Lincoln: Slavery, Sovereignty, and Secession

This past week, I gave a talk (along with colleague Maimon Schwarzschild) on Abraham Lincoln at the San Diego Law Library as part of their exhibit on the former President.  My talk was entitled “Lincoln: Slavery, Sovereignty, and Secession,” but unfortunately due to time constraints, it was mainly on slavery.

My main point about Lincoln is that his views on slavery were very “moderate” up until the point at which he issued the Emancipation Proclamation.  As a matter of policy, Lincoln favored ending slavery, but he wanted such emancipation to be gradual, compensated, popularly enacted, and followed by colonization.  In Lincoln’s defense, he believed that any stronger position would have been rejected by the American people and therefore this was the best that could be accomplished for the slaves.

By contrast, there were the abolitionists of the time – people who favored immediate emancipation of the slaves.  The abolitionists included William Lloyd Garrison, who believed the Constitution was a deal with the slavemaster devil, and Lysander Spooner, who believed that the Constitution forbade slavery.  But the groups associated with both of these men were considered extremists and represented only a small portion of the population.

As a matter of constitutional law, Lincoln believed that the Constitution allowed slavery in states that desired to have it and therefore did not allow the federal government to interfere with such slavery.  But he did insist that the Constitution allowed Congress to forbid slavery in the territories.  This was key to Lincoln, who believed that if slavery could be prohibited in the territories, the future states would be free ones.  And this would put slavery on the defensive and make compensation for emancipation from the rest of the nation affordable.

Lincoln was extreme about his moderate position, drawing a line in the sand as to prohibiting slavery in the territories.  For that reason, he strongly opposed the Dred Scott case (which would have made such prohibitions unconstitutional) and announced that he would not follow the case in future.

Ultimately, though, Lincoln ended up supporting immediate, uncompensated emancipation without colonization.  The circumstances of the war changed everything.  Lincoln could argue that emancipation was necessary for the war, an aim strongly supported in the North.  And so the Great Emancipator was born, coming to the position only slowly and over time.

Reader Discussion

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on February 13, 2015 at 10:21:33 am

You don't seem to have a clue what was going on -- you have some slogans, which are not accurate.

And you are smug.

This term "belief": you throw around as if you know. You don't. Did Lincoln believe it was legal to torture children and burn men to death? Did he believe it was legal to kill to spread slavery -- even when 95% of Kansas citizens voted against slavery, was it 'legal" to kill to force them to accept and respect slavery, and to stop the citizens from speaking against slavery?

Did Lincoln believe it was legal to arrest and torture whites for speaking against slavery? Did he believe it was legal to whip men who simply owned the wrong book? Because to keep slavery going, the South was whipping people who owned the wrong book, and even killing people who spoke against slavery, then brag about it, as US Senator David Atchison did.

Oh you don't know about Atchison? He had a speech, and actions. He believed in killing folks who spoke against slavery. He was the guy who got Kansas Act passed. Did you know either of those facts? Go learn his speech bragging about killing those who spoke against slavery.

And Atchison didn't just speak, he did. And he was working for Jeff Davis, officially, as "General of Law and Order" when he did the killings and bragged about it in speeches.

Lincoln spoke -- over 800 times -- against slavery. According to Stephen Douglas, Lincoln was a Nigger lover -- he said so repeatedly, and yes, he used the N word each time -- who was "obsessed with equality for the Nigger".

Not only Douglas said such things, New York Newspapers said Lincoln was "a Negro worshiper".

Jefferson Davis and Robert Toombs said Lincoln would destroy the white race -- exterminate is the word Toombs used -- just by stopping the spread of slavery.

Davis Rice Atchison, US Senator who got KS act passed, then rushed out to KS to start killing and terrorizing to stop folks there from even speaking about slavery (and bragged of it) said he believed in right to vote to decide slavery issue.

Lot of people, besides you, throw around that word belief. Stephen A Douglas said he "believed" in popular sovereignty in the most passionate fraudulent speeches outside Jeff Davis claim that liberty was the right to enslave others. Yet no man did more than Stephen Douglas, behind the scenes, to help Atchison in his killing sprees to stop popular sovereignty. Let me guess - because Douglas SAID he was for popular soverighty, you assume he was.

Some day, when you grow up, you will realize what people DO is what matters. That makes it harder for pompus blowhards to pontificate about history. Right now, like you, then just read a speech, one of many, see some words, and they know what that person believed.

Lincoln believed slavery was constitutional like your cancer surgeon believes brain cancer is a part of your cerebellum -- until he can cut that shit out.

I'd rather LIncoln have given bombastic speeches showing the tortures committed by men like Lee -- exposing the rapes at Arlington, showing which "beautiful boys" Jeff Davis was buying, things like that. I wish Lincoln would have admitted he'd like nothing better than to kick the living shit out of southern scum who were torturing raping branding, selling, and laughing at the slave auctions on Friday, but giving lofty sermons on Sunday.

Its time historians deal with what people did -- not just sit on their fat asses and glean speeches, take a few words here and there. At very least, if you want to do speeches, read them all in context.

Lincoln favored colonization? Jesus. Even if you go by his words -- without any context - you are wrong. In his Peoria speech, for example, Lincoln seemed early on to favor voluntary colonization -- but like Lincoln often did -- in nearly every speech, LIncoln first seemed to validate a position, then kick the shit out of it later in the speech.

Oh -- that means you have to read the full speech.

Plus, if you want to be honest, rather than smug and dishonest, you'd have to know context.

The context you never see by smug folks on Lincoln re colonization -- Southern leaders were talking about killing the slaves, genocide, if they ever had to free them. Did you know that or not? Yes or no?

When LIncoln got up to speak, he had an volumes of information in his head, much of it from listening to pro slavery folks explain why they could not possibly free the slaves. I will spare you how he knew this so well, but it rhymes with sleeping with Joshua Speed for 4 years. Speed defended slavery nightly -- no one spoke to Lincoln more than Speed. We don't have those conversations, but we do have documents and speeches written by SOuthern leaders, long reasoned writings, explaining that to free the slaves meant extinction of white race, or death of the black race.

You know that, right?

No, you did not know that.

But LIncoln did. When LIncoln got up to speak, he had that in his head. He gave a nod to colonization -- it was better than genocide. But by the end of the Peoria speech, LIncoln explains why that is impractical and immoral. There were not enough ships on earth, and it was a cruelty.

There is a reason Frederick Douglass said Lincoln was swift, radical, zealous and determined to end slavery and establish equality under the law for the black man. And the reason is this -- Douglass didn't just sit on his ass and read a few speeches and think himself wise about LIncoln. First Douglass knew what kind of scum sucking pigs Lincoln had to deal with. He knew what Stephen A Douglas David Rice Atchison, and Jefferson Davis were up to -- even if you have no clue. He knew people were tortured, even to death, by men who shouted scriptures. You'd probably quote the scripture - not the act of torture Douglass say. So Douglass knew the difference between someone's words, and actions.

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Mark Curran
on February 13, 2015 at 12:12:58 pm


We often speak of prudence in these pages and generally applaud it. This is proper.

With that in mind, let me offer a somewhat different view of Lincoln. So much of what he said had to be said in a "prudential manner. One must remember that the attitudes of the Northern voter toward blacks (slaves and freemen) were only marginally better than the attitudes of their Southern counterparts. If Lincoln were to be successful in ending slavery, and I do not know of any reasoned analysis that argues that this was not his intent, then he must first win the confidence and support of the voters.
Some may call this hypocritical or, at best misleading; rather, I would call it prudential. There is something else to be noticed in Lincoln's words. He repeatedly took what the voters were prepared to accept (via their racial attitudes) and then through simple examples, or a slight twist on words, stretched the limits of what the voters WOULD accept. In a sense, it was a constant and prudential movement from the low to the higher conception of what is right and proper.
The fellow above is correct, although somewhat intemperate, in arguing that Lincoln's deeds are better indicators than his words; however, a careful review of his words would reveal that there was a lifelong "nudging" of the electorate towards a greater understanding of the fundamental injustices resident in slavery; vociferous - no; Prudential (and ultimately effective) - YES.

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on February 14, 2015 at 17:52:49 pm

Mike Rappaport's brief survey above strikes me as getting Lincoln precisely right. It accords both with the scholarly consensus as it has emerged over the last 30 or so years, and also with what Lincoln wrote, to the best that we can apprehend it, from his voluminous surviving writings. Contra Mr. Curran, Rappaport knows very well of what he writes.

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on February 14, 2015 at 19:14:38 pm

I am neutral in the above controversy. What happened over 150 years ago can be interpreted and or twisted in many ways. However,for a good "hindsight" view on Lincoln I would reference Tom DiLorenzo's 2 books on the subject: The Real Lincoln and Lincoln Un-mansked. Some would consider these 2 books "alternative history" or "revisionist history" but Mr. Dilorenzo uses facts and sources that make his books credible. They are worth the read.

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libertarian jerry
on February 14, 2015 at 23:18:04 pm

"And so the Great Emancipator was born, coming to the position only slowly and over time." He was actually "born" much earlier, certainly no later than his earliest thoughts on slavery and the Declaration. The times allowed him to reveal the fullness of his position. Lincoln's argument against slavery centered on its effects on republican citizenship and self-government.

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Ken Masugi
on February 15, 2015 at 18:05:17 pm


Would it be fair to say that the two threads were inseparable but the exposition of each individual thread required a slightly different exposition and emphasis based upon conditions?

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on February 16, 2015 at 20:03:27 pm

You know, I've always found that when someone passes personal judgement against someone else, the judger is always guilty of the crimes of the accusation. Always. It's just something inherent in human nature.

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Scott Amorian
on February 18, 2015 at 09:42:58 am


Your last point is spot on--the issue was the corrosive effect of slavery on the character of everyone who came into contact with it. The kind of character fostered by slavery was not the kind of civic character necessary to sustain republican government--the form of government that, after all, demands the most from its citizens,

There is a strong connection between this critique of slavery and the Arminianism of the second great awakening. I do not have time to develop this now, but can return to it if there is interest.

That said, Mike is also correct that the solutions Lincoln favored prior to the war were moderate. It is worth noting that many of the advocates of colonization saw it not only as a solution to slavery, but also as a means of removing all black persons, slave or free, from America. So the ACS was, for many, a racial solution as well. By 1850 this connection was well established--one reason why men like James Forten so forcefully condemned it. To my knowledge Lincoln never advocated for colonization as a racial solution, but he never disavowed it either.

I think in the end it is very difficult to know what was in Lincoln's heart. At some point the documents fail us.

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on February 18, 2015 at 12:50:54 pm

Trashing Lincoln has become a sport of sorts, not only of mud slinging demagogues, but here sometimes by "knowledgeable" scholars

The other day I walked into the office of a "Lincoln scholar" at a large Illinois school. I wanted help finding what I could on the duplicity of Stephen A Douglas, and his role helping David Rice Atchison's killing sprees in Kansas, when he worked for Jefferson Davis, officially, as "General of Law and Order in Kansas: Atchison, for those that do not know, is the guy who got KS act passed, always assuring everyone he just wanted those folks in KS to be able to vote, no one thought for a minute KS voters would vote in slavery.

SPecifically I wanted background on Charles Sumner's speech where he exposed Atchison's killing and terrorizing, which would grow so much worse after Sumner's speech. The "Lincoln Scholar" had no clue, seriously, who Sumner was talking about. But he did know the name of Lee's pet chicken.

This is about right for :"scholars". They know and can wax so fine about Lee's pet chicken, and they have no clue David Rice Atchison's killing sprees, and speeches, where he bragged of it, and so much more. Atchison even bragged about killing and terrorizing and arresting anyone who SPOKE against slavery.

The "Lincoln scholar" had no idea, either, of the most basic fact of Southern life and politics from 1840 on -- the violent punishments of anyone who spoke openly, or who even owned a book questioning slavery. The laws in KS -- which set torture as the punishment for speaking against slavery, were nothing new. The South had them, and used them.

If you don't know about David Rice Atchison's role in KS act, and don't know Charles Sumners speech about him, but you know the name of Lee's pet chicken, you are probably an academic.

As to Lincoln's "preferred solutions" for race issues before the Civil War, my my my. We have more Lee pet chickens dynamics going on. How many academics know that the South was talking about killing the slaves if they had to free them. How many know such comments were not rare, in fact, Brown in Georgia wrote a very long letter to the public saying pretty much that. We would have to kill our slaves, or be destroyed by them.

Lincoln knew very well the mind set and slogan set -- yes there are slogan sets -- that slave owners used, and from which they got their "mind set" From the slogan set, you get your mind set. Lincoln got this information from Speed, a man he slept with for years. Do you think they did not talk about slavery, while they laid together night after night, and slavery issue was the rage?

When LIncoln spoke about colonization -- voluntary colonization, I have yet to see one "academic" even mention the Souths slogans about killign their slaves if that were to happen. I can show you speeches, and documents, and books, where slave owners insisted just stopping the SPREAD of slavery meant the "extermination" of the white race, and how just stopping the spread of slavery would "burn us to death" slowly.

Lincoln's speeches are works of art, he seems to agree with something -- then reverses course in the next sentence or the next paragraph, and obliterates that which he just agreed with -- or seemed to agree with.

If you don't know what Lincoln faced -- and I wonder if most "academic" scholars do -- you can't possibly make rational declarations of what his positions were.

Frederick DOuglass said Lincoln was "radical, swift, zealous, and determined" to end slavery and get equality under the law. Was Douglass stupid? Was he a fool that just needed "scholars" 100 years hence to tell him what was going on?

Douglass knew what you do not. DOuglass knew the stated belief that blacks were sub human, and declared as such by the SCOTUS. The Taney court ruling specifically ORDERED that blacks are not human beings -- not persons. And in the same sentence, ORDERED that the federal government would protect slavery, even in KS, where folks voted 90% and more against slavery.

Yes "scholars" like Eric Foner claimed Dred Scott was "a rather narrow ruling" about citizenship. Actually Jeff Davis and Stephen A Douglas and David Atchison - - with almost every pro slavery politicians -- boasted Dred Scott decision had decreed blacks were not persons. Indeed they were right. And Jeff Davis was very adept at pointing out Kansas must accept and respect slavery -- even though 90% and more of the citizens of Kansas, were against slavery. Kansas did not have to merely accept slavery -- they must protect it. WHy? Well Jefferson Davis explained why -- read his book. Because blacks were not human beings, not persons, They were property. And no matter what the Congress said, what the people in KS said, what the territorial legislature said, blacks were not human beings, they were property. .

Property that must be "protected": by the likes of David Rice Atchison, who was killing and terrorizing in KS, and bragging about it in the most amazing terms.

Douglass knew all this -- Douglass knew Lincoln was regularly called a "NWORD" lover -- Stephen A Douglas regularly shouted to the crowd that Lincoln wanted their daughters to sleep with NWORD. Bet you didn't know that.

S DOuglas all but urged violence upon Lincoln -- and said LIncoln was "obsessed with equality for the NWORD. Douglas also bragged in the same speeches accusing Lincoln of being a NWORD lover, that the Dred Scott decision had made the Declaration of Independence void, Lincoln even speaking of equality for the NWORD was a radical and revolutionary act. Indeed, LIncoln would have been arrested and tortured for saying such things in most of the geographic USA at the time, a fact that escapes most "scholars" -- you know, those guys that can tell you the name of Lee's pet chicken, but cant for the life of them tell you what the hello Charles Sumner was talking about, and who he was talking about, by name.

Lincoln also had a long history of kicking slavery sideways -- from 1840s on. Who do you think stood up to Polk and said he was stealing land to spread slavery? That was Lincoln. Who do you think pushed the Wilmont PRoviso 40 times, that would have prevented slavery in the territories? That was Lincoln. Who do you think pushed for ending slavery in DC, when he was Congressmen? That was Lincoln.

Funny how none of t hose who like the meme that LIncoln didn't much care about slavery, always, and I mean always, miss that, and much more. They have their slogans.

REad Lincolns full speeches, full letters, and learn what the conditions were. Men were still being attacked, even in IL, for being too radical for equality. Even so, Lincoln's full speeches are stunning in their power and effect. Those who trash LIncoln probably do not even know of his full speeches, or the context.

Frederick Douglass was there. IF he said Lincoln was radical, swift, zealous and determined, maybe he was.

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Mark CUrran

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.