Since the new film “Lincoln” deals directly with the passage of the 13th Amendment, and the abolition of slavery in the United States, scholars and pundits of all sorts are asking new questions about both Lincoln and slavery. I welcome this dialogue and actually pray that we might see a little more light and a lot less heat. Rhetorical bombs, made out of deep anguish and the pain of our collective story, often begin to fly when we engage profound American tragedy like the slavery, the Civil War and the life of our sixteenth president.
“Lincoln” rightly shows that Abraham Lincoln understood that equality before the law would not easily translate into human equality in 19th century America. Our modern concepts of equality were held by some in Lincoln’s time but held only dimly in contrast to what we believe and understand about the matter today. Lincoln advised Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, perhaps the strongest abolitionist in the House, to “avoid the swamps” in making his case. Stevens’ radical allies were appalled at his demeanor during the House debate. One fellow congressman even asked if he’d lost his own soul. Stevens replies, quite mildly for him, that he just wants to pass this amendment. In his response to the accusation that there’s nothing he won’t say toward that end, he calmly says, “Seems not.” Later, when the amendment passes, Stevens pays an interesting tribute to Abraham Lincoln by saying the greatest measure of the century was “passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.” That line says it all. Roy Blunt, Jr. says that this is the kind of purity we can (and should) demand of our leaders today, “assuming they’re good enough at it.”
The truth is that Lincoln was killed for a number of reasons but none are more compelling than the passage of the 13th Amendment. The dreams expressed in his greatest speech, “With Malice Toward None,” were struck down by a group of radical Southerners who helped to doom the nation to a century and a half of continued conflict over race and the lives of African Americans.
So how did Abraham Lincoln really feel about slavery? In short, he detested it. He called it the South’s peculiar institution and said it was “a vast moral evil.” Once elected president he made it a goal to “extinguish” it and wrote in 1864, “I cannot remember when I did not so think, and feel.”
Lincoln first encountered slavery as a boy growing up in Kentucky. At age 19 he became incensed about it and later, when he saw a slave auctioned in New Orleans, he told his law partner William Herndon, “If I ever get a chance to hit that thing [slavery], I’ll hit it hard.” How do you explain this passion? Lincoln clearly saw slavery as a genuine offense against man and God. He saw it as “theft” of one’s labor. He also felt that slavery interfered with the manifest destiny of the United States because it “deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world–enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites.”
But did Abraham Lincoln believe in racial equality? The answer to this is more complicated and unclear. He said there was no reason in the world for the Negro to be denied the right to “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” as any other person. But as an Illinois legislator, and a U. S. Congressman, he often failed to honor these words with his political actions. For this reason many radicals, and good historians, fault him for his inconsistent record. But his mind was moving in a definite direction. He was not a “flip flopper” as we’ve coined the phrase today. He thought deeply and changed the way he expressed himself more than once and understood his moral duties quite plainly. When he ran for the presidency in 1860 he opposed extending slavery into the territories but did not call for complete abolition. The reasons for this seem to be several. For one, Lincoln, as the film makes abundantly clear, was an canny politician. He knew many white voters, even in the North, were not about to vote for a radical abolitionist. He couched his anti-slavery views in language voters could accept. For another Lincoln knew that much more must happen before slavery could be legally ended.
Even the war did not initially change Lincoln’s rhetoric about slavery. He did not go to war to oppose slavery. This common error is patently false. If he had pushed abolition he would very likely have lost the border states of Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri to the South. As late as August of 1862 he said, “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not either to save or destroy slavery.” So why did he embrace emancipation? The answer is simple – he changed for tactical reasons in order to win the war. 750,000 slaves, living in border states and parts of the North, were not freed by this act.
The Emancipation Proclamation may not have freed all slaves but it was a step in the direction of Lincoln’s heart while his mind was taking him as far as possible under changing circumstances. After his re-election in 1864 it became clear that he would do everything that he could to end slavery. Just prior to his death he even proposed limited suffrage for black veterans and “very intelligent” black men who had been free before the war. (This seems so small to us but that is because we do not understand mid-nineteenth century America at all.)
So was Honest Abe really the Great Emancipator? It depends on which historian you read and how you interpret the stories. He was no color-blind defender of blacks but he plainly hated slavery. In getting the 13th Amendment he revealed his heart’s truest intentions.
The best word on this comes from the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Douglass had routinely criticized Lincoln for his “half-measures.” Yet in 1876 an older and seasoned Douglass said, “From the genuine abolition point of view, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent, but measuring him by the sentiment of his country–a sentiment he was bounds as a statesman to consult–he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.”
Doris Kearns Goodwin has pointed out that the passage of the 13th Amendment came during a post-election session, what we call today a “lame duck” session of Congress. We are in such a period right now since the recent election in November. A number of senators and representatives in the House know that they are not coming back to serve after the New Year. Will they be prevailed upon to vote their consciences as we now face a major financial crisis? Time will tell. I am not sure that the leadership we have today has anything like the fortitude and ability of Abraham Lincoln. Few of our presidents have had such ability and character, thus very few have led our nation as Lincoln did. This is not a romantic view of history, at least not in my view. It is hard core realism, something that we seem to lack in abundance these days.