‘If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong,’ Lincoln wrote in 1864. Yet for most of his life he did not publicly support black citizenship. Michael Burlingame reviews ‘Lincoln and the Abolitionists’ by Fred Kaplan.
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Of the many abolitionists who criticized Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, few were more vociferous than the celebrated Boston orator Wendell Phillips, who called Lincoln “the Slave-Hound of Illinois.” Lincoln, Phillips charged, had “no desire, no purpose, no thought, to lift the freed negro to a higher status, social or political, than that of a mere labourer, superintended by others.” The president deserved some credit for issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, Phillips conceded, but that document merely provided “technical liberty” for slaves in certain states. Phillips insisted that Lincoln should have championed civil and political rights for blacks. “Equality is our claim,” he declared.
You will find a similar sentiment expressed, at book length, in Fred Kaplan’s “Lincoln and the Abolitionists: John Quincy Adams, Slavery, and the Civil War.” A professor emeritus of English at Queens College, Mr. Kaplan sides with Phillips, deeming Lincoln a squishy “anti-abolition moderate Whig” who talked a good game but took no significant action unless compelled to do so by circumstances beyond his control. Time and again Mr. Kaplan, who thinks that 21st-century Americans are too “starry-eyed about Lincoln,” deplores the president’s failure to publicly support black citizenship rights until the last week of his life.
LINCOLN AND THE ABOLITIONISTS
By Fred Kaplan Harper, 395 pages, $28.99
In making his case, the author demonstrates an infirm grasp of history, garbling the Dred Scott decision (it did not state that “slave owners were entitled to take their property anyplace in the country they pleased”), garbling the Emancipation Proclamation (in the preliminary version, Lincoln did not threaten to “encourage” slave rebellion), garbling habeas corpus (in the early months of the war, Lincoln suspended the writ far beyond “the sensitive Baltimore-Washington area”). Elementary mistakes abound: Tennessee actually did secede; Bull Run and Manassas were the same battle; the Compromise of 1850 did not abrogate the Missouri Compromise of 1820; Lincoln did not choose his own running mate in 1864 (or in 1860, for that matter).
Reviewing Lincoln’s prewar record on slavery, Mr. Kaplan often compares him unfavorably with John Quincy Adams, the subject of the author’s previous book. Adams, born and raised in Massachusetts, championed the antislavery crusade most fervently during his long post-presidential career as a congressman. Adams did not face the same political realities that Lincoln faced as he spearheaded that cause in Illinois and that he faced as a president striving to save the union.
In fact, far from being a reluctant emancipator, Lincoln hated and loathed and despised slavery from the time he was young. In 1864, he wrote: “I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel.” Six years earlier, he had said: “I have always hated slavery, I think, as much as any abolitionist.” He concluded that speech with a heartfelt appeal: “Let us discard all this quibbling about this man and the other man: this race and that race and the other race being inferior, and therefore they must be placed in an inferior position. . . . Let us discard all these things, and unite as one people throughout this land, until we shall once more stand up declaring that all men are created equal.” [JB emphasis] Abundant evidence supports these statements, none of which Mr. Kaplan cites.
The author provides valuable information about John Quincy Adams as an antislavery paladin, but his treatment of Lincoln constitutes a superficial, misleading and often inaccurate caricature. Readers interested in the topic of Lincoln and the abolitionists should consult the work of James Oakes, especially “The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics” (2007). And they should look to the opinions of the abolitionists themselves.
Early in the war, several of his antislavery confrères shared Phillips’s view, but as time went by they changed their minds. William Lloyd Garrison, the chief spokesman for abolition, had been a fierce detractor of Lincoln. But he mellowed, insisting toward the war’s end that the president should be judged on the basis of “his possibilities, rather than by our wishes, or by the highest abstract moral standard.” Garrison expressed his “firm conviction” that “no man has occupied the chair of the Chief Magistracy in America, who has more assiduously or more honestly endeavored to discharge all its duties with a single eye to the welfare of the country, than Mr. Lincoln.”
To an Englishman who denounced Lincoln as a hopeless bigot who had supposedly “sworn to support slavery for the rebels,” Garrison in 1864 acknowledged that the president might have gone further. But it was possible that Lincoln “could not have gone one hair’s breadth beyond the point he has reached by a slow and painful process, without inciting civil war at the North, and overturning the government.” Such speculation, Garrison noted, was “idle.” Instead, he cited what could definitely be known: Lincoln’s “Emancipation proclamation . . . liberated more than three-fourths of the entire slave population.”
As the election of 1864 drew near, most abolitionists sided with Garrison rather than Phillips, who supported John C. Frémont for president. The following year, after Lincoln’s assassination, Frederick Douglass hailed Lincoln as “emphatically the black man’s President: the first to show any respect for their rights as men. . . . He was the first American President who . . . rose above the prejudice of his times, and country.” If during the early stages of the war the president had favored colonizing African-Americans abroad, Douglass asserted, “Lincoln soon outgrew his colonization ideas and schemes and came to look upon the Black man as an American citizen.” You will not find either of these statements by Garrison and Douglass in Fred Kaplan’s book.
Mr. Burlingame is a professor of history at the University of Illinois, Springfield.
A Princeton PhD, was a US diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. For the Open World Leadership Center, he speaks with
its delegates from Europe/Eurasia on the topic, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" (http://johnbrownnotesandessays.blogspot.com/2017/03/notes-and-references-for-discussion-e.html). Affiliated with Georgetown University (http://explore.georgetown.edu/people/jhb7/) for over ten years, he still shares ideas with students about public diplomacy.
The papers of his deceased father -- poet and diplomat John L. Brown -- are stored at Georgetown University Special Collections at the Lauinger Library. They are manuscript materials valuable to scholars interested in post-WWII U.S.-European cultural relations.
This blog is dedicated to him, Dr. John L. Brown, a remarkable linguist/humanist who wrote in the Foreign Service Journal (1964) -- years before "soft power" was ever coined -- that "The CAO [Cultural Affairs Officer] soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating."