Where Lincoln Stood on Slavery

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Seven years ago today, as the presidential election contest between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney entered the home stretch, Vice President Joe Biden spoke at three events in Detroit. Biden was in the news that week because of an intemperate assertion that Republicans desired to put African Americans “back in chains.”

Such rhetorical excess is a hallmark of our time, especially when Democrats discuss race, but Biden’s infelicity put me in mind of a time a century and a half earlier when a Republican president was publicly challenged within his own party to do more to free human beings who were literally in chains.

The unsolicited advice to Abraham Lincoln came in the form of an open letter in a newspaper published by Horace Greeley. Although remembered today mostly for a phrase he didn’t utter (“Go west, young man”), in his own time Greeley was known as an ardent social reformer, journalist, and politician. He came relatively late to the cause of abolition, but once he did, Greeley was all-in. Even as Lincoln pushed reluctant Union Gen. George B. McClellan to press the fight against the Confederates, Lincoln was hearing it from his other flank. Greeley’s New York Tribune published an editorial headlined “Prayer of Twenty Millions,” in which Lincoln was told that many of those who had voted for him in the 1860 election were now “sorely disappointed and deeply pained” by the president’s presumed moderation toward the Southern states then in rebellion.

Three days later, on this date in 1862, Lincoln gave his answer.

 * * *

Unbeknownst to Horace Greeley, Lincoln had been considering decisive action on the question of Southern slavery in the summer of 1862. The president had discussed it with his Cabinet and drafted a version of a sweeping executive order. But Lincoln believed it was best delivered from a position of strength. In the commander-in-chief’s mind, this meant issuing it after a military victory by Union troops. For this reason, Lincoln didn’t want to tip his hand entirely; neither did he want the Tribune’s editorial sitting out there unanswered. And on Aug. 22, 1862 -- 157 years ago today -- he formulated his reply.

“If I could save the Union without freeing any slave,” Lincoln wrote to Greeley, “I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.”

This statement has been used by 20th century revisionists of various stripes to assert that Lincoln wasn’t all that committed to the cause of ending slavery. This criticism is not only wrong, it’s wrong in every respect. Abraham Lincoln had made his name in politics by speaking against slavery; the nascent political party he had joined was created to end it. Even as he wrote to Greeley, he was commanding a huge military force suffering frightful losses, a force called “Mr. Lincoln’s Army,” whose infantrymen marched off to war singing “John Brown’s Body,” later to be known as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

In fact, Lincoln tipped his hand even in the Greeley letter, with his concluding statement: “I intend no modification,” he wrote, “of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free.”

The “oft-expressed” observation was no exaggeration. Lincoln had forcefully denounced slavery before the Civil War and continued to do so throughout its duration. And he did so in ways that helped Americans see the cosmic issue at stake, which was whether all the Founders’ talk about freedom really meant anything at all.

In an Oct. 4, 1854 speech in Springfield, Ill., Lincoln had expressed it this way: “We were proclaiming ourselves political hypocrites before the world, by fostering human slavery and proclaiming ourselves at the same time, the sole friends of human freedom.”

In an 1855 letter to his friend Joshua Speed, Lincoln amplified on this theme in more caustic language. “Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid,” he wrote. “As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal except Negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except Negroes and foreigners and Catholics.’ When it comes to this, I shall prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty -- to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”

Three years later, Lincoln gave his famous “house divided” speech at the Illinois state Republican convention that nominated him for a Senate campaign.

“A house divided against itself cannot stand,” Lincoln said. on that occasion. “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 the other.”

In his December 1862 State of the Union message to Congress, President Lincoln portrayed the intertwined goals of ending slavery and preserving the Union as one and the same. “In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free,” he asserted. “We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last, best hope of Earth.”

At Gettysburg, Lincoln referred to the “unfinished work” of the Union dead as “a new birth of freedom” that validated not just the hopes of enslaved Americans, but the soaring principles of America’s founding.

In an 1864 letter to a friend from Kentucky, a newspaperman named Albert G. Hodges, Lincoln wrote, “I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel.” A month before he died, in a speech to the 140th Indiana Regiment, Lincoln said simply, “Whenever [I] hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.”

Lincoln’s actions, of course, spoke loudest of all. The military success he was awaiting on this date in 1862 came three weeks later at Antietam Creek. The cost was frightful: 2,100 Union soldiers killed, and another 9,500 wounded. The result was really a military stalemate, not a Union victory. But the Confederate losses were nearly as high, and the Battle of Antietam drove Robert E. Lee out of Maryland and back to Virginia. Less than two weeks later, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.



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