Having recently discussed the bare bones story of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, I’ve been uncertain how to best present or frame the apparent ambiguities and lack of urgency in Lincoln’s own commitment to end slavery. When studying or reading about Lincoln’s life, particularly his early career in Illinois, one cannot help but stumble across any number of troubling statements and writings with respect to true equality between the white and African American races.
Even during the first years of his presidency, Lincoln was firmly on record as an advocate for the colonization of the four million slaves he hoped to free, even while actively attacking the evil institution of slavery itself. Lincoln always steadfastly insisted that any such relocation must be voluntary to individuals, but this was of little or no solace to Frederick Douglass and other disappointed or disgusted African American leaders and white abolitionists.
However, these same anti-slavery leaders were always quick to praise Lincoln for both his personal commitment to equality and his strength of will in announcing and then issuing the Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862 and January 1863. Although Lincoln’s interest in colonization to separate the races remained into 1863, he clearly lost his belief in that relocation as a potential solution quickly and irrevocably after issuing the Proclamation on January 1, 1863. To a large degree, his change of opinion was based on his admiration, respect, and gratitude for the many black former slaves and freemen alike who enlisted, fought bravely and effectively, and died to save his beloved Union. And when faced with the threat from anti-emancipation forces to return former slaves to bondage, Lincoln rose to his ferocious best, insisting that “the promise made, it must be kept,” and following up to ensure that it was.
Lincoln’s contemporaries, black and white, as well as subsequent students of this incredible individual, tend to cherish the “perfectibility of man” theme which is so clearly personified by his lifelong journey to eventually become the pre-eminent and most effective advocate for the abolition of American slavery. In his last public comments, during a White House serenade in celebration of General Lee’s surrender, Lincoln clearly signaled his vision for granting African Americans (well, African American men, anyway!) the right to vote and all other benefits of full U.S. citizenship. Some writers credibly contend that those very remarks served to send John Wilkes Booth “over the edge,” from his original intention to kidnap Lincoln to a new one to murder him.
So back to my initial question: how does one effectively articulate the multiple and nuanced strands of civic and human DNA by which Lincoln travelled through his life as the brilliant politician and gifted communicator with strong anti-slavery views to eventually become Father Abraham, the Great Emancipator and Savior of the Union?
Even in today’s cynical times, very few would object to America’s near deification of Lincoln, in light of his clear-cut abundance of personal and moral goodness, principle and courage, blended with legal and political acumen, expedience and clarity of focus. And packaged within this complex mixture of human leadership and greatness was a kindly and humble soul not necessarily expected in a man otherwise so comfortable with both his own irresistible personality, superior intellect and unbridled ambition.
But this equable genius was also a crafty and ruthless politician who navigated a horrendous national political landscape. Between 1861 and at least September 1864, Lincoln faced, at best, only the slimmest of majorities of public opinion in favor of continuing the war to save the Union, and likely something less than a majority who favored immediate abolition of slavery.
So it is in the context of the political and social chaos and upheaval of his own times that I want to present Abe’s thinking in his own words! Readers will recognize various phrases from the 1864 letter reprinted below, but hopefully all will enjoy reading this snapshot of his strategic and moral thinking in its entirety:
To Albert G. Hodges
A. G. Hodges, Esq Executive Mansion
Frankfort, KY Washington, April 4, 1864
My dear Sir: You ask me to put in writing the substance of what I verbally said the other day, in your presence, to Governor Bramlette and Senator Dixon. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I cannot remember when I did not so think, and feel. And yet I have never understood that the presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act officially upon this judgment and feeling. It was in the oath I took that I would, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of United States. I could not take the office without taking the oath. Nor was it my view that I might take an oath to get power, and break the oath in using the power. I understood, too, that in ordinary civil administration this oath even forbade me to practically indulge my primary abstract judgment on the moral question of slavery. I had publicly declared this many times, and in many ways. And I aver that, to this day, I have done no official act in mere deference to my abstract judgment and feeling on slavery. I did understand however, that my oath to preserve the constitution to the best of my ability imposed upon me the duty of preserving, by every indispensable means, that government — that nation — of which that constitution was the organic law. Was it possible to lose the nation, and yet preserve the constitution? By general law life and limb must be protected; yet often a limb must be amputated to save a life; but a life is never wisely given to save a limb. I felt that measures, otherwise unconstitutional, might become lawful, by becoming indispensable to the preservation of the constitution, through the preservation of the nation. Right or wrong, I assumed this ground, and now avow it. I could not feel that, to the best of my ability, I had even tried to preserve the Constitution, if, to save slavery, or any minor matter, I should permit the wreck of government, country, and Constitution all together. When, early in the war, Gen. Fremont attempted military emancipation, I forbade it, because I did not then think it an indispensable necessity. When a little later, Gen. Cameron, then Secretary of War, suggested the arming of the blacks, I objected, because I did not yet think it an indispensable necessity. When, still later, Gen. Hunter attempted military emancipation, I again forbade it, because I did not yet think the indispensable necessity had come. When, in March, and May, and July 1862 I made earnest and successive appeals to the border states to favor compensated emancipation, I believed the indispensable necessity for military emancipation and arming blacks would come, unless averted by that measure. They declined the proposition; and I was, in my best judgment, driven to the alternative of either surrendering the Union, and with it, the Constitution, or of laying strong hand upon the colored element. I chose the latter. In choosing it, I hoped for greater gain than loss; but of this, I was not entirely confident. More than a year of trial now shows no loss by it in terms of our foreign relations, none in our home popular sentiment, none in our white military force — no loss by it any how or any where. On the contrary, it shows a gain of quite a hundred and thirty thousand soldiers, seamen, and laborers. These are palpable facts, about which, as facts there can be no cavilling. We have the men; and we could not have had them without the measure.
And now let any Union man who complains of the measure, test himself by writing down in one line that he is for subduing the rebellion by force of arms; and in the next, that is for taking these hundred and thirty thousand men from the Union side, and placing them where they would not be but for the measure he condemns. If he can not face his case so stated, it is only because he can not face the truth.
I add a word which was not in the verbal conversation. In telling this tail I attempt no compliment to my own sagacity. I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me. Now, at the end of three years struggle the nation’s condition is not what either party, or any man devised, or expected. God alone can claim it. Whither it is tending seems plain. If God now wills the removal of a great wrong, and he wills also that we of the North as well as you of the South, shall pay fairly for our complicity in that wrong, impartial history will find therein new cause to attest and revere the justice and goodness of God. Yours truly,
Patrick Teegarden has been writing a series of columns this year in The Colorado Statesman on the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. He can be reached via email at: Patrick@coloradostatesman.com.