Daniel W. Crofts is Professor Emeritus of History at The College of New Jersey. This interview is based on his new book, Lincoln and the Politics of Slavery: The Other Thirteenth Amendment and the Struggle to Save the Union (The University of North Carolina Press, 2016).
JF: What led you to write Lincoln and the Politics of Slavery?
DC: The political crisis that led to civil war has long intrigued me. During the wild five-month ride between Abraham Lincoln’s election as president in November 1860 and the fall of Fort Sumter in April 1861, all previous political arrangements and taken-for-granteds suddenly became obsolete, and the unimaginable became the new reality. Nothing at all comparable had ever before occurred. The European powers watched smugly and waited for the upstart colossus across the ocean to crumble.
One of the most surprising features of the secession crisis is Lincoln’s offer, in his first inaugural address on March 4, 1861, to accept a constitutional amendment that barred Congress from interfering with slavery in states where it existed. The amendment, which just had been passed with two-thirds majorities by both houses of Congress, was part of a last-ditch effort to preserve the Union and prevent war. It asked the disaffected South to reconsider its rash course and step back from the impasse. This book unearths the hidden history and political maneuvering behind the stillborn amendment, which would have been the polar opposite to the actual Thirteenth Amendment of 1865 that ended slavery.
I always have tried to understand the crisis on its own terms, to learn what the participants at the time thought they were doing, and to discover how they expected the situation to play out. By so doing, I have set myself apart from those historians who emphasize moral imperatives and celebrate the roles played by abolitionists and hard-line Republicans. I too honor those individuals who gave priority to the core principles of the New Testament and the Declaration of Independence. But I worry that historians shortchange the big picture when they play favorites. We cannot understand the most calamitous political breakdown in American history merely by commending those historical actors whose ideas square with modern sensibilities.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Lincoln and the Politics of Slavery?
DC: Lincoln did indeed become the “Great Emancipator,” but he had no such intention when he first took office. Only amid the crucible of combat did a war for Union become a war for freedom.
JF: Why do we need to read Lincoln and the Politics of Slavery?
DC: It offers readers a front-row seat at one of the most fateful and dramatic watersheds in American history. While a new president tried to preserve the Union and prevent war, the Deep South insisted on breaking up the Union and starting a war.
Until now, little has been written about Lincoln’s surprising offer in his inaugural address—to accept a constitutional amendment that would rule out any interference with slavery in the states where it existed. This book fills that gap.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
DC: Two concerns loomed large in the 1960s when I first began to study history—the persistence of racial inequality a hundred years after emancipation, and the paradox of using collective violence to pursue supposedly just ends. My graduate school advisor, C. Vann Woodward, called attention to both matters in his memorable essay, “Equality: The Deferred Commitment.” As the Civil War centennial approached, Woodward cautioned historians against celebrating “a holy war that ennobled its participants.” He knew too that race was a national problem, by no means confined to the South, and he rejected the idea that the North had been “burning for equality since 1863 with a hard, gem-like flame.”
Looking back from half a century later, I see clearly that my work has grappled with both issues. My dissertation, completed at Yale University in 1968, addressed the faltering commitment to equality in the postwar North and raised for me the question of how much commitment had ever existed in the first place. As a young teacher several years later, I started down a trail that has engaged me ever since—the question of how the Civil War began and what the participants hoped to accomplish by resorting to arms.
During the 1970s and 1980s, I made myself a specialist on the history of the Old South and the North-South sectional conflict. My first book, Reluctant Confederates: Upper South Unionists in the Secession Crisis (University of North Carolina Press, 1989), attempted to disentangle the story of what actually happened in three key Upper South states—Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee—where most white people opposed secession but ended up fighting on the southern side.
I then turned to study a locality for which marvelous records survive, and two books resulted—Old Southampton: Politics and Society in a Virginia County, 1834-1869 (University Press of Virginia, 1992), and Cobb’s Ordeal: The Diaries of a Virginia Farmer, 1842-1872 (University of Georgia Press, 1997).
Two related books continue my quest to understand the political crisis that led to the Civil War—A Secession Crisis Enigma: William Henry Hurlbert and “The Diary of a Public Man” (Louisiana State University Press, 2010), and the newest, Lincoln and the Politics of Slavery: The Other Thirteenth Amendment and the Struggle to Save the Union (University of North Carolina Press, 2016).
I was fortunate to teach for almost four decades at The College of New Jersey. The History Department, which I chaired from 1996 to 2005, promotes a world-historical perspective. This supportive setting emboldened me to write Upstream Odyssey: An American in China, 1895-1944 (EastBridge Books, 2008), a biography of my grandfather, a Protestant missionary. A member of the China Inland Mission, he spent four decades in Guizhou, a remote southwestern province.
JF: What is your next project?
DC: I know that I want to come full circle to revisit the Reconstruction era, but I am still in the midst of catching up on a wealth of new literature. Mark Summers and Michael Fitzgerald stand out among the most thought-provoking authors I’ve read recently.
One aspect of the Reconstruction story particularly intrigues me—the jousting between Thaddeus Stevens and John A. Bingham at the crucial moments in 1866 and early 1867 when Congress attempted to formulate its Reconstruction policy. Both Stevens and Bingham were leading members of the US House, both held seats on the Joint Committee on Reconstruction, both were far more egalitarian than most other Republicans, and yet they sharply disagreed about the right means to promote the promise of equality. The great radical, Stevens, and the less-well-known Bingham (“The Father of the Fourteenth Amendment”) each loom large in the book I just finished. I now want to know more about the postwar sequel in which they both were so deeply implicated.
JF: Thanks, Daniel!