On Abraham Lincoln’s Convoluted Plan For the Abolition of Slavery
James Oakes Charts the Politics Leading Up the American Civil War
On February 22, 1856, Abraham Lincoln was the featured speaker at a convention of newspaper editors meeting in Decatur, Illinois, the immediate precursor to the first formal gathering of the Illinois Republican Party. The convention had endorsed a set of resolutions that were copied almost verbatim from the resolutions of an earlier Anti-Nebraska convention held in Quincy. The delegates resolved to abide by all the constitutional rights the slave states were entitled to and affirmed the federal consensus, disclaiming any “purpose to annoy or disturb our sister States in the peaceful enjoyment of any of their rights.” But the editors also insisted that the right of property in slaves existed only “within the jurisdiction” of the slave states themselves. They called for the “restriction of Slavery to its present authorized limits” and implied that no new slave states should be admitted to the Union. Territories have no “constitutional right to demand admittance into the sisterhood of States” whereas Congress had a “duty” to prevent “any poisonous matter” from entering “into our extremities.” In addition to specific policies, the delegates endorsed the basic principle of anti-slavery constitutionalism:
We hold that our general government is imbued throughout the whole organization with the spirit of Liberty, as set forth originally in the Declaration of Independence . . . ; that it recognized FREEDOM as the rule and SLAVERY as the exception . . . , and that it nowhere sanctions the idea of property in man as one of its principles.
That evening, the convention’s work done, Lincoln spoke for half an hour “in his usual masterly manner, frequently interrupted by the cheers of his hearers.”
Most of what Lincoln had to say about slavery and the Constitution was packed into the six years between the Peoria address in late 1854 and his first inaugural address in early 1861. But in those years Lincoln proved an eloquent, if unoriginal, advocate for the antislavery constitutional tradition. He repeatedly insisted that the Constitution recognized slaves only as persons, never as property. He vowed to abide by the federal consensus by not interfering directly with slavery in the states where it existed, but he denounced the tendency to spread proslavery constitutional principles into the free states. He always said that the guiding spirit of the Constitution was the principle of fundamental human equality proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence. The antislavery Constitution shaped his antislavery politics. Lincoln believed that Congress could, “under the Constitution,” abolish slavery in Washington, DC, that the federal government could ban slavery from all US territories, and that accused fugitive slaves were entitled to the “privileges and immunities” of citizenship, in particular the rights of due process.
Although he did not openly endorse every one of the many precepts of the antislavery Constitution, Lincoln framed his positions entirely within its parameters. He claimed, for example, that by every principle of law a slave brought into Kansas was free, but he did not cite the Fifth Amendment as a basis for his position. He held that Congress had every right to ban slavery from the territories, but he did not invoke the guarantee clause to make the claim. The founders had compromised with slavery for the sake of creating a Union, but it was a Union they believed would one day be entirely free of slavery. For Lincoln slavery was a temporary, exceptional presence in the Constitution, whereas freedom was perpetual and fundamental.
By 1854, when Stephen Douglas engineered the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, the majority of northerners were already inflamed by several years of agitation over the much-despised Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Among other things, Douglas’s bill immediately allowed emigrants from the South to bring slaves into Nebraska territory, from which they had been banned for decades. Primed to respond in outrage to this latest evidence of the increasingly aggressive demands of the southern slaveholders, thousands of northerners poured into the streets in protest. State legislatures passed resolutions denouncing Douglas’s Kansas-Nebraska Act, which included the repeal. “Anti-Nebraska” parties sprouted across the North. The Illinois senator acknowledged the furor. He could cross the country, he admitted, by the light of his own burning effigy.
Abraham Lincoln was among those many northerners who were stunned by what Douglas had done. Up to that point in his career Lincoln had been a staunch Whig partisan, generally opposed to slavery but only when the issue arose and not in any meaningful sense an antislavery politician. After leaving Congress in 1849 Lincoln remained active in local politics but devoted most of his time to building up his law practice to support his growing family. The repeal of the Missouri Compromise brought Lincoln back into the center of Illinois politics, where he took the lead in the opposition to Douglas. The senator had scurried home from Washington to salvage his reputation and to hold his fellow Democrats in line. But Lincoln was a Whig and was therefore immune to Douglas’s discipline. As the senator stumped across the prairie defending himself in speech after speech, Lincoln took to the road in pursuit, stalking his prey wherever Douglas turned up. In the process Lincoln honed a set of arguments designed to demolish Douglas’s self-defense and to offer his own alternative vision of an antislavery Union. The final version of his speech, delivered on October 16, 1854, has come to be known as the Peoria address, after the central Illinois town where Lincoln spoke. It was his first major antislavery speech, the one that spelled out more fully than any other the set of policies he endorsed and the antislavery Constitution he invoked to justify them.
Lincoln acknowledged how hard it would be to abolish slavery. “If all earthly power were given me,” he said, “I should not know what to do.” He imagined four possible scenarios, only the last of which he thought had any hope of success. “My first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia.” He referred to the African nation as the “native land” of southern slaves, as if they were an alien presence in the United States despite having been here for generations. Yet however desirable colonization might be, Lincoln went on, “a moment’s reflection” revealed its impracticality. “If they were all landed there in a day, they would all perish in the next ten days; and there are not surplus shipping and surplus money enough in the world to carry them there in many times ten days.” So Lincoln’s first scenario—colonization to Liberia—was whisked aside as impractical. “What then?” he asked.
Lincoln’s second scenario was to free all the slaves “and keep them among us as underlings.” It is not at all clear what Lincoln had in mind here. What would it mean to be free and yet remain as “underlings”? Whatever he meant, Lincoln doubted that relegating freed people to that mysterious subordinate status “betters their condition.” So that was out. “What next?” he asked. “Free them, and make them politically and socially, our equals?” Here Lincoln indulged in one of his most famous verbal circumlocutions. His “own feelings” did not allow him to endorse the social and political equality of freed Blacks, but even if his feelings would allow it, “we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not.” He acknowledged that this “feeling” might not accord with “justice and sound judgment,” that it might even be “ill-founded.” But there was nothing to be done because white opposition to social and political equality was too widespread to be “safely disregarded.” Having dismissed the prospect of Black freedom accompanied by either permanent inequality or permanent equality, he returned to his question. What then?
At last Lincoln came to the one scenario he thought realistic, the antislavery policy he could endorse as practical. “It does seem to me,” he said, “that systems of gradual emancipation might be adopted.” Gradual emancipation was, of course, the “system” that had been adopted in the late eighteenth century by one northern state after another, beginning with Vermont and Pennsylvania and ending with New York and New Jersey. It is sometimes said that in the wake of the American Revolution “the North” abolished slavery. Actually, a number of states abolished slavery, and they came to be known collectively as “the North,” or “the free states.” This posed a problem. It was all but universally accepted that only states could abolish slavery. Whatever else Congress could do to promote abolition, the one thing it could not do was directly abolish slavery in a state. Nevertheless, there were things the federal government could do to prevent the spread of slavery and encourage the states themselves to abolish it
At Peoria, Lincoln briefly recounted his attempts to abolish slavery in Washington, DC, a position he had endorsed as far back as 1838. He also gave the first indication that he would revise the Fugitive Slave Act to guarantee the due process rights of African Americans in the North who were accused of having escaped from a slave state. As he would throughout the decade, Lincoln denounced the illegal smuggling of slaves into the United States, the suppression of which later became one of his first priorities as president. Finally, and most importantly, he would ban slavery from all the western territories. To Lincoln’s way of thinking the territorial ban would do two things. It would rule out any possibility that new slave states would be admitted to the Union, and it would promote emancipation in the older slave states and lead them to adopt gradual abolition statutes on their own. This was the Antislavery Project, invented by abolitionists in the 1820s, endorsed by radical politicians in the 1840s, and adopted in the 1850s by mainstream antislavery politicians like Abraham Lincoln.
As far back as 1821 the pioneering abolitionist Benjamin Lundy published a series of essays on the “Abolition of Slavery” that amounted to the first comprehensive version of the Antislavery Project. Lundy understood that the Constitution did not allow Congress to abolish slavery in a state. Instead he proposed several specific policies that would undermine slavery in a number of ways, short of outright federal abolition. The first policy, the one that would remain central to all later versions of the project, was the abolition of slavery “in all the territories and districts over which congress possesses the exclusive control.” By including “districts” in the proposal, Lundy meant to endorse the abolition of slavery in Washington, DC, as well as the territories.
Excerpted from The Crooked Path to Abolition: Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery Constitution. Copyright © 2021 by James Oakes. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.