Review: The Crooked Path to Abolition

The Crooked Path to Abolition: Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery Constitution, James Oakes. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2021.

Summary: A historical account of how Abraham Lincoln, although not a traditional abolitionist, strongly supported and implemented the antislavery portions of the Constitution to pursue the end of slavery.

Abraham Lincoln was not an abolitionist in the traditional sense. He did not advocate immediate emancipation in the slave states. He did not advocate active resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act, but only for due process rights. He did not rail in his rhetoric against the vile evils of slavery. But Abraham Lincoln hated slavery and believed there were resources within the Constitution properly leveraged that would lead to its eventual end. How could this be so when the Constitution protected slavery in the states? Only states could abolish slavery, not the Federal government. Both Constitution and legislation allowed slave owners or their proxes to capture and return runaway slaves even where slavery was not legal. And there was that language of slaves being three-fifths of a person.

Actually those who believe in an antislavery Constitution might start there. Slaves are written of as “persons,” undermining the contention of slaves as being property. Beyond this, those who developed the idea of an antislavery Constitution drew on both the Declaration of Independence and the Preamble affirming the equality of persons. They focused on the due process rights protected under the Fifth Amendment to make it as hard as possible for slave owners to retrieve runaways, while not breaking the fugitive slave laws. They used the Federal power to regulate the territories to make these free rather than slave. The Constitution said Congress had no authority “to give legal existence to slavery in any territory of the United States.” They antislavery people were committed to no more compromises that would admit new slave states into the country.

Lincoln believed that slavery would eventually wither away of its own. Some proposed that slaves brought into free territory could sue for their freedom. The dynamic economy of the north would outstrip the south, particularly because it could not expand its economy, fenced about by free territories becoming states. Eventually Southern states would abolish slavery on their own, which only they could do, Lincoln believed, since the Constitution did not give this power to the Federal government.

James Oakes traces the development of this antislavery doctrine, particularly within the Republican party. With enough votes in the growing North, Lincoln was elected. While he assured the South that slavery would be upheld, the implementation of other aspects of the antislavery doctrine triggered secession. Oakes shows how this offered new avenues to antislavery effort: ending slavery in the District of Columbia, ending the slave trade and blocking slave shipping to southern ports, and most significantly, voiding Fugitive Slave laws for slave owners in rebel states, since they no longer were under the laws of the Union. Slaves who fled into Union lines would be considered “contraband” and emancipated. While this was not so for border states who remained in the Union, the Army was directed not to assist in the retrieval of any fugitive slaves, since they did not have the legal powers to properly adjudicate such matters. The owners were on their own, further contributing to abolition.

Oakes doesn’t portray Lincoln as an antiracist. He favored colonization of Blacks, believing Blacks and Whites could not live together. But he hated slavery with a singular focus. One senses a Lincoln both shrewd and resolute in availing himself of all the resources available in the Constitution to move the needle toward abolition and emancipation, even maneuvering conquered states to constitute themselves as free and to join in ratifying the Thirteenth Amendment.

What I continue to wonder about is whether Lincoln realized his approach would send the South over the edge, precipitating the Civil War? Or did the South adequately take on board Lincoln’s resolve to preserve the Union once attacked? I wonder, given the case Oakes make, whether there is an argument to suggest that the South played into Lincoln’s hand, accelerating the demise of slavery that may otherwise have taken another fifty to one hundred years. Did Lincoln fully understand the cards he was holding and play them to full advantage?

I’ve often commented about the writing of slavery into our Constitution. I don’t think we can dodge that terrible compromise. But Oakes offers another perspective, showing the side of the Constitution that assumes freedom and equality the norm and slavery an exception. He also shows the lawyerly genius of Lincoln to recognize and exploit that side to its full extreme. The great sadness of all this was the lives it cost, including in the end, Lincoln’s own.

One thought on “Review: The Crooked Path to Abolition

  1. Pingback: The Month In Reviews: February 2021 | Bob on Books

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