Lincoln and the Abolitionists

2 February 2017

History records Abraham Lincoln as the Great Emancipator, yet ardent abolitionists of his day such as William Lloyd Garrison viewed him with deep suspicion. That the 16th president eventually achieved the abolitionists’ most cherished dream, says biographer Allen Guelzo, happened through a curious combination of political maneuvering, personal conviction, and commitment to constitutional principle.One of the ironies of the Civil War era and the end of slavery in the United States has always been that the man who played the role of the Great Emancipator was so hugely mistrusted and so energetically vilified by the party of abolition. Abraham Lincoln, whatever his larger reputation as the liberator of two million black slaves, has never entirely shaken off the imputation that he was something of a half-heart about it. “There is a counter-legend of Lincoln,” acknowledges historian Stephen B.

Oates, “one shared ironically enough by many white southerners and certain black Americans of our time” who are convinced that Lincoln never intended to abolish slavery–that he “was a bigot… a white racist who championed segregation, opposed civil and political rights for black people” and “wanted them all thrown out of the country. ” That reputation is still linked to the 19th-century denunciations of Lincoln issued by the abolitionist vanguard.It has been the task of biographers ever since to deplore that image of Lincoln as the sort of extremist rhetoric that abolitionism was generally renowned for; or to insist that Lincoln may have had elements of racism in him but that he gradually effaced them as he moved on his “journey” to emancipation; or to suggest that Lincoln was an abolitionist all along who dragged his feet over emancipation for pragmatic political reasons.Still, not even the most vigorous apologists for Lincoln can entirely escape the sense of distance between the Emancipator and the abolitionists.

Lincoln and the Abolitionists Essay Example

Indeed, they underestimate that distance, for the differences the abolitionists saw between themselves and Lincoln were not illusory or mere matters of timing and policy. They involved not just quarrels about strategies and timetables, but some genuinely unbridgeable cultural divides. Only when those differences are allowed their full play can we begin to recognize Lincoln’s real place in the story of slavery’s end. And only when hose differences are not nudged aside can we see clearly the question Lincoln poses to the fundamental assumptions of American reform movements, which have drawn strength from the abolitionist example, rather than Lincoln’s, ever since. That the abolitionists disliked Lincoln almost unanimously cannot be in much doubt. They themselves said it too often, beginning as early as the mid-1850s, when Illinois abolitionists regarded Lincoln as a suspect recruit to the antislavery cause. The suspicions only deepened from the moment he stepped into the national spotlight as the Republican candidate for the presidency in 1860.

Charles Grandison Finney, the Protestant evangelical theologian and president of Oberlin College, the nation’s abolitionist hotbed, scored Lincoln in the first issue of the Oberlin Evangelist to appear after the nominating convention: The Republican Convention at Chicago [has] put in nomination for President Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, a gentleman who became widely known a year and a half ago by his political footrace against S. A. Douglas for the place of United States Senate from their state.In that campaign he won laurels on the score of his intellectual ability and forensic powers; but if our recollection is not at fault, his ground on the score of humanity towards the oppressed race was too low. In the eyes of black abolitionist H. Ford Douglass, Lincoln’s stature showed no improvement during the 1860 presidential campaign: I do not believe in the anti-slavery of Abraham Lincoln ..

.. Two years ago, I went through the State of Illinois for the purpose of getting signers to a petition, asking the Legislature to repeal the ‘Testimony Law,’ so as to permit colored men to testify against white men.I went to prominent Republicans, and among others, to Abraham Lincoln and Lyman Trumbull, and neither of them dared to sign that petition, to give me the right to testify in a court of justice!… If we sent our children to school, Abraham Lincoln would kick them out, in the name of Republicanism and anti-slavery! Lincoln’s election did not mute abolitionist criticism.

His unwillingness to use the outbreak of the Civil War in the spring of 1861 as a pretext for immediate abolition convinced William Lloyd Garrison that Lincoln was “unwittingly helping to prolong the war, and to render the result more and more doubtful!If he is 6 feet 4 inches high, he is only a dwarf in mind! ” Garrison had never really believed that Lincoln’s Republicans “had an issue with the South,” and Lincoln himself did nothing once elected to convince him otherwise. Frederick Douglass, who had parted fellowship with Garrison over the issue of noninvolvement in politics, hoped for better from Lincoln, but only seemed to get more disappointments. Lincoln’s presidential inaugural, with its promise not to interfere with southern slavery if the southern states attempted no violent withdrawal from the Union, left Douglass with “no very hopeful impression” of Lincoln.If anything, Lincoln had only confirmed Douglass’s “worst fears,” and he flayed Lincoln as “an itinerant Colonization lecturer, showing all his inconsistencies, his pride of race and blood, his contempt for Negroes, and his canting hypocrisy. ” Even in Lincoln’s Congress, Republican abolitionists–such as Zachariah Chandler, Henry Wilson, Benjamin Wade, George W. Julian, James Ashley, Thaddeus Stevens, and Charles Sumner–all heaped opprobrium on Lincoln’s head. Wade, according to Ohio lawyer and congressman Joshua Giddings, “denounced the President as a failure from the moment of his election.

It mattered nothing to Wade if the war “continues 30 years and bankrupts the whole nation” unless “we can say there is not a slave in this land,” but he could not convince Lincoln of that. “Lincoln himself seems to have no nerve or decision in dealing with great issues,” wrote Ohio Congressman William Parker Cutler in his diary. He says in regard to such a point, for instance, as the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, that he has never studied the subject; that he has no distinctive ideas about it …. But so far as he has considered it, he should be, perhaps, in favor of gradual abolition, when the slave-holders of the district asked for it! Of course he would.

I doubt if there is a man throughout the whole South who would not go as far as that …. That is the amount of his anti-slavery, if you choose to call it such, which according to the Chicago thermometer, the Northern states are capable of bearing.The ice is so thin that Mr. Lincoln, standing six feet and four inches, cannot afford to carry any principles with him onto it! It has been tempting to write off much of this to the not inconsiderable egos of many of the abolitionist leaders, or to the impatience that three decades of agitation had bred into the abolitionist faithful, or to the presumably forgivable political naivete of the abolitionists, who simply did not realize that Lincoln was on their side but had political realities to deal with that they did not understand.

For most interpreters, Lincoln and the abolitionists were simply a convergence waiting to happen; this has become, for the most part, the familiar cadence of the story. Lincoln himself deliberately fed such perceptions from time to time. “Well, Mr. Sumner,” Lincoln remarked to the florid Massachusetts radical in November 1861, “the only difference between you and me on this subject is a difference of a month or six weeks in time. ” He told the Illinois businessman and politician Wait Talcott that the opinions of “strong abolitionists…

ave produced a much stronger impression on my mind than you may think. ” And John Roll, a Springfield builder and longtime acquaintance of Lincoln’s, heard him reply to a question as to whether he was an abolitionist, “I am mighty near one. ” But being “near one” was precisely the point. If to be opposed to slavery was to be “near” abolitionism, then almost the entire population of the northern free states was “near” abolitionism too. But opposition to slavery never necessitated abolition.Antislavery might just as easily take the form of containment (opposing the legalization of slavery in any new states), colonization (forced repatriation of blacks to Africa), gradual emancipation (freedom keyed to decades-long timetables), or in the minds of most Northerners, nothing at all, so long as slavery got no nearer than it was. “I am a whig,” Lincoln wrote to his longtime friend Joshua Speed in 1855, “but others say there are no whigs, and that I am an abolitionist.

” But this Lincoln denied: “I now do no more than oppose the extension of slavery. Even when he would finally contemplate emancipation, it was not on the abolitionists’ terms. His ideal emancipation legislation would “have the three main features–gradual–compensation–and the vote of the people,” all of which abolitionists abhorred. Lincoln’s analysis of the abolition radicals as “fiends” had long roots in his own personal history. His parents were Separate Baptists, a small denomination that taught God’s absolute control over each and every human choice, down to the smallest events, so that no one really exercised free will in choosing.The Separates were antislavery; but they were deeply hostile to reform movements as well, since such movements (like abolitionism) smacked too strongly of human efforts at self-improvement by strength of human will, apart from God. The Separates supported “no mission Boards for converting the heathen, or for evangelizing the world; no Sunday Schools as nurseries to the church; no schools of any kind for teaching theology and divinity, or for preparing young men for the ministry,” and especially no “Secret Societies, Christmas Trees, Cake-Walks, and various other things.

If the world required reforming, God would undertake it; humanly constructed reform movements were not needed. Lincoln rebelled against his parents’ religion early in adolescence. When he moved to Springfield, Illinois, in 1837 to begin practicing law, “he was skeptical as to the great truths of the Christian Religion. ” But he remained just as doubtful as the Separates about how free the human will really was. Even if he could no longer believe in the Separates’ God, he still believed that “the human mind is impelled to action, or held in rest by some power, over which the mind itself has no control. And he continued all through his life to retain a vivid sense of “a Superintending & overruling Providence that guides and controls the operation of the world. The question Lincoln might have asked the neo-abolitionists was whether the costs of their way of immediate emancipation–costs that included a civil war, 600,000 dead, a national economic body blow worse than the Great Depression, and the broken glass of reconstruction to walk over–were actually part of the calculation of results.

Neither alternative was particularly pretty. (And of the two, I must be candid enough to confess that I cannot see myself in 1861 applauding Lincoln’s alternative).Lincoln never doubted that emancipation was right and that slavery was wrong. But he had an inkling that it was possible to do something right in such a way that it fostered an infinitely greater wrong. “If I take the step” of emancipation purely because “I think the measure politically expedient, and morally right,” Lincoln asked Salmon Chase in 1863, “would I not thus give up all footing upon constitution or law? Would I not thus be in the boundless field of absolutism? There is a zeal that is not according to knowledge; many of the abolitionists had it in spades and reveled in it. To be pushed into reform merely by the exigencies of war, politics, and the long movement of economies was, for them, not to have zeal at all. Still, because their relentless campaign was followed in 1865 by abolition, it has been easy to conclude that zeal earned its own justification simply through the end of slavery.

But this may be the greatest post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy in American history.Between the word of abolition and the deed of emancipation falls the ambiguous shadow of Abraham Lincoln. For more than a century, the genius of American reform has been its confidence that Garrison and Phillips were right. The realities of American reform, however, as the example of Lincoln suggests, have been another matter. Matthew Brady took this photograph of Abraham Lincoln in 1862. A contemporary observer, Colonel Theodore Lyman, remarked that Lincoln “has the look of sense and wonderful shrewdness, while the heavy eyelids give him a mark almost of

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