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.

Is Collective Insanity Possible?

Ecstatic NationI’m in the midst of reading Brenda Wineapple’s Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848-1877What the book raises for me is whether it is possible for a nation to descend into a fit of collective insanity, or at least ecstasy, in which it takes leave of its senses, with dire consequences to follow. In the first part of the book, she chronicles the increasingly incendiary rhetoric of political leaders and advocates both for slavery and abolition that seemed to stir a growing spirit of fear and anger in the nation that overwhelmed calmer voices like Lincoln, Stephen Douglas, and even Alexander Stephens from the South who recognized the terrible conflict toward which the United States was headed.

Certainly, a survey of recent history suggests other examples of national collective insanity. The massacres in Rwanda stand out, where neighbors turned on neighbors in a horrific bloodbath of tribal warfare. People I’ve talked with from China speak with muted tones of the painful experience of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

This makes me wonder whether it is possible that this could occur once again in our country and what form this might take? There is anger and fear and even deep resentments or hatreds in many quarters against ethnic minorities, immigrants, the majority culture, and over those who differ with each other in matters of sexual expression. Efforts to work toward some form of a more perfect union are often trumped (!) by the soundbite smackdown.

I have to admit to being personally concerned that much of our national discourse, and the social media discourse that parallels this is indeed an exercise in playing with fire. We don’t seem to think that words can be dangerous or that speech freedoms might be abused. I will always defend our speech freedoms as a special gift and privilege. Yet the use of that freedom to sow fear and anger and intransigence contributed to the American Civil War and drowned out other voices like those of Lincoln who made this plea in his inaugural:

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely as they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

I don’t think another Civil War is likely, but I think that civil anarchy is possible, a situation akin to the Wild West where power comes from the end of a gun and the rule of law is increasingly impotent to check disorder and violence. Do we realize that the American experiment of the past 239 years can quickly descend into either anarchy or into a reactive tyranny of repression?

I believe the way forward is to listen neither to the voices that foment fear and anger, nor to the voices of easy solutionism that promise that America’s greatest days are before us (which is why I’ll never be elected to office). I wonder if we need more voices warning of the abyss toward which we could be heading and calling on us to stop, and lament what has been or is in danger of being lost. I wonder if we need voices calling us back to both our highest national and spiritual values–the recognition that all are created equal and have dignity, and all are gifted contributors to our national greatness.

Our words matter as do deeds of justice, mercy and compassion. Those who play with fire often don’t realize they could burn down the house until they do. And that includes our national house.

Review: Drawn with the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War

McPhersonDrawn with the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War by James M. McPherson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

James M McPherson is the author of the best-selling Battle Cry of Freedom, chronicling the history of the Civil War. This is a wonderful collection of essays on the same subject. These are organized under four headings with a final essay that I thought was worth the price of admission all by itself: “What’s the Matter with History”. The problem actually isn’t history, according to him, but the growing chasm between academic publications in history centered around very specialized questions and written in the arcane language of the discipline, and works for the educated public, increasingly written by journalists rather than academic historians. McPherson, who is an academic historian, describes how his success with Battle Cry undermined, to a certain degree, his academic credibility.

He begins the book with several essays on the origins of the Civil War including his take on southern exceptionalism, the role of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and his counter to the claim that the war was one of northern aggression.

Part Two focuses on the war and its wider impact on American society. He explores our perpetual fascination with the Civil War–why so many re-enactors, why so many books, and why so much continual re-hashing of the history from northern and southern perspectives. He explores the Civil War as a case study in the transition from limited to total war, and the issues of race and class, including the story behind the movie, Glory, which he considers one of the best depictions of the reality of battle among Civil War movies.

Part Three explores “Why the North won” looking at the arguments about why the Confederacy lost, how they almost won and the generalships of Lee and Grant. McPherson would come down on the side of the preponderance of northern military might combined with finally coming up with a group of Generals in Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan, who would exploit that might.

Part Four looks at Lincoln, and in many ways defends Lincoln against scholarship that minimizes the role of Lincoln in Emancipation and the defense of the republic.

I’m reminded why I like McPherson–he writes clearly and takes clear positions on historical questions. I’m sure he must have his detractors, but one thing he does not do is hide his conclusions behind arcane language and highly nuanced argument. May his tribe increase among academic historians!

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