Did Lincoln Offer a “verbal cake and ice cream” to slaveowners?

Who was responsible for the Emancipation Proclamation?  Was it Lincoln?  The Republican Party? The slaves themselves?  Gettysburg College Civil War scholar Allen Guelzo makes a case for Lincoln in his recent piece in The Wall Street Journal.  Here is a taste:

In an age when rocking century-old statues off their pedestals has become a public sport, no historical reputation is safe. That includes Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator.

It is “now widely held,” Columbia historian Stephanie McCurry announced in a 2016 article, that emancipation “wasn’t primarily the accomplishment of Abraham Lincoln or the Republican Party, but of the slaves themselves, precipitated by the actions they took inside the Confederacy and in their flight to Union lines.” Ebony editor Lerone Bennett put this argument forward in his 2000 book, “Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream.” The Zinn Education Project, which distributes Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” to students, claims that Lincoln offered “verbal cake and ice cream to slaveowners,” while slaves themselves did “everything they could to turn a war for national unity into a war to end slavery.”

The case against Lincoln is a lot less energizing than it seems. Slavery, as it emerged in American life and law, was always a matter of state enactments. There was no federal slave code, and Madison had been particularly eager to ensure that the Constitution gave no federal recognition to the idea that there could be “property in man.” But there was also no federal authority to move directly against slavery in the states.

The attempt by the Southern slave states to break away in 1861 seemed to offer several ways to strike at slavery. Some U.S. Army officers attempted to declare slaves “contraband of war,” and therefore liable to seizure like any other military goods. But the “contraband” argument fell into the error of conceding that slaves were property, and, anyway, no legal opinions on the laws of war regarded such property seizures as permanent.

Congress tried to put a hand on slavery through two Confiscation Acts, in 1861 and 1862. But “confiscating” slaves wasn’t the same thing as freeing them, since the Constitution (in Article I, Section 9) explicitly bans Congress from enacting “bills of attainder” that permanently alienate property. Confiscation would also have had the problem of ratifying the idea that human beings were property.

Lincoln tried to dodge the constitutional issues by proposing, as early as November 1861, a federal buyout of slaves in the four border states that remained loyal to the Union—Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri. But the representatives of those states rebuffed the offer, telling Lincoln that they “did not like to be coerced into Emancipation, either by the Direct action of the Government, or by indirection,” as a Maryland congressman reported.

Many slaves didn’t wait on the courts or Congress, and instead ran for their freedom to wherever they could find the Union Army. But the Army wasn’t always welcoming, and there was no guarantee that the war wouldn’t end with a negotiated settlement including the forced return of such runaways. Fugitive slaves were free, but their freedom needed legal recognition.

If you can get past The Wall Street Journal paywall, you can read the rest here.

Did Lincoln’s Reliance on “Providence” Make Him an Incompetent President?

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This semester my Civil War class is reading Allen Guelzo’s Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer PresidentIt is, without peer, the best book on Lincoln’s intellectual and religious life.  Others seem to agree.  In 2000, Guelzo’s biography received the prestigious Lincoln Prize for the best film or book about the Civil War era.  Last night we discussed chapter 8: “Voice Out of the Whirlwind.”

Guelzo argues that Abraham Lincoln, at least in his adult life, was never a Christian, but he did spend a lot of time reflecting on big questions about free will and determinism and their relationship to a force or supreme being that governed the world.  Lincoln, in his pre-presidential years, believed in what he called the “Doctrine of Necessity.”  He wrote: “I was inclined to believe in what I understand is called the “Doctrine of Necessity”–that is, that the human mind is impelled to action, or held in rest by some power, over which the mind itself has no control…”  Guelzo compares Lincoln’s view here to the philosopher John Stuart Mill’s “philosophical necessity,” a believe “that human beings possess neither free will nor the moral responsibility for the right or wrong actions that is supposed to follow the exercise of free choices.” (p.117).

During his presidency, Lincoln’s “Doctrine of Necessity” took on a more religious flavor.  He began to use the word “providence” to describe this “power, over which the mind has not control.”  He came to embrace a “divine personality” that intervened in human affairs. (p.328).

Guelzo argues, and quite convincingly I might add, that the Civil War led Lincoln to apply his view of “providence” to the political decisions he made as POTUS.  This was particularly the case in his decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.  The Proclamation was issued days after the Union victory at the Battle of Antietam.  In a cabinet meeting following the battle, Lincoln uttered what Guelzo calls “the most astounding remarks any of [the members of his cabinet] had ever heard him make.”  Lincoln told the cabinet that he had become convinced that if the Union won at Antietam he would consider it an indication of the “divine will and that it was his duty to move forward in the cause of emancipation.” (p.341).  He added, “God had decided this question in favor of the slaves.”  Indeed, the Emancipation Proclamation changed the course of the war.  The Proclamation made it a war that was less about preserving the Union and more about freeing the slaves.  It could be argued that it was the turning point of the Civil War.  And Lincoln made his decision by somehow interpreting (with much certainty) the providence of God.

After class, a student asked me if I thought a United States President could get away with this kind of presidential leadership today.  What if George W. Bush, Barack Obama, or Donald Trump made a republic-altering decision and said that it was based upon his reading of God’s providence? (Bush came close on numerous occasions).  There would be many evangelicals who might love such a claim.  But most Americans, including many evangelicals who believe in the providence of God but do believe we can know God’s will in every matter on this side of eternity, would think that such a decision-making process might be the height of presidential incompetence.

Masur: Abraham Lincoln Salvaged the Thomas Jefferson “We Desire from the One Who Lived”

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Rutgers University historian Louis Masur argues that Abraham Lincoln took a document written by a Virginia slaveholder and used it to advance a free society.

Here is a taste of his piece at The American Scholar:

It took Lincoln to salvage the Jefferson we desire from the one who lived. Lincoln grounded his understanding of the nation on the Declaration of Independence and argued time and again that the phrase all men are created equal included blacks. “All honor to Jefferson,” proclaimed Lincoln. The Declaration “set up a standard maxim for free society . . . constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people, of all colors, everywhere.”

Lincoln embraced gradual, deliberate change and exemplified that approach. He too had believed in white superiority: “I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races. … There is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together.” Lincoln supported colonization, though he realized it was not possible on a large scale. He always hated slavery, but as president refused at first to act against the institution or make provisions for whites and blacks to live peacefully in freedom.

The Civil War compelled Lincoln to bring Jefferson’s maxim of a free society to fruition. We can watch him change his mind over time. He moved from saying he could not attack slavery where it existed to freeing slaves in Confederate areas not under Union control, and then advocating for a 13th Amendment abolishing it throughout the United States; he shifted from embracing colonization to authorizing the enlistment of black soldiers; he stopped believing that blacks could not attain political equality and, in the last speech he ever gave, publicly endorsed black suffrage. Thinking about Lincoln, civil rights activist and historian W. E. B. Du Bois exclaimed, “I love him not because he was perfect but because he was not and yet triumphed.”

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Louis P. Masur

Louis Masur is Distinguished Professor of American Studies and History at Rutgers University. This interview is based on his new book, Lincoln’s Last Speech: Wartime Reconstruction and the Crisis of Reunion (Oxford University Press, April 2015).

JF: What led you to write Lincoln’s Last Speech?

LM: I was invited to deliver a lecture in which I speculated about what would have happened had Lincoln lived. That led me to reread his final speech, delivered three days before his assassination, which is devoted almost entirely to his plans for reconstruction. From there I worked back to the beginning of the war and realized that there was a story about Lincoln and wartime reconstruction that has not been fully told.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Lincoln’s Last Speech?

LM: The book argues that reconstruction did not begin in 1865, or even 1863 when Lincoln issued his Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction, but rather from the very start of the war when consideration of how the seceded states would return to the Union became both a means and an end toward winning the war. The book’s epigraph, from Shakespeare, “When lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentlest gamester is the soonest winner,” offers another argument about Lincoln’s approach to reconstruction, one in which he desired justice but also mercy.

JF: Why do we need to read Lincoln’s Last Speech?

LM: The book helps us to understand reconstruction in a new way and offers a portrait of Lincoln that focuses on his efforts to restore the Union.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

LM: I majored in history and English in college and when I graduated I applied to law school and graduate school. When I was offered a scholarship to graduate school I decided to go because I thought that whatever happened on the job market, and at that time in the early 1980s there was an employment crisis, I would have the personal satisfaction of earning a doctoral degree and publishing a book.

JF: What is your next project?

LM: I’m undecided about my next project. This is my second Lincoln book, and it is hard to leave him behind, but I have written on a range of topics in my career and I plan to move onto something else. I am not sure what just yet.

JF: I understand, thanks Lou!

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner

The "Civil War in America" at the Library of Congress

The New York Times reports on the current Civil War exhibit at the Library of Congress. The exhibit runs through June 1, but the draft of the Emancipation Proclamation will only be on view through February 18.

Here is a taste of the article:

The show’s documents are also dense with voices, offering a history told from above and below as well as from North and South. (A companion volume takes a similar approach in a detailed timeline of the war.) An 1861 diary of a plantation proprietor in South Carolina suggests that merely by being exposed to Northern forces “the Institution of Slavery has received a blow that it will never recover from.” From days of privation in 1863 we see a Confederate cookbook with recipes for imitation oysters and apple pie without apples.

We glimpse free black citizens in the midst of war. A letter from Frederick Douglass’s son Lewis, who was a member of the all-black 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, was written after fighting a “terrible” and “desperate” battle over Fort Wagner in Charleston Harbor. And in an 1868 book Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave and dressmaker for Mary Lincoln, describes establishing the Contraband Relief Association to help the 40,000 slaves who fled to freedom in Washington. 

New York Historical Society Exhibit on Emancipation Proclamation

It is running through the month of January.  Check out lectures by Louis Masur, David Blight, and Harold Holzer.  Learn more here.

A taste:

The New-York Historical Society commemorates the sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation with a display of rare documents from the Gilder Lehrman Collection, including an important 1864 printing of the Emancipation Proclamation and a congressional copy of the Thirteenth Amendment resolution, both bearing the signature of Abraham Lincoln.

While the Emancipation Proclamation stands as the most important accomplishment of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, Lincoln realized as the Civil War raged on that that the issue of slavery could only be settled permanently by changing the Constitution itself. By the end of 1864, the Senate had approved the abolition amendment, although it was still two votes short of the two-thirds necessary for passage in the House of Representatives. At Lincoln’s urging, the amendment was re-introduced, and finally passed on January 31, 1865. Lincoln, felled by an assassin’s bullet on April 15, 1865, did not live to see the amendment become law. When it finally was ratified eight months later, the Thirteenth Amendment freed nearly one million slaves still held in bondage in the states not covered by the Emancipation Proclamation.

Good Books on the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation

Since the appearance of Spielberg’s Lincoln I have been receiving a few requests for good books to read about the Emancipation Proclamation.  As many of you know, the Proclamation went into effect on January 1, 1863.

Here are my picks:

Allen Guelzo, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America

John Hope Franklin, The Emancipation Proclamation

Harold Holzer, Edna Medford, and Frank Williams, The Emancipation Proclamation: Three Views 

Louis Masur, Lincoln’s Hundred Days: The Emancipation Proclamation and the War for the Union 

David Donald, Lincoln 

Eric Foner, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and Slavery 

Happy reading! 

Eric Foner on the Emancipation Proclamation

A taste of Foner’s recent New York Times op-ed:

The Emancipation Proclamation is perhaps the most misunderstood of the documents that have shaped American history. Contrary to legend, Lincoln did not free the nearly four million slaves with a stroke of his pen. It had no bearing on slaves in the four border states, since they were not in rebellion. It also exempted certain parts of the Confederacy occupied by the Union. All told, it left perhaps 750,000 slaves in bondage. But the remaining 3.1 million, it declared, “are, and henceforward shall be free.”
The proclamation did not end slavery in the United States on the day it was issued. Indeed, it could not even be enforced in most of the areas where it applied, which were under Confederate control. But it ensured the eventual death of slavery — assuming the Union won the war. Were the Confederacy to emerge victorious, slavery, in one form or another, would undoubtedly have lasted a long time.
A military order, whose constitutional legitimacy rested on the president’s war powers, the proclamation often disappoints those who read it. It is dull and legalistic; it contains no soaring language enunciating the rights of man. Only at the last minute, at the urging of Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, an abolitionist, did Lincoln add a conclusion declaring the proclamation an “act of justice.”
Nonetheless, the proclamation marked a dramatic transformation in the nature of the Civil War and in Lincoln’s own approach to the problem of slavery. No longer did he seek the consent of slave holders. The proclamation was immediate, not gradual, contained no mention of compensation for owners, and made no reference to colonization.
In it, Lincoln addressed blacks directly, not as property subject to the will of others but as men and women whose loyalty the Union must earn. For the first time, he welcomed black soldiers into the Union Army; over the next two years some 200,000 black men would serve in the Army and Navy, playing a critical role in achieving Union victory. And Lincoln urged freed slaves to go to work for “reasonable wages” — in the United States. He never again mentioned colonization in public.

Lincoln’s First Draft of Emancipation Proclamation Will Go on Display at the Library Congress

January 3 to February 18, 2012.  Here is the news release:

The Library of Congress will place on display the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, handwritten by President Abraham Lincoln, for six weeks beginning Jan. 3, 2013, to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the proclamation’s signing.

The draft document — which has not been on public view since 2007 — will be on display from Jan. 3 through Feb. 18 in the ongoing exhibition “The Civil War in America,” which opened Nov. 12 and runs through June 1 in the Southwest Exhibition Gallery of the Thomas Jefferson Building, 10 First St. S.E. in Washington, D.C. The exhibition is free and open to the public, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday.

The exhibition, viewed by more than 40,000 visitors in its first month, is made possible by the generous support of the James Madison Council. Additional funding is provided by Union Pacific Corporation, the Liljenquist family and AARP.

President Lincoln read this first draft to his cabinet on July 22, 1862, and requested their comments. The response varied, according to Michelle Krowl, the Civil War and Reconstruction specialist in the Manuscript Division of the Library.

“Some worried about the after-effects. Some wondered about how it might affect the mid-term elections. And others pointed out that the Union army was not doing so well at that time, and that it might be advisable to wait until the Union army had a victory so the document would be presented with a backdrop of strength rather than weakness,” Krowl said.

Lincoln agreed to hold off until a Union victory, and he got one Sept. 17, 1862 at Antietam. On Sept. 22, he put forward the official preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. The final Emancipation Proclamation was signed on Jan. 1, 1863.

“The Emancipation Proclamation was presented as a war measure, freeing slaves as a way of weakening the enemy by taking away their labor force,” Krowl explained. “It was one of a series of documents and actions that paved the way for passage of the 13th Amendment that would permanently abolish slavery.”

The Library of Congress, the nation’s oldest federal cultural institution and the largest library in the world, holds more than 151 million items in various languages, disciplines and formats. The Library seeks to spark imagination and creativity and to further human understanding and wisdom by providing access to knowledge through its magnificent collections, programs, publications and exhibitions. Many of the Library’s rich resources can be accessed through its website at www.loc.gov.