FEBRUARY 12 marked 200 years since Abraham Lincoln was born, and that’s probably not news to you. It seems like every institution of American society and every voice of the political establishment is “honoring” the Great Emancipator on his 200th birthday.
But this is only a concentrated whiff of the legends about Lincoln that every one of us heard from our first days in school–a selfless leader, honest to a fault, the president who saved the union, the man who freed the slaves.
This sanctification–and, oftentimes, sanitizing–of past figures is typical. One result is that the ways history is shaped not mostly by individuals, but by the actions of much larger numbers of people, is obscured. Lincoln, for example, couldn’t have freed a single slave without the 2.5 million soldiers who served in the Union Army–or without the self-activity of the slaves themselves, struggling for their freedom.
On the other hand, from some on the left, you get a quite different picture of Lincoln, and it’s one that people angered by the corruption and hypocrisy of political leaders today find easy to believe: Lincoln the racist, who thought whites were the natural superior of Blacks, and who cared nothing about the question of slavery except how it could help him win a war fought for the profits of northern manufacturers.
That isn’t the right picture either. Lincoln didn’t “free the slaves” by himself, but he did play an important part in the struggle to end slavery.
Lincoln’s importance in history wasn’t as an abolitionist thinker–he did, indeed, hold backward ideas about race compared to other opponents of slavery–or as an organizer for the cause, but in the role he played in a specific historical situation.
Lincoln was the political leader representing the ruling class of Northern capitalists at one of the last points in world history where the interests of that class coincided with an expansion of democracy and freedom. And Lincoln’s greatness in this context is that he didn’t shrink or retreat from that role–as others around him did–but rather rose to the challenge at each link in the chain of events.
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THE CIVIL War is rightly called the “second American Revolution,” because its roots lie in the first revolution of 1776 against the rule of the British monarchy–and the contradiction at the heart of the new United States.
On the one hand, the new government represented the most advanced form of democracy in the world at the time, based on the high ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence, such as “all men are created equal.”
But, of course, all men weren’t equal in America. At the time of the revolution, there were 1 million African slaves in the colonies, and the most prosperous part of the economy–the agricultural system in the Southern states–was dependent on their labor.
To the extent that this glaring contradiction troubled some early leaders of the U.S., they nevertheless accepted the situation because they expected slavery to die out. But they were wrong in this expectation, and the reason why can be summed up in one word: cotton.
Between 1793 and 1815, cotton exports from the U.S. grew from 500,000 tons to more than 80 million tons. Cotton from the U.S. was the fuel for the Industrial Revolution in Europe and the development of capitalism–and slavery was the key to producing cotton. As Karl Marx wrote from his vantage point in Britain, “Without slavery, there would be no cotton, without cotton, there would be no modern industry.”
Slavery not only didn’t die out–it thrived. Under the South’s oligarchy of big plantation owners, all the horrors of the slave system were intensified.
Meanwhile, the northern U.S. was developing in a very different direction. Small-scale farming continued to remain significant, but more and more, Northern society became organized around industry, built up in the urban centers. By 1850, the Northern system had been transformed by innovations in transportation, technology and communications.
The two systems, North and South, were pulling in opposite directions and increasingly coming into conflict, in battles played out in the federal government–over trade policy (Southern plantation owners wanted free trade; Northern industrialists wanted tariffs to protect their new enterprises), government investment (the North wanted the government to spur innovation; Southerners wanted it to keep out of the economy) and other issues.
The biggest battles of all were over the addition of new states to the Union–because whether slavery was legal or not could tip the balance of power in the federal government between slave states and free states that allowed the South to block the more rapidly developing North.
Alongside the economic conflict was a political one: deepening anti-slavery sentiment in the North versus the hardening of the South in defense of its system, with every new political compromise to paper over the conflict driving the two sides further apart.
An abolitionist movement dedicated to ending slavery had existed in the U.S. from the start–with Blacks themselves among its most powerful voices–but it became more outspoken and radical as the 19th century progressed.
By the 1850s, the intensification of the conflict undermined the moderate Whig Party in the North, which tolerated the North’s junior-partner status in the federal government. The Republican Party was founded in 1854 as a third-party challenge–under the influence of the abolitionists, but also a range of other forces that were more hostile to the power of the slave South than to the institution of slavery itself.
Abraham Lincoln became the Republican presidential candidate in 1860 precisely because he represented the middle point among these different forces.
Lincoln, who had been a member of Congress from Illinois, was morally opposed to slavery and expected to see it ended over time. But Lincoln denied that he favored “the social and political equality of the white and black races,” as he put it in one political debate. “I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”
Moreover, while Lincoln wanted to see slavery die out, he opposed taking action in the name of abolition–for example, challenging the Fugitive Slave Law that put the power of the federal government behind the slave-catchers who kidnapped free Blacks to “return” them to the South.
The central plank of Lincoln’s 1860 campaign for president was the one issue that all the different forces in the Republican Party could agree on–that slavery couldn’t be allowed to expand into the Western territories.
Many abolitionists thought this was far too timid, and called for a boycott of the election. The great abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass was more supportive of the Republicans, but still critical. As he put it:
The Republican Party…is opposed to the political power of slavery, rather than to slavery itself. It would arrest the spread of the slave system…and defeat all plans for giving slavery any further guarantee of permanence. This is very desirable, but it leaves the great work of abolishing slavery…still to be accomplished. The triumph of the Republican Party will only open the way for this great work.
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DOUGLASS’ COMMENT was prophetic. The victory of Lincoln and the Republicans in 1860, against a divided pro-slavery opposition, did open the way for the struggle to come.
How? Because restrictions on the expansion of slavery–the one key plank in the Republican platform–would inevitably undermine the South’s dominant position in the federal government, and that would be the beginning of the end for the slaveocracy.
Certainly, that’s how the South viewed Lincoln’s election. In his inaugural speech, Lincoln pledged, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists.” But before he took the oath of office, seven of the 11 states that would make up the Southern Confederacy had already seceded from the U.S.
This sent a panic through ruling circles in the North. Various business and political figures, including fellow leaders among the Republican Party, urged Lincoln to accept a compromise that essentially would have scrapped the party’s program on slavery.
But on this score, Lincoln the moderate passed his first big test–by not bending. As he wrote in a letter to one of the Republican advocates of compromise:
We have just carried an election on principles fairly stated to the people. Now we are told in advance, the government shall be broken up unless we surrender to those we have beaten…If we surrender, it is the end of us. They will repeat the experiment upon us ad libitum. A year will not pass till we shall have to take Cuba as a condition upon which they will stay in the Union.
Yet as the Civil War began following the Confederate bombardment of the Union’s Fort Sumter in Charleston, S.C., Lincoln was the opposite of his resolve on the question of the expansion of slavery.
The North barely mobilized for the first battles of the war. Lincoln assumed that the Southern rebels would be put down with a minimal effort, and that a “silent majority” of Southern Unionists would emerge to challenge the secessionists. Short of allowing the expansion of slavery, he was willing to make all sorts of concessions guaranteeing slavery where it already existed.
In August 1861, the Northern Gen. John Frémont imposed martial law in Missouri and began freeing slaves as a military measure against Southern forces. But Lincoln modified Frémont’s order and ultimately removed him from command–out of fear that the general’s action would tip more states into the Confederacy.
This shows that Lincoln still didn’t understand the central dynamic of the Civil War–the struggle over slavery. As an infuriated Douglass wrote: “To fight against slaveholders without fighting against slavery is but a half-hearted business and paralyzes the hands engaged in it…Fire must be met with water. War for the destruction of liberty must be met with war for the destruction of slavery.”
Douglass was right again. The war went badly for the North because of the half-hearted commitment to waging it in Lincoln’s government–and especially among the generals in charge of the Northern Army.
For example, George McClellan, the top commander of the Northern forces, had been appointed to appease pro-slavery Democrats in the North, and the so-called Border States that hadn’t joined the Confederacy. Because he favored a compromise that insured the continued existence of slavery, he hesitated to use the full force of his army against the South.
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BY THE middle of 1862, the Southern armies were winning in virtually every theater of the war. Watching from Britain as an avid supporter of the North and abolition, Frederick Engels wrote to his friend Karl Marx that the war looked to be over, and the South had prevailed.
But Marx disagreed. “So far,” Marx wrote, “we have only witnessed the first act of the Civil War–the constitutional waging of war. The second act, the revolutionary waging of war, is at hand.”
The North had crucial advantages that were necessary for victory–greater numbers, a stronger transportation network, developed industry. But by themselves, these weren’t enough. The North also needed the political will to prevail–because the Civil War was bound to be a political war.
Both North and South, the armies of the Civil War were made up of volunteers–to a much larger extent than any other U.S. war. So these armies needed to know what they were fighting for and why.
To the Confederacy, the Civil War was about the survival of its political and social system. But in the North, the political aims of the war had to be made central. Above all others was Douglass’ argument–to make war on slaveowners, the North would have make war on slavery.
This first became clear for the North as a matter of military necessity. Slaves themselves forced the issue by escaping to Union lines whenever the Northern armies approached. The practical question arose for Northern officers: Should the slaveowners’ “property” be returned to them, thus adding to the enemy’s military advantage–or should the escaped slaves be defended?
This became the reality along all the battle lines, with escaped slaves becoming a volunteer labor force accompanying the Union Army. Lincoln at first hesitated to embrace this policy of military emancipation. But once he became convinced of its necessity in order to win the war, it became a cornerstone of his strategy.
By mid-1862, he had decided on issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, though he waited for a Union victory at the Battle of Antietam to make it public. The Emancipation Proclamation was a calculated half-measure. It only freed slaves in the states that had joined the Confederacy, not in the Border States that remained part of the Union, but where slavery remained legal.
But the effect, as Lincoln knew, was unambiguous. It was a further step toward making the Civil War into a war of abolition–and turning the Union Army into an army of liberation, whose physical presence enforced the Emancipation Proclamation in the Southern states.
In early 1863, Lincoln again hesitated at another measure proposed by abolitionists, but was won over–for the formation of Black regiments to fight in the war. In bringing together soldiers who were fighting for their own liberation, this policy had an enormous effect. By the end of the war, one in 10 soldiers in the Union Army were Black.
The growing importance of emancipation as a war aim had an effect on white Northerners, especially the white soldiers of the Union Army. Few started out the war as ardent abolitionists, but many became so in the course of it. As one Michigan sergeant wrote in a letter to his wife:
The more I learn of the cursed institution of slavery, the more I feel willing to endure for its final destruction…After this war is over, this whole country will undergo a change for the better…Abolishing slavery will dignify labor; that fact, of itself, will revolutionize everything.
This kind of deepening political commitment made the soldiers of the Union Army willing to endure harsh sacrifices–including, like the Michigan sergeant, who was killed by a Confederate sharpshooter near Atlanta in 1864, the ultimate sacrifice.
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THE TRANSFORMATION of Union soldiers, like Lincoln’s stubborn commitment to resist compromises, is all the more impressive considering the pressures in the other direction.
The pro-slavery northern Democrats–known as the Copperheads, after the snake–organized around every military failure, including those caused by the incompetence of their hero, Gen. McClellen. They stoked a racist backlash against the Emancipation Proclamation, which created the climate for the deadly New York Draft Riots in 1863.
With each new crisis caused by military defeats and the agitating of pro-slavery forces, Lincoln was urged by leading political figures to compromise–even to offer “peace” on the South’s terms.
Among the compromisers were prominent Republicans with a stronger record in favor of abolition than Lincoln before the war. But Lincoln distinguished himself for his refusal to give in. And eventually, he found a group of generals, including Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman and Philip Sheridan, who were prepared to wage an all-out war aimed at destroying the slave power.
Lincoln hadn’t thought this out in advance. “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me,” he wrote in one letter. But his shift over the course of the war is unmistakable.
Thus, in his first inaugural address, Lincoln said he had “no purpose…to interfere with the institution of slavery” where it existed. By his second inaugural speech, he took an altogether more uncompromising and radical position:
Fondly do we hope–fervently do we pray–that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled up by the bondman’s 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said 3,000 years ago, so it must be said, “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
As for his own attitudes about slavery and race, Lincoln was transformed by events. One famous story describes his visit to the Confederate capital of Richmond after the Union Army conquered it. As historian James McPherson wrote:
[Lincoln] was soon surrounded by an impenetrable cordon of Black people shouting, “Glory to God!” “Glory! Glory! Glory!” “Bless the Lord!”…Several freed slaves touched Lincoln to make sure he was real. “I know I am free,” shouted an old woman, “for I have seen Father Abraham and felt him.”
Overwhelmed by rare emotions, Lincoln said to one Black man who fell on his knees in front of him: “Don’t kneel to me. That is not right. You must kneel to God only, and thank Him for the liberty you will enjoy hereafter.”
Lincoln didn’t “free the slaves.” Slavery was abolished because of the sacrifices and struggles of millions of people–Blacks as well as whites. But Lincoln did play an important role. He deserves to be remembered, not for all the trivia that will be wheeled out at celebrations supposedly in his honor today, but as a participant in one of the great struggles for freedom in history.