Lincoln and the Abolitionists

Lincoln and the Abolitionists; John Quincy Adams, Slavery, and the Civil War by Fred Kaplan. Harper, 2017.

Abraham Lincoln believed that the presence of free blacks in a white society would perpetuate racial conflict. The abolition of slaves, he argued, would create an unworkable biracial democracy. The author, Fred Kaplan, contrasts Lincoln’s views to those of the Adams family. John Quincy Adams had served two terms as President from 1825 to 1833, and that experience had convinced him that abolition was essential to the future of the republic.

Most abolitionists had no certainty about what to do if and when American slavery ended. Lincoln favored returning black slaves to Africa. Or perhaps creating new colonies for them in South America and the Caribbean.  However, it was not clear who would pay for this colonial alternative. And should slave owners receive financial compensation? Would immigration be forced on the freedmen? Neither Abraham Lincoln nor John Quincy Adams suggested how the country would sort out any multi-racial democracy.

The more immediate problem was whether slavery would be extended to the new territories acquired either by the Louisiana Purchase or as the result of the Mexican War, and particularly Texas. The conflict over continuing or ending slavery had become entangled, Kaplan argues, with the incorporation of new states and territories into a lasting, stable democratic republic.

The necessity to settle this growing political issue was heightened by the increasingly violent opposition to abolition, even in the North. Elijah Lovejoy – preacher, journalist, and abolitionist – owned a printing business in Alton, Illinois. Its presses were destroyed by a pro-slavery mob and Lovejoy was shot dead. Lovejoy’s death as the result of mob violence is often considered to be part of the struggle for free-speech, but Kaplan argues it was also part of the anti-slavery movement. The crowd had a number of passions. Illinois was important, Kaplan points out, in the abolitionist movement. It was also Abraham Lincoln’s home state and important to his political career; he was planning to run for a second term. Springfield became the initial home of his aspirations, and the Sangamo Journal his first print forum.

Lincoln took comfort in the widely held assumption that the North had a superiority in almost all measures essential to waging war.

Some advocates of abolition argued that ultimately the issue of slavery would take care of itself; slavery would gradually disappear. In fact agriculture in the South, Kaplan reports, prospered with the introduction of cotton and sugar and the work force was primarily black slaves. Raw cotton from the South fed the cotton spinning and weaving industries in New England, Britain, and elsewhere.

Lincoln proposed using some tempting to encourage secessionist states to rejoin the union, initially targeting the border states — Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware – where slavery was never so entrenched. In September 1862, he issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Slaves in the remaining states that had rejoined the Union would be freed after a period of time. Lincoln understood that the failure of the Union armies to achieve a battlefield victory was complicating his timing. George McClellan’s victory at Antietam provided that opportunity. Also former bondsmen were showing up everywhere along Union lines and needed to be organized into the fight as freedmen.

The Emancipation Proclamation of the following year was also not a total emancipation, even though it freed three of the four million slaves in those states and territories occupied by Union Armies. Many who had been supporters of what Kaplan calls “anti-slavery moralism,” were disappointed with these several half-measures that Lincoln was taking. Many were also outraged by Lincoln’s declaration of martial rule and his restrictions on speech, which limited the public discussion of emancipation.

But Lincoln, Kaplan argues, was thinking ahead to a post-Civil War America and at least a partial mending of the secession. How to put the country back together again? Healing those divisions was the more important objective of his decision to contest the right of states to secede, and important to the making of the peace.

Kaplan joins virtually all other historians in believing that Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s Vice President was a disaster and his attempts at reconstruction left us saddled with the Jim Crow South and decades of racist policies. Had Booth’s bullets missed their target, post-Civil War America might have been a very different place. Would the Ku Klux Klan have launched its campaign of terror? Would there have been a march across the bridge at Selma, Alabama?



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