Tag Archives: slavery

Lincoln looking south from Peoria

Cross-posted at the blog of the Abraham Lincoln Institute for the Study of Leadership and Public Policy

Although not as popular as some of his other works, Abraham Lincoln’s speech at Peoria, IL—delivered over the course of some three hours on October 16, 1854—is one of his more important public addresses.  The speech combines history, reason, and moral appeal in an attack on the extension of slavery.  Lincoln was no abolitionist—he did not call for the immediate eradication of slavery in states where it had always existed—but he considered its extension north of the Missouri Compromise line to be both a moral and a political wrong.  The compromise had held for more than thirty years before Stephen Douglas’s Kansas-Nebraska Act overturned it in 1854 by permitting slavery in northern territories whose populations voted to permit the institution.

The Peoria speech contains one of my favorite passages from the entire Lincoln corpus:

Before proceeding, let me say I think I have no prejudice against the Southern people. They are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not now exist amongst them, they would not introduce it. If it did now exist amongst us, we should not instantly give it up. This I believe of the masses north and south. Doubtless there are individuals, on both sides, who would not hold slaves under any circumstances; and others who would gladly introduce slavery anew, if it were out of existence. We know that some southern men do free their slaves, go north, and become tip-top abolitionists; while some northern ones go south, and become most cruel slave-masters.

It’s a surprisingly charitable statement for a speech devoted to a divisive political issue, especially since Lincoln believed the stakes in the debate over slavery in the territories to be incredibly high.

Abraham Lincoln in 1854. Wikimedia Commons

In fact, in the same speech he denounced slavery as a “monstrous injustice” and its spread as an existential threat to American principles which “forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty—criticising [sic] the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.”  Since Lincoln saw the slave question in such stark and consequential terms, the natural thing to do would have been to demonize those who upheld the institution and its extension.  He not only refrained from doing so, but asserted that only historical circumstances accounted for the difference of opinion.

Perhaps one of the reasons for his refusal to castigate the South over the slave issue was the fact that he believed it such a difficult problem to solve.  Lincoln freely admitted that he couldn’t prescribe a remedy for slavery.  He told the Peoria audience that his “first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia,—to their own native land.”  He dismissed the prospect of granting them social and political equality, stating that his “own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not.”   Lincoln did believe “that systems of gradual emancipation might be adopted; but for their tardiness in this, I will not undertake to judge our brethren of the south.”

To modern ears, Lincoln’s desire to see the freedmen sent out of the country and his unwillingness make them his equals make him seem woefully backward.  But his conviction that the slave question had no easy answers was one of the reasons he was reluctant to condemn those who disagreed with him about it.  Faced with the most divisive, emotive political issue of his time, Lincoln did not assume that individuals on the other side of it were his moral inferiors.  Even as he demonized the institution of slavery, he humanized those who disagreed with him about it.  This willingness to distinguish between issues and their proponents would serve him well when he presided over a nation at war, a war that gave him the opportunity to enact the sweeping solution to the slavery problem from which he shrank in 1854.

For anyone trying to evaluate Lincoln as a moral role model, the Peoria speech shows him at both his worst and best.  His remarks about political and social equality between whites and blacks revealed him to be a man of his time with all the attendant prejudices.  On the other hand, the empathy he expressed toward the South seems remarkably enlightened by any standard of political rhetoric.  Most modern Americans have long since outpaced Lincoln in terms of our beliefs about race, but in terms of knowing how to handle emotive political issues it seems we haven’t caught up with him yet.  He knew that you could attack people’s opinions without attacking the people themselves.  That’s a lesson we could learn today, when political differences remain as heated as they were in Lincoln’s day.

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A proclamation visitation

The honest-to-goodness original Emancipation Proclamation came to Nashville for a limited engagement, and since my cousin and I are dedicated history aficionados, we hit the road to see it.  I would’ve snapped a photo, but…


Anyway, as an unexpected bonus, we got to see the Thirteenth Amendment, too.  The Tennessee State Museum hosted these items as part of a special Civil War exhibit from the National Archives, and even if you don’t see the proclamation itself, the exhibition is still worth a visit.  It uses NARA holdings to illustrate various subjects relating to the war, so you get a sense of the incredible variety and value of primary sources from the period as well as learning about the conflict itself.  Check out Gordon Belt’s blog for some photos.

This was one of the most rewarding public history experiences I’ve had in a long time.  Getting to see the proclamation was great, of course, but what I enjoyed almost as much was seeing the other visitors enjoy themselves.  People of every age and background were there; the TSM was open late to accommodate the crowds, and as we left, the line of ticket holders and standbys was as long as it had been when we entered.  While everyone waited to be admitted, the staff passed around handouts with transcriptions of the proclamation’s text, and visitors huddled in groups to read them, discussing particular passages and arguing over implications and meanings.

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  • If you’re within driving distance of Nashville, don’t forget about the special exhibition of the original Emancipation Proclamation at the Tennessee State Museum, Feb. 12-18.  Viewing hours are limited and lines may be long, so click here to learn how to make advance reservations.  Some time slots are already full.
  • Hey, speaking of Lincoln, did you know that in addition to leading a Marxist war effort, he was also an “unscrupulous fascist“?  A sneaky devil, that Lincoln.
  • Here’s an interesting history of the sites associated with Lincoln’s early life.
  • Thoughts from East Tennessee on the importance of family heirlooms.
  • There’s another proposed state law to prevent people from fiddling with or renaming monuments.  This one is right here in Tennessee.
  • Some info on the sesquicentennial commemoration of the Chattanooga Campaign.
  • Mt. Vernon has acquired an original painting by Benjamin Latrobe.

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Rep. Joe Courtney makes a mountain out of a molehill

I can understand why he’d be miffed that Lincoln wrongly depicts representatives from his state voting against the Thirteenth Amendment, but sending a letter to Spielberg asking him to fix it in time for the DVD release is going a little overboard.

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Remind me again why this guy is an authority

Whenever Glenn Beck and David Barton get together to talk about history, you know you’re in for a show.

Check out this conversation they had about the movie Lincoln.  Beck asks Barton about the film’s accuracy, and Barton claims that, contrary to what the film shows, the Thirteenth Amendment passed Congress easily as a “slam dunk” and without all the wheeling and dealing.

In reality, the vote in the HOR was anything but a “slam dunk.”  Approval of a proposed constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds majority, not a simple one, and the Thirteenth Amendment just barely passed.  A mere handful of additional nays, and it wouldn’t have.

Barton’s supporters are always assuring us that he’s an expert in matters constitutional and historical; he does know how new amendments get added to the Constitution, right?

As for the “wheeling and dealing,” Lincoln’s administration did, in fact, put quite a bit of pressure congressmen to support the amendment.  The exact nature and extent of that pressure is a matter of some uncertainty (for obvious reasons, it’s not the sort of thing that leaves a paper trail), but that Lincoln was more heavily involved in this congressional matter than was usual for him is pretty well established.

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Celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation

Cross-posted at the blog of the Abraham Lincoln Institute for the Study of Leadership and Public Policy

Abraham Lincoln spent the morning of Dec. 31, 1862 meeting with his cabinet to revise the final text of the Emancipation Proclamation, which was due to go into the effect the next day. On the morning of January 1, 1863, after an 11 A.M. reception at the White House, he signed the final, official copy of the document, which had been prepared by the State Department. Frederick Seward, the son of Lincoln’s Secretary of State, was an eyewtiness:

At noon, accompanying my father, I carried the broad parchment in a large portfolio under my arm. We, threading our way through the throng in the vicinity of the White House, went upstairs to the President’s room, where Mr. Lincoln speedily joined us. The broad sheet was spread open before him on the Cabinet table. Mr. Lincoln dipped his pen in the ink, and then, holding it a moment above the sheet, seemed to hesitate. Looking around, he said:

“I never in my life felt more certain that I was doing right, than I do in signing this paper. But I have been receiving calls and shaking hands since nine o’clock this morning, till my arm is stiff and numb. Now this signature is one that will be closely examined, and if they find my hand trembled they will say ‘he had some compunctions.’ But anyway, it is going to be done.”

So saying, he slowly and carefully wrote his name at the bottom of the proclamation. The signature proved to be unusually clear, bold, and firm, even for him, and a laugh followed at his apprehension. My father, after appending his own name, and causing the great seal to be affixed, had the important document placed among the archives. Copies were at once given to the press.

Many abolitionist churches in the North and communities of contraband slaves in Union camps in the South held watch night services on Dec. 31 to await the final proclamation. This year, on the 150th anniversary of the proclamation, some organizations are continuing this tradition, and the document is on exhibit for a limited time at the National Archives.

A Union soldier reads the proclamation to an enslaved family in this 1864 engraving by J.W. Watts. Division of Rare & Manuscript Collections, Carl A. Kroch Library, Cornell University

You can read the final proclamation’s text in the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln:

Now, therefore I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, by virtue of the power in me vested as Commander-in-Chief, of the Army and Navy of the United States in time of actual armed rebellion against authority and government of the United States, and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion, do, on this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty three, and in accordance with my purpose so to do publicly proclaimed for the full period of one hundred days, from the day first above mentioned, order and designate as the States and parts of States wherein the people thereof respectively, are this day in rebellion against the United States, the following, towit:

Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, (except the Parishes of St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Jefferson, St. Johns, St. Charles, St. James[,] Ascension, Assumption, Terrebonne, Lafourche, St. Mary, St. Martin, and Orleans, including the City of New-Orleans) Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South-Carolina, North-Carolina, and Virginia, (except the fortyeight counties designated as West Virginia, and also the counties of Berkley, Accomac, Northampton, Elizabeth-City, York, Princess Ann, and Norfolk, including the cities of Norfolk & Portsmouth [)]; and which excepted parts are, for the present, left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.

And by virtue of the power, and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.

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The messy reprieve of 1850

In America’s Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Union, published this month, Fergus Bordewich recounts the various controversies that the architects of the Compromise of 1850 tried to resolve and the process by which that decade-long reprieve for the Union made its tortuous way through the halls of the Capitol.  The expansion of slavery was central to the whole affair, but this core issue manifested itself in a number of intertwined controversies whose complexity may surprise readers used to abridged accounts of the compromise as only one of several steps toward the Civil War.

One of these controversies involved California, where (by a stroke of either remarkably good or remarkably bad fortune) the discovery of gold shortly after the acquisition of that future state from Mexico forced the nation to quickly come to terms with the question of its admission to the Union.  The admission of a new state threatened to upset the delicate balance between free and slave states in the Senate, and both opponents and apologists for the spread of the peculiar institution put forth various proposals for the organization of territories gained in the Mexican War—an outright ban on slavery, popular sovereignty, an absence of any restriction on slavery whatsoever, and so on.  Combined with this dispute over the fate of slavery in the former Mexican territories, and related to it, was a bitter controversy involving territorial claims by Texas.  Texans insisted that their state’s jurisdiction extended west of the Rio Grande into present-day New Mexico, whereas New Mexicans denied encroachment on what they believed to be their own domain.  These disputes emerged at a time when passions about the fate of the peculiar institution and the federal government’s role in upholding it were at a fever pitch.

Into this web of controversy and contested suggestions for untangling it stepped Henry Clay, member of a generation of elder statesmen for whom the coming debate would be their last great act on the national stage.  Clay’s proposal to cut the Gordian knot of the dispute over the fate of slavery in the territories called for the admission of a free California, the restriction of Texan claims to eastern New Mexico, an abolition of the slave trade in the nation’s capital, a more effective fugitive slave law, and freedom from congressional interference in the interstate slave trade.

Clay feared that if these measures were presented to the Senate as a unit, extremists on both sides would balk at passing it.  That is precisely what happened, as opponents of slavery led by William Seward denounced the stiffer anti-fugitive provisions and the expansion of human bondage into the Mexican cessions while slavery advocates such as John C. Calhoun and Jefferson Davis claimed that prohibitions on the spread of he peculiar institution into the territories threatened the South.  Debate on the “omnibus” bill combining Clay’s proposals became so heated that at one point Mississippi’s Henry Foote drew a pistol on Missouri’s Thomas Hart Benton.

Meanwhile, the crises which the compromise was meant to address continued to escalate, with delegates from nine slaveholding states meeting in Nashville to consider possible courses of action.  Among those possibilities was secession from the Union, a drastic measure ultimately repudiated the convention’s more moderate attendees.  After the packaged compromise proposals went down to defeat, Stephen Douglas herded the measures through the Senate separately; Texas was mollified with payment of her debts, a tougher fugitive slave law passed despite opposition from a few northern politicos, and California gained admission as a free state.

Adroit maneuvering by Speaker Howell Cobb secured passage of the compromise measures in the House of Representatives, even though hard-liners on both sides of the expansion and slavery debates continued to contest the implications of the individual provisions.  The beefed-up Fugitive Slave Law was a particularly bitter pill for Whigs in the North to swallow.  Despite continued tension, and the fact that the compromise ultimately proved to be a reprieve rather than a cure for sectional animosity, Bordewich concludes that it was a laudable political success, staving off as it did a rending of the Union and subsequent war which he claims the government was ill-prepared to face in 1850.

America’s Great Debate could benefit from additional attention to the way in which the country at large reacted to the wrangling in the Senate.  Some chapters take the reader on short forays into the disputed Texas-New Mexico border region, but for the most part Bordewich does not stray far from the halls of power in Washington.  Nor does he stray far from the conventions of narrative history; readers looking for intensive analysis and overt engagement with the secondary literature should look elsewhere.  Taken on its own terms as a straightforward narrative political history, however, this is a solid account, making effective use of published primary material and offering an intimate look at the inner workings of politics at the national level during the tumultuous mid-1800’s.

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