Liberty Matters

Vindicating Lincoln: An Encore

Tempting as it may be on this, our final day for postings, to let the matter go, George Smith's latest post moves me to take one more crack at making the case for Lincoln. First a word of appreciation for Mr. Smith: no one will be surprised to see that I remain in Lincoln's corner, but I think Smith's postings, especially the latest, contain the most challenging and stimulating briefly stated case against Lincoln I have encountered. Here are my responses to some of his most important points.
Gradualism versus immediatism
The abolitionist critique of gradualism makes sense only on the premise that immediate abolition was a realistic possibility. It was not—at least not by any means short of the all-out war against slaveholding states, entailing the deaths of hundreds of thousands, which Smith decries in a later paragraph of his post. Perhaps his objection is to a war against secession, as opposed to a war against slavery. If so, then the question becomes: how many northerners would have enlisted in an explicitly antislavery war in 1861? If immediate abolition could only have been effected by war and if the number of northerners willing to fight such a war was nowhere near sufficient to win it, then what good would it do—did it do—to make an inflexible demand for immediate abolition? It is well and good to declare that the slave's right to liberty was preeminent, but the question is: how could that right be effectuated if no direct assault on slavery could have had the forces to succeed?
Perhaps there was one strategic course available to an immediatist. The prudent advocate of immediate abolition would have endeavored to broaden and deepen northerners' antislavery sentiment as quickly as possible. That could never have been done by any direct approach only; the abolitionists had been engaged in that sort of endeavor for several decades without substantial progress. Perhaps, however, it could have been done by an indirect approach, by heightening political pressure on the slave power and thereby provoking slaveholding states to overreach—to make demands on the North or to encroach on northerners' rights or on the continuation of their Union and thus to associate slavery with aggression against interests that northerners were willing to fight to defend.
Is that not substantially the course that Lincoln pursued? From the abolitionist or neo-abolitionist perspective, does it not make for a curious irony that the gradualist Lincoln became, in the event, the agent of immediate abolition? I do not suggest that Lincoln conceived this grand strategy prior to the actual conflict, but neither do I think, as Smith seems to think, that Lincoln's eventual role as emancipator was in the decisive respect accidental.
Gradualism and Lincoln's Moral Intention
To abolitionists, Lincoln's gradualist position appears morally indifferent, as abolitionists including Douglass charged. Again, however, what was the practicable alternative? If the available choice pitted immediate abolition at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives against gradual abolition, is it reasonable to charge Lincoln with moral indifference for choosing (initially) the peaceful, though long-extended, solution to the problem of slavery?
In sum, there is a case for gradualism that is not reducible to considerations of low expediency, one that in fact rests on considerations of morality and humanity.
A further point is pertinent. Smith makes a common claim in ascribing to Lincoln the opinion that slavery as confined by the non-extension policy "would die a natural death." That formulation is deeply misleading. Non-extension was an intentional policy of confinement, vigorously opposed by slaveholders and their sympathizers, who accurately regarded it as a potentially mortal threat to their institution. That policy would yield a Union in which slavery was increasingly anomalous, increasingly exposed to moral pressure from the surrounding states, and over time subject to a constitutional majority large enough to enact various kinds of legislation hostile to it. Words such as "non-extension," "containment," or "confinement" fail to do full justice to its design. With an apology for the violence of the figure, I think that what Lincoln and slaveholders alike envisioned is better described by the metaphor of a gradually tightening noose. Lincoln's policy portended not slavery's natural death but instead its slow strangulation.
On Lincoln's Intention: The Object of the War
Contrary to Smith's claim, there is much evidence to support the view that Lincoln from virtually the beginning intended and in fact attempted to bring about an antislavery outcome for the war. See Allen Guelzo, Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America for the details.[96]
In the famous Greeley letter, there is more, and more interesting, ambiguity than Smith and others, including Douglass, see. The key to Lincoln's statement is not his declaration of a primary purpose to save the Union, which he had said many times previously. The interesting innovation is that here he says for the first time that if to save the Union he had to free some or all the slaves, he would do it. A month later he issued his preliminary emancipation proclamation; the Greeley letter was a trial balloon, testing the public reaction to a firmer emancipation policy than he had previously proposed.
It is worth adding that in his estimation of the ultimate significance of the war—as distinct from his statements of his constitutional duty as president—Lincoln told the Congress on July 4, 1861, essentially what he repeated at Gettysburg: that the war was a war for the perpetuation of republican government, the indispensable justifying principle of which was the natural-rights principle.
There is much to say, too, about Lincoln's alleged racism and about the issue of secession, but regrettably time and space permit nothing further. I conclude with only this parting shot about Lincoln in comparison with Spooner. Whereas Lincoln presided over the preservation of the world's first and only natural-rights republic, Spooner in endorsing secession would have presided over its dissolution—and would thereby have betrayed the antislavery cause that he had previously labored much to advance.
Thanks to Nick and to all for a very stimulating exchange.
[96.] Allen Guelzo, Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004).