Thursday, February 05, 2009

Lincoln and Slavery

To mark the 200th Anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's Birthday this Thursday I wanted to take a moment to talk about recent discussions over Lincoln's intent regarding slavery. As an American I grew up during a time when the stories about Lincoln and Washington and Jefferson were collected into the form of American Legend and Mythology. As I grew up during the Vietnam-Watergate years it became common to tear down pubic figures as all to human stories of drama, tragedy, greed and imperfection. More recently the examination of Abraham Lincoln seems to be in the fore front with the election of our first black President.

The topic of Lincoln's thoughts on the issues of slavery and race is one that surfaces often. There seem to be so many angles by which to approach his views for the purposes of both disparagement and commendation. Are these criticisms or acclamations warranted if laid out in total isolation of each other? Or is it most appropriate, using the benefit of historical hindsight, to balance the scales with objective critique of Lincoln's ever so evolving standpoints on race that include both positive and negative assessment? I feel it to be the latter, for the truth is that there was probably no 19th Century president, with the possible exception of Thomas Jefferson, who was more candid and more willing to challenge his own limited points of view on the most difficult issue of his time, slavery.

In Abraham's First Inaugural Address he states "I do but quote from one of those speeches when I declare that I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so." Lincoln did not want the South to be afraid of his Republican Presidency either. That was why he made these statements at his Inauguration about slavery.

In the letter to Horace Greeley, Lincoln writes of saving the Union, and not destroying or saving slavery. Lincoln states "If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that." Lincoln was strictly for the Union and if he could save the Union and end slavery he would, but his first thoughts were for the Union, and only the Union. He deals with slavery in this manner because he does not want to upset or cause turmoil in the South. Even though the Civil War was going on, he wants it to end and the Union to be whole.

I agree with Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, because it said that the end of slavery was the purpose of the Civil War. The "North" and the "South" fought against each other to defend their views and opinions of slavery. The South wanted to keep it. Even after the Civil War it did not quite change the ways of slavery and prejudice against African-Americans. Lincoln had the right thoughts, and was on the right track with the Emancipation Proclamation.

These thoughts are the results of his ever evolving view of slavery and its effect on the country. Here in his own words:

"The one victory we can ever call complete will be that one which proclaims that there is not a slave on the face of God's green earth." Letter to George Pickett, February 22, 1842

"Slavery and oppression must cease, or American liberty must perish." Speech, Cincinnati, OH, May 6, 1842

"I am a northern man, or rather a western free-states man, with a constituency I believe to be, and with personal feelings I know to be, against the extension of slavery." Speech in Congress, July 27, 1848

"Although volume upon volume is written to prove slavery a very good thing, we never hear of a man who wishes to take good of it by being slave himself." Fragment of letter, July 1, 1854

"If the negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that 'all men are created equal' and that there can be no moral right in connection with one man's making a slave of another."
Speech, Peoria, IL, October 16, 1854

"We cannot be free if this is, by our own national choice, to be a land of slavery." Speech, Bloomington, IL, May 29, 1856

"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." Debate, Ottawa, IL, August 21, 1858

"I confess myself as belonging to that class in this country who contemplate slavery as a moral, social, and political evil." Debate, Galesburg, IL, October 7, 1858

Indeed his earliest words speak to his personal thoughts on the subject of Slavery.

How young was Lincoln when he was first exposed to the issue of slavery?

Anti-slavery sentiment was introduced to Lincoln at a rather early stage in his life. He was about eleven years of age when his family joined Pigeon Creek Baptist Church in Indiana, and there is little doubt that he was exposed to the minister's hard-line sermons against slavery. And though he never joined the church, Abe, like his father (who came from a slaveholding family himself) began to oppose human slavery, though most of his childhood was devoid of any real experience with actual slaves

How did Lincoln approach the issue of slavery while in the Illinois state legislature?

In 1837, Illinois passed a series of negative "black laws" that, given the racist sentiment of the time in both North and South, most politicians favored. These laws greatly limited the rights of Blacks living in (or attempting to live in) Illinois and relegated them to the lowest of social status. They could not vote, nor could they run for political office or exercise their civic duty by serving on juries. They had to, however, pay their share in taxes if they were permitted to reside in the state. Lincoln voted against the majority of these resolutions, making it the first time he had publicly taken a stance on an issue that involved race. However, he did vote for the exclusivity of white suffrage, catering to the overall racist sentiment of the state and the North. Voting otherwise would have meant political suicide for Lincoln, and he pragmatically operated under that prospect

Though he operated differently in his public action, his personal revulsion for slavery would grow later in 1841. While on a river steamer on the Ohio River heading back to Illinois, he noticed a group of 20 slaves on board, chained together like, as he put it, "fish upon a trot-line." He would later recall in mental anguish that the spectacle "was a continual torment to me," and that slavery "had the power of making me miserable"

How did Lincoln's experience as a member of the United States House of Representatives shape his beliefs on race and slavery?

His abhorrence of slavery was also augmented by a familiar sight all through his days in Washington, DC as a Congressman. Just down the road from the Capitol, Lincoln witnessed, as he put it, "the sort of negro livery-stable (where) droves of negroes were collected, temporarily kept, and finally taken to Southern markets, precisely like droves of horses". This was the internal slave trade, with Washington, DC at its very center. In 1848, Lincoln designed a bill that called for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia in 1850. "His measure would have liberated and placed under apprenticeship all children born to slave mothers of the District after January 1, 1850, and also provided for voluntary compensated emancipation of other slaves within the District, the whole project to be contingent on the consent of the people of the District". Unfortunately, Lincoln weighed his political options and found that too little support was there for his measure. He never introduced it. He left office before any action on slavery in the District of Columbia was taken.

"This good earth is plenty broad enough for the white man and the negro both, and there is no need of either pushing the other off."
Speech, New Haven, CT, March 6, 1860

Once elected Lincoln strategically used his position to answer the question that had already plagued a nation for almost 200 years.

"The blacks must be free. Slavery is the bone we are fighting over. It must be got out of the way, to give us permanent peace." Letter to James R. Gilmore, May 1863

"Whenever I hear anyone arguing over slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally." Speech to 14th Indiana regiment, March 17, 1865

"Your race are suffering, in my judgement, the greatest wrong inflicted on any people."
Speech to free colored men, Washington, D.C

The evolution of Lincoln's thoughts on slavery reached its pinnacle when he delivered his Second Inaugural Address in 1865. During his first months in office and into the first years of the conflict, Lincoln had spoken fervently against this war being one fully against slavery, but rather for the preservation of the Union. After 1863, however, his approach began to change, realizing the war being made inevitable by the presence of slavery. A portion of his Second Inaugural Address:

"If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through his appointed time, he now wills to remove, and that he gives both North and South this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe him? ...Fondly do we hope-fervently do we pray-that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, 'The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous together'".

Lincoln's concession that the blood and sweat of American slaves from generations gone is on all America's hands--that all of America was complicit in this vile institution--is a powerful one; one that stayed with Americans well after his assassination. The speech also illustrates profoundly how far Lincoln had come on this issue.

During his last days he openly challenged his own thoughts on race and the superiority of white men in American society. He openly questioned what he thought to be the true purpose of the war, union preservation. He was not afraid to grapple with these questions. As a human being, Abraham Lincoln made mistakes, lived contradictions, and asserted racist beliefs. But unlike so many Presidents before him, he was able, in many ways, to transcend his own failures, embracing in the end a more egalitarian notion, in terms of race relations, of what American society needed to become.

Lincoln should be viewed and critiqued via a 19th century lens and not one of today, our expectations of who he should have been should not cloud who he really was. Lincoln political savvy was legendary. While he did not take the straight path to Emancipation, he did take a path towards it and in a matter of years succeeded in ending slavery in America. This is fact, it is in arguable and I believe the conversation on this mans legendary accomplishment should return to one of respect and appreciation. It should also be noted that Lincoln lost his life supporting his beliefs. He continues to belong to the ages.

Note: All images and text (not specified) is copyrighted by Christopher Cushman. Some text is paraphrased from others text during my research and Lincolns own words. All original images of Lincoln are public domain.

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