Thursday, June 24, 2010

Lincoln, Slavery, Despotism: Compassion or Expedience?

Speech in Springfield, 1854
According to Shelby Foote, at the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Bill (1854), Lincoln emerged from his short retirement from an even shorter political career to speak against Stephen A. Douglas, a proponent of that bill and "Popular Sovereignty":
"The doctrine of self-government is right, absolutely and eternally right; but it has no just application, as here attempted. Or perhaps I should say that whether it has such just application depeands upon whether a Negro is not or is a man. If he is not a man, why in that case he who is a man may, as a matter of self-government, do just as he pleases with him. 
But if the Negro is a man, is it not to that extent a total destruction of self-government to say that he too shall not govern himself? When the white man governs himself, that is self-government; but when he governs himself and also governs another man, that is more than self-government; that is despotism. 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."
According to Shelby Foote, Lincoln by this time believed that slavery was a "a moral wrong; he had not come to believe that it was a legal wrong . . . the words of his mouth came like meditations from the heart: "Slavery is founded in the selfishness of man's nature, opposition to it in his love for justice."  (p. 27).

In the speeches of that day, the audience was not pre-selected. Lincoln had no TelePrompter, but a sheet of paper with his speech prepared. His voice was shrill, something you might not expect.  As in some other speeches, Lincoln prepared his remarks as a lawyer would, seeking to convey his thoughts to a jury without alienating them by being a know-it-all: is the slave a Man or not? This is called a rhetorical question. I have no doubt that Lincoln conveyed that a slave was a man and entitled to freedom, but his audience was the jury, the judge, and needed to come to it themselves.

excerpt from a Letter to W.H. Wells. January 8, 1859.
A mix of politics, policy, and moral fiber:
"His [his political rival, Stephen Douglas'] policy, which rigorously excludes all idea of there being any wrong in slavery, does lead inevitably to the nationalization of the institution; and all who deprecate that consummation, and yet are secduced into his support, do but cut their own throats. True, Douglas has opposed the administration on one measure, and yet may on some other; but while he upholds the Dred Scott Decision, declares that he cares not whether slavery be voted down or voted up; that it is simply a question of dollars and cents, and that the Almighty has drawn a line on one side of which labor must be performed by slaves; to support him or Buchanan,  is simply to reach the same goal by only different roads."
Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865
There are more famous quotations from the Second Inaugural Address, but these are the ones that make reference to slavery, and to a change in what he, as President, was able to accept. He says he would have accepted a compromise four years earlier, which was not attained.
One eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally  over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest, was, somehow, the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union, even by war; while the government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it.  . . .Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding.
. . . .
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 bond-man'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 with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether."
So Lincoln never described himself as having a constant policy to free slaves, even as president. He also made no bones that his actions were part of his statesmanship--a number of issues, particularly the preservation of the Union, and the armies on which the Union depended, took up much of his time and made up large parts of his rhetoric. He did not build policies derived solely from his own opinion--because he was a President, not a despot.

It is my belief that we can find Lincoln to be advanced in his hatred of slavery on a personal level, without the range of experiences required to develop a full appreciation of a black person's potential. However, in all cases, he did make the steps required to open that gate for us all to understand it.

Like anyone who writes of Lincoln, I have cherry-picked my quotations. Below the references are two sets: one that says Lincoln was, indeed, the Great Emancipator. The other, a great hypocrite. We must all judge on our own, of course. But I utterly reject the notion that he was a hypocrite. Like all men, his wisdom came through a process. Like all men, his wisdom was limited somewhat by the scope of his own experience and his milieu. He transcended existing conditions,  but not infinitely. He had the help of a great many other people, starting with an illiterate but far-seeing stepmother and ending with every Union soldier that ever ate a bite of moldy hardtack and cursed the war.

Each of us has come farther than Lincoln, but it was Lincoln who opened the gate for us. Then it is for us to say how far down we walk that path he opened up.


References:
Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative. Vol 1: Fort Sumter to Perryviille. (Prologue) Random House.
Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings, 1859-1865. Library of America.
Library of Congress, "Abraham Lincoln: A Resource Guide", here.
Tibor Machan, (2002, June 1)  "Lincoln, Secession, and Slavery," The Cato Institute Web site, here.
Wikipedia, "Abraham Lincoln on Slavery." This is not as definitive as it could be, but the references are good.

Selected Quotes, very different sets:
National Park Service, (n.d.), "Lincoln on Slavery," Lincoln Home National Historic site, NPS, here.
Vernellia Randall, (Ed.), "Lincoln on Slavery," Race, Racism, and the Law site, University of Dayton, here.

11 comments:

Momma Fargo said...

Rah rah for Lincoln! Love that man!

The Bug said...

Well said! I'll have to share this series with Dr. M.

the observer said...

Ann T:

Read this again:
Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man'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 with the [s]word, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether."

Wow, wow, and wow. It appears once Lincoln decided slavery had to end, he took a very strong stand on not just ending it, but recognizing the injustices and wrongs that had been done during its course. Unfortunately, as we know, continued injustice was done to Black people. Even now, I believe there are people in this country who if asked, "Is the Negro a man?" and were to answer frankly and honestly would say, "No." or "Not as much of a man as a White man."

Even so, I am proud to have had a president of my country who basically said that he would match the suffering of the whipped and beaten with the suffering of his liberating army force, until the liberation was done.

Epic! I think the Civil War brings out Epic.

The Observer

Ann T. said...

Dear Momma Fargo,
I too, love him! Can you tell?
Thanks for stopping in!
Ann T.

Dear The Bug,
Oh, now that is a compliment. I hope he enjoys!

@ my readers: Dr. M is a scholar and historian of the Civil War.

Thank you for stopping in!
Ann T.

Ann T. said...

Dear The Observer,
Thank you for finding one of the three typos--I keep going back to fix and I think still have one left.

Yes. It is a dramatic sum up of how much resolve was required after so many years of war, and so many more of an inhumane institution.

That he chose to put it this way argues for an extreme moral resolution, and also I think political and military resolution. He was a statesman. We could not have asked for better at the time--maybe at any time.

Thank you so much for the Epic. I think it works for us!

Ann T.

Slamdunk said...

Well done Ann T.

I think your "wisdom came through a process" is a spot-on argument with Lincoln here. It certainly can be supported that Lincoln had strong feelings that matured as he became more experienced as a leader.

On Foote's observation that in 1854 Lincoln held slavery as morally wrong, but was not convinced it was legally wrong--I think he bases that assertion on quotes like this from the first Douglas debate at Ottawa, IL (1858):

"...Now, gentlemen, I don't want to read at any great length, but this is the true complexion of all I have ever said in regard to the institution of slavery and the black race.

This is the whole of it, and anything that argues me into his idea of perfect social and political equality with the negro is but a specious and fantastic arrangement of words, by which a man can prove a horse-chestnut to be a chestnut horse.

I will say here, while upon this subject, that I have no purpose, either 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. I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races..."

Previous to that quote, Lincoln discusses equality and how resettlements to places like Liberia would have been his preferred option.

Christopher said...

Well written, well argued.

Ann T. said...

Dear Slamdunk,
Another great comment. It balances out my post beautifully, and explains much of the modern objection to Lincoln.

I only want to add that the "Back to Africa" movement has resurfaced at least twice that I know of in the black intellectual community. Like all conflicts that need resolution, we each have a wish that they be gone--whether we are part of the cause or the solution. or a bystander to the conflagration.

If Lincoln had wanted to force repatriation, he could have issued the Emancipation Proclamation in such a way that the Army took charge of slaves in order to send them back. We will never change the outcome of history, however, nor be able to ask Lincoln what he intended with the details of reconstruction.

Once again, SD, a great comment that explains so much.

Ann T.

Ann T. said...

Dear Christopher,
Thank you very much. This has been a challenging series for me. I think keeping it simple has netted me some great contributions!

Something to remember, for sure.

Thanks for stopping in!
Ann T.

Bob G. said...

Ann:
I'm loving this "sweries" you're presenting...much food for thought and some great history.
ANd the comments and observations by others are brilliant.

We got us some really EDUCATED folks stopping by here.
Give yourselves amround of applause!

Enjoy your weekend, all!

Ann T. said...

Dear Bob,
I am so gratified by the comments. They are Making these posts.

Have a fantastic weekend,
Ann