never want to see blacks living equally with whites, and that the U.S. was a nation by and for whites alone.

What makes this man admirable? The fact that he grew increasingly irritated with his own inconsistency, and that he changed. In 1858, he believed that black people were equal to white people, but when it came down to visualizing a truly mixed and equal society, he just couldn’t see it, and didn’t want to risk trying it for fear of civil war. He believed what he said when he told his audiences that black and white people shared a common humanity. But nothing in his life in America had prepared him to live in a truly just, racially equal society.

Unlike Douglas, and most other Americans, however, Lincoln couldn’t rest with this attitude. He struggled with it. In his private papers, he wrote this: “If A can prove… that he may, of right, enslave B.—why may not B snatch the same argument, and prove equally, that he may enslave A? –You say A. is white, and B. is black. It is color, then; the lighter having the right to enslave the darker? Take care. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with a fairer skin than your own. You do not mean color exactly? –You mean the whites are intellectually the superiors of the blacks, and therefore have the right to enslave them? Take care again. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with an intellect superior to your own. But, say you, it is a question of interest; and if you can make it your interest, you have the right to enslave another. Very well. And if he can make it his interest, he has the right to enslave you.”

As Potter points out, “Here, clearly, Lincoln saw blacks and white together, caught indiscriminately in the web of injustice which society often weaves. …it was only random chance which had made him free and made [blacks] slave.” [Ibid., 352-3]

So Lincoln was conflicted between an ideal and reality. The ideal—all people are equal, and brothers and sisters. The reality—he was uncomfortable living that out with actual black people. This is hardly surprising. Think of your own lofty ideals and how you fall short in living them out. Americans believe in justice and democracy, yet very few have done much to stop the imprisonments of Americans and others at Guantanamo Bay, the torture carried out by our soldiers, or the crimes committed in America’s name by private contractors in Iraq. Many Americans who know that racial profiling is wrong, and who would yell if it were applied to them, still can’t quite bring themselves to condemn it when it is applied to others, particularly olive-skinned men wearing turbans at the airport.  We all fall short of living out our ideals.

So do we hand Lincoln a big prize for falling short of his ideals? No. And if he had stopped there, he would not be the great man that he was and the American hero that he is. But he didn’t stop there. What makes Lincoln admirable at this point is what he did next: he kept thinking about his inconsistency, and he changed his position. He started out racist and changed. He started out wishy-washy on slavery and he changed.

We all start out with prejudices; that is part of growing up in any human society. If we live out our lives with those prejudices, we are not admirable. But if we can come to realize that prejudice is unjust, we can change, and become better people, and that is admirable. Lincoln was still racist in 1858. But he was not racist by 1861. That profound change is what makes Lincoln someone we can respect  and, more to the point, emulate.

Slavery mattered to Lincoln. His own inconsistency on race mattered to him. Having to talk publicly in political debates about slavery and race, and hearing himself waffle on both, forced Lincoln to resolve his ambiguity. Potter sums this up so well:

“The difference between Lincoln and Douglas… was that Douglas did not believe that slavery really mattered very much, because he did not believe that Negroes had enough human affinity with him to make it necessary to concern himself with them. Lincoln, on the contrary, believed that slavery mattered, because he recognized a human affinity with blacks which made their plight a necessary matter of concern to him. This does not mean that his position was logically consistent or that he was free of prejudice. …In a very real sense his position was ambiguous. …And, one must add, an ambiguous position is by definition one in which opposing values conflict with one another. It is hard to believe that, in Lincoln’s case, the conflicting values were really of equal force. …By a static analysis, Lincoln was a mild opponent of slavery and a moderate defender of racial discrimination. By a dynamic analysis, he held a concept of humanity which impelled him inexorably in the direction of freedom and equality.” (my italics) [Ibid., 354]

Lincoln had conflicting values, like most of us. Unlike most of us, he came pretty quickly to see that this was completely unacceptable, and he acted decisively to end slavery and to successfully integrate the United States after the war. That was in 1862, when he wrote the Emancipation Proclamation.

Next post: The Emancipation Proclamation WAS the end of slavery in the U.S.

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