Today I won’t focus on Wartime Abraham Lincoln, the Emancipator…
…but on Peacetime Lincoln, circa 1854-1860, the gradualist opponent of slavery.
I’m going to suggest that during this period, Lincoln’s antislavery views made a good deal of sense.
Let’s look at 1858, when Lincoln famously laid out his views in the Lincoln-Douglas debates. On the surface, Lincoln and Douglas both seemed to be on the same side. Both Senatorial candidates – the incumbent Stephen Douglas and the upstart ex-Congressman Lincoln – wanted the territory of Kansas to be a free state, and both opposed President James Buchanan’s efforts to have Kansas admitted as a slave state under the proslavery Lecompton Constitution.
But the two candidates took different routes to reach their respective conclusions.
Douglas believed that the important thing was to let the white settlers of Kansas decide the slavery issue for themselves. Since most white settlers didn’t want slavery in Kansas, that should end the matter. Buchanan’s people had tried to rig the elections so that proslavery whites dominated over the antislavery white majority, and this was the scandal, Douglas said.
Lincoln said that it went beyond what the white people in the territory wanted. Federal territories should be free of slavery. Lincoln claimed that the Founding Fathers had wanted to keep slavery from spreading – confining it to the states in which it already existed but not allowing slavery to be brought into the federally-controlled territories. The nation could not endure half slave and half free, but, said Lincoln, a proslavery plot, including both Southerners and northern collaborators like Douglas, was on foot to overturn the Founders’ vision and extend slavery everywhere – ultimately, perhaps, into the free states like Illinois.
Douglas said that this was all nonsense. He appealed to the racism of his audience and said that the rights of black people meant nothing, that it was only the will of the white majority – whether that majority was proslavery or antislavery – which mattered in any given territory. The founders contemplated a diverse country, with slavery in some states and territories, and not in others, based on local whites’ assessment of local needs, free from any foolishness about rights for black people.
Lincoln made clear that, while he was a racist, he was less racist than Douglas. While Lincoln didn’t want black people to vote, and he was even open to resettling them out of the country (biases that he began overcoming during the coming war), Lincoln defended the right of any person, regardless of color, to own his own labor and not to have the fruits of their labor stolen by anyone else. This was the famous Republican “Free Labor ideology” much mocked by modern historians for its naive belief in the ability of hardworking people to rise in the world if given the chance to do so.
In the debates with Douglas and elsewhere, Lincoln made some exceptions to the right of free labor. For one thing there was the positive law of the Constitution, which required fugitive slaves from the South to be sent back to slavery. Lincoln supported this part of the Constitution as part of his loyalty to constitutional government. In that specific case, the positive-law provisions for slavery overcame the natural right to be free. Likewise, Lincoln recognized the validity of Southern laws providing for the enslavement of most of their black population – thus he denounced the John Brown raid seeking to overturn slavery by violence.
So Lincoln’s thought was: be careful to respect slavery where it existed, but don’t let it spread beyond the existing slave states.
Lincoln himself gave the best summary of his ideas, in a speech in New Haven:
If I saw a venomous snake crawling in the road, any man would say I might seize the nearest stick and kill it; but if I found that snake in bed with my children, that would be another question. [Laughter.] I might hurt the children more than the snake, and it might bite them. [Applause.] Much more if I found it in bed with my neighbor’s children, and I had bound myself by a solemn compact not to meddle with his children under any circumstances, it would become me to let that particular mode of getting rid of the gentleman alone. [Great laughter.] But if there was a bed newly made up, to which the children were to be taken, and it was proposed to take a batch of young snakes and put them there with them, I take it no man would say there was any question how I ought to decide! [Prolonged applause and cheers.]
As for slavery where it existed, it should be allowed to wither away with time, as was bound to happen if it wasn’t allowed to spread.
John Brown, of course, didn’t go in for that sort of gradualism.
Brown thought slaves were oppressed now, and they should be freed now. Just before he was hanged, Brown said that America’s sin of slavery would only be washed out with blood.
But Lincoln was, I believe, right about the Founders and the replacement of the Founders’ wisdom with an aggressive proslavery consensus among Southern leaders and their allies
The Founders may have been hypocrites, they may have been naive about slavery gradually withering away, they may not have knocked themselves out fighting against slavery, but they did mostly realize that slavery was wrong and that it was incompatible with the principles of the Declaration of Independence.
They set up the biggest anti-slavery territory in the world with the Northwest Ordinance. They got rid of the institution in the Northern states. They banned the importation of slaves from Africa into the United States. And at least in theory, they banned U. S. citizens and U. S. ships from taking part in the slave trade from Africa to Latin America.
Benjamin Franklin ended his career as a near-abolitionist.
Alexander Hamilton was for gradual emancipation.
George Mason was a Virginia slaveholder whose papers contained considerable denunciation of slavery.
We now begin to experience the danger of admitting so great an error to have a place in the Declaration of our Independence. For a long time it lay dormant; but in the process of time it began to germinate, and produce its poisonous fruits. It had strong hold on the mind of Mr. Jefferson, the author of that document, which caused him to take an utterly false view of the subordinate relation of the black to the white race in the South, and to hold, in consequence, that the latter, though utterly unqualified to possess liberty, were as fully entitled to both liberty and equality as the former, and that to deprive them of it was unjust and immoral. To this error his proposition to exclude slavery from the territory northwest of the Ohio may be traced, and to that the ordinance of ’87, and through it the deep and dangerous agitation which now threatens to ingulf, and will certainly ingulf, if not speedily settled, our political institutions, and involve the country in countless woes.
So it seems Lincoln was onto something when he said that slavery apologists in his time were abandoning the pro-freedom ideals of the Founders.
As for a conspiracy to spread slavery – perhaps it should be called a competition among pro-slavery forces rather than a conspiracy. The various slavery supporters were at the time vying with each other to show proslavery voters in the South that they were more proslavery than the other guys.
So with these limitations – allowing that he did not recognize human equality to the same extent as did abolitionists, allowing that his wartime behavior raises a whole new set of issues, allowing that he had a background (and a future) as a Whiggish pro-big-government guy, we can say that the Lincoln of 1854-1860 was right.
Right, that is, about two specific things: (a) The Founders didn’t like slavery, and looked forward to a day when slavery didn’t exist in the U. S., and (b) there was by Lincoln’s time a strong faction which rejected the Founders’ wisdom and was committed to spreading slavery.