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Facing facts about Lincoln and his views on slavery

Because of Lincoln’s special place in U.S. history, it can be difficult to face certain facts squarely.

Abraham Lincoln
The Library of CongressAbraham Lincoln

Last week, writing about the Bloomington event to celebrate Dred Scott, I threatened to come back to the topic to explore the importance of the U.S. Supreme Court’s infamous Dred Scott ruling on the rise of Abraham Lincoln and on his developing attitudes toward slavery. This post, the fulfillment of that threat, relies on the work of historian Eric Foner and on “The Fiery Trial,” Foner’s brilliant 2010 Pulitzer-winning book tracing Lincoln’s evolution on the slavery issue over the course of his life and political career.

Because of Lincoln’s special place in U.S. history, and especially in his role as the “Great Emancipator,” it can be difficult to face certain facts squarely, such as the fact that Lincoln came late to the anti-slavery cause and, at every stage, trailed behind others who were more committed, more able to rise above the pervasive racism, more willing to risk their reputations for the cause. But no abolitionist could ever have become president in 1860.

Lincoln was no abolitionist.

During the 1830s and ‘40s, when he was an Illinois legislator and a practicing lawyer, Lincoln was involved in a smattering of cases involving slavery. He represented clients on both sides of the issue. In the worst instance, he represented a Kentucky slaveholder seeking to have his slaves returned to him by the courts of Illinois. (Lincoln lost the case, by the way.)

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In letters and occasional remarks that have been preserved, he expressed his view that it was morally wrong for one human to own another.  (“As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master…”) As a young politician, he agreed with his Whig Party’s position that emphasizing slavery was bad politics and that the party should feature its economic ideas. During its brief heyday as a major party, the Whigs generally got more electoral votes from slave states than free states.

Even as late as 1858 (the year after the Dred Scott decision and the year of the Lincoln-Douglas debates) Lincoln said in a speech:

I have always hated slavery, I think as much as any Abolitionist. I have been an Old Line Whig. I have always hated it, but I have always been quiet about it until this new era of the introduction of the Nebraska Bill began. I always believed that everybody was against it, and that it was in course of ultimate extinction.

I have said a hundred times, and I have now no inclination to take it back, that I believe there is no right, and ought to be no inclination in the people of the free States to enter into the slave States, and interfere with the question of slavery at all.

Almost to the end of his life, Lincoln maintained that the Constitution provided no authority for the federal government to abolish slavery in the states where it had long existed.

But, in the middle and late 1850s, as Lincoln shifted from the Whigs to the newly-formed Republican Party, slavery became much more central to Lincoln and the years being “quiet about it” ended.

Republicans were also not abolitionists, but the party coalesced around the idea that, although slavery could not be ended in any fixed or short time frame, it could be set on a path toward “ultimate extinction.” And that was Lincoln’s position.

There were several measures that could combine to plow that path and Lincoln favored all of them. He favored gradual, voluntary, compensated emancipation of slaves tied to a plan for colonization.

“Voluntary” meant that individual slaveowners could voluntarily free their slaves or, more importantly, individual slave states could choose to participate in a plan for ending slavery within its borders.

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“Compensated” meant that public funds could be offered to the slaveowners of such a state in payment for the loss of their slaves. Even in the middle of the Civil War, President Lincoln conspired to get Delaware — a slave state north of the Mason-Dixon Line with relatively few slaves that had not seceded — to accept such a plan. But the Delaware Legislature defeated it.

“Colonization” referred to the assumption that most of the freed slaves would not remain in the United States but would agree to be resettled in Africa or several sites that were under consideration for such purpose in the Caribbean or in Latin America. (The African nation of Liberia was created under this plan in the 1820s.) Lincoln was definitely interested in and enthusiastic about this idea, and somewhat deluded about how many freed slaves would want to emigrate. In his 1861 message to Congress, he asked for funds to finance colonization efforts.

Even late in the Civil War, he held a meeting with African-American leaders to urge them to get behind the colonization idea (and even suggested that since it was the presence of blacks in the United States that had caused the Civil War, they were under some obligation to cooperate). To Lincoln’s credit, unlike some who favored mandatory colonization, Lincoln always insisted that it be voluntary.

Anyway, as you know, during the Civil War, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. He hadn’t changed his position about the underlying constitutional issue, but he justified the proclamation as a war measure, necessary to weaken the Confederacy’s ability to continue the war.

The proclamation didn’t end slavery because it didn’t affect the border slave states that weren’t in rebellion, and it had no immediate effect in most of the deep South because, at least on the day it was issued, the slaves were in territory still controlled by the Confederacy. Such a proclamation would have been political suicide earlier, but by 1863, the North had lost sympathy for the property rights of slaveowners in the rebel states.  

As the war was ending (and as the recent Steven Spielberg film portrayed), Lincoln spent considerable energy and political capital in the last weeks of his life pushing the 13th Amendment through Congress. That was perhaps his greatest contribution to the end of slavery.

But in 1857, when Lincoln was a mere former one-term congressman and unsuccessful candidate for the Senate, the Dred Scott ruling in some sense catapulted Lincoln toward his Great Emancipator destiny.

Back to Dred Scott

In the past, when I read about the Dred Scott case, I was mostly impressed by the staggering racism of it. Chief Justice Roger Taney and his allies on the court could have chosen narrower, technical ways to deny Scott’s bid for freedom. The “once free, always free” doctrine on which Scott’s legal team was relying – the argument that a slave who had been taken by his owner into a free state had become a permanently free man — seemed strange and pretty aggressive at first hearing.

But Taney had gone rhetorically wild. He ruled that had Dred and Harriet Scott had not been emancipated by their multi-year sojourn into the free state of Illinois or the federally administered territory (that would later become the state of Minnesota). The Scotts lacked standing to file a federal lawsuit because, as slaves, they were not citizens of the United States, Taney ruled. But, he made clear, even free blacks in free states, even in free states that decided to treat them as citizens of the state, could never be citizens of the United States. As Taney read the Constitution (which, actually, makes no reference to race nor any explicit reference to slavery), the Framers viewed all blacks as “being of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race… and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

Wikimedia Commons
Dred Scott c. 1857

In 1857, abolitionism was still a radical movement and the idea of full equality for blacks was a fringe idea. Lincoln went to great lengths to explicitly deny that he harbored any such notion. But Taney’s racist rant also had a radicalizing effect. Taney didn’t just deny Dred and Harriet Scott their freedom, he denied that the federal government had the authority to prohibit slavery in the territories it ruled directly. And he rejected the idea that free states could bestow freedom on those within their own borders who had come in as slaves.

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That brings me to the most vital single element of the emerging Republican plan to place slavery on the path to ultimate extinction: They had to keep it from spreading into any new states or territories. That was really the essence of the “ultimate extinction” plan.

At this point in history, after the huge conquest of formerly Mexican territory in the Southwest, the United States had become enormous. But there were only six states west of the Mississippi River (three slave and three free). There would be many new states to organize and admit into the Union. The Republican principle – and to Lincoln it was a central principle around which the new party was to be organized — was to oppose any expansion of slavery, to choke the institution off economically and, perhaps, to eventually alter the balance of free states to slave states to the point that the Constitution could be amended.

But under Taney’s new doctrine in the Dred Scott case of 1857, the containment of slavery was impractical. If the federal government couldn’t prohibit slavery in the new territories, they could be organized as slave territories and future slave states. Even worse, if slaveowners could bring their slaves into free states, and free states couldn’t make the slaves free, what did it even mean to be a free state?

Lincoln Douglas debates

In January of 1858, as he accepted the Republican nomination to run for the U.S. Senate to oppose the Democratic incumbent Stephen Douglas, Lincoln cited the Dred Scott ruling by name as he warned that if the slave states could not be put on a path to freedom, then the free states would find themselves on a path to slavery. You know this passage, rather famously, as the “House Divided” speech, but read it now with the Dred Scott ruling in mind:

A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved. I do not expect the house to fall. But I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.

The famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of that 1858 relied heavily on their argument about the Dred Scott ruling. Douglas accused Lincoln of flirting with anarchy by rejecting what was now a settled, legally binding Supreme Court ruling. Lincoln, pushing his rhetoric beyond the facts, suggested that the next Supreme Court case might rule that no state had the power to prohibit slavery. The way things were going, he said, Illinois could become a slave state (raising the specter to Illini workers that they might have to compete with slave labor).

During the first debate, Lincoln said:

I have never said anything to the contrary, but I hold that notwithstanding all this, there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man. I agree with Judge Douglas he is not my equal in many respects — certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment. But in the right to eat the bread, without leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man.

Douglas played the race card, accusing Lincoln of advocating full equality for blacks, which was an almost unthinkable thought. Lincoln retreated, in a reply during the fourth debate that, to modern ears, sounds incredibly racist. But it nonetheless captures the fundamental right that Lincoln sought for African-Americans – the right not to be slaves:

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I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in anyway the social and political equality of the white and black races — that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I, as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied everything.

Lincoln narrowly lost the Senate election, but the debates had made him a national figure, and inspired him to imagine that he could be the next Republican nominee for president, which came to pass, and then, in a crazy, four-way presidential race, to be elected with just 39.9 percent of the national popular vote and receiving zero electoral votes from the South. In most southern states, his name wasn’t even on the ballot.

Lincoln’s election was the proximate cause of the secession of the southern states. Publicly, the president-elect maintained silence, but through intermediaries he emphasized his long-standing and oft-stated position that the Constitution granted the federal government no power over slavery in the states where it had long existed. But to the South, the key was that the North had united to impose upon them a president whose oft-stated goal was to put slavery on a long-term path to “extinction.” By their decision to secede, and Lincoln’s decision not to accept their decision, that path was significantly shortened.