Blogs > Cliopatria > Michael Burlingame: Review of Richard Striner's Father Abraham: Lincoln's Relentless Struggle to End Slavery (Oxford)

Apr 3, 2006 1:20 am


Michael Burlingame: Review of Richard Striner's Father Abraham: Lincoln's Relentless Struggle to End Slavery (Oxford)



[Michael Burlingame is the author, most recently, of The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln.]

IN THIS ESTIMABLE VOLUME, Richard Striner effectively demolishes the fashionable myths of Lincoln the Reluctant Emancipator and Lincoln the White Supremacist. Deeply committed to the antislavery cause, the sixteenth president was, as Striner persuasively argues, "a fervent idealist" and "an artist in the Machiavellian uses of power."

Lincoln loathed and despised slavery early on. "I have always hated slavery I think as much as any abolitionist," he declared during his unsuccessful quest for a Senate seat in 1858. Six years later, as he prepared his bid for a second term in the White House, he wrote a public letter avowing "I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel."

But Lincoln also revered the Constitution and felt bound to abide by it, even the odious fugitive slave clause. To his best friend, Kentucky slaveholder Joshua Speed, he confided in 1855: "I . . . acknowledge your rights and my obligations, under the constitution, in regard to your slaves. I confess I hate to see the poor creatures hunted down, and caught, and carried back to their stripes, and unrewarded toils; but I bite my lip and keep quiet." That sight was "a continual torment to me; and I see something like it every time I touch the Ohio, or any other slave-border. It is hardly fair for you to assume, that I have no interest in a thing which has, and continually exercises, the power of making me miserable. You ought rather to appreciate how much the great body of the Northern people do crucify their feelings, in order to maintain their loyalty to the constitution and the Union."

As president, Lincoln would have issued the Emancipation Proclamation much earlier than he did if he had acted on his own wishes. But he felt bound by his oath of office to uphold the Constitution, which meant preserving the Union. If he moved prematurely, he rightly feared driving some or all of the loyal slave states (Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, and Delaware) into the arms of the Confederacy, and thus losing the war. Only when those states were securely cemented to the Union did he announce the emancipation policy. Critics who accuse Lincoln of being soft on slavery denounce the pragmatic justification of military necessity he gave for taking that step. But as he cogently explained, the only constitutional ground for ordering emancipation was his authority under the war power. Because emancipation was legitimate as a measure for undermining the Confederacy, he restricted the scope of the proclamation to those areas still in rebellion. Exempt were the Border States and parts of the Confederacy occupied by Union forces. Greasing the skids for the proclamation, Lincoln wrote a public letter a month before its issuance that, as Striner emphasizes, has been widely misunderstood:

My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. . . . I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free.

This letter was not a definitive statement of Lincoln's innermost feelings about the aims of the war but, rather, a political utterance designed to smooth the way for the proclamation, which he had already written and intended to promulgate as soon as the Union army won a major victory. He knew full well that millions of northerners and border state residents would object to transforming the war into an abolitionist crusade. They were willing to fight to preserve the Union but not to free the slaves. As president, Lincoln had to make the mighty act of emancipation palatable to them. By assuring conservatives that emancipation was simply a means to preserve the Union, Lincoln hoped to minimize the white backlash that he knew would come.

Lincoln feared that his proclamation might not stand up in court. Striner shows that the president worked assiduously behind the scenes to reconstruct Confederate states during the war as Union forces penetrated ever deeper southward. His Ten Percent plan, which enabled a state to resume good standing in the Union if one-tenth of its eligible electorate took a loyalty oath, represented no abandonment of blacks, as critics charged. Lincoln wanted white southerners in the reconstructed states to abolish slavery through their legislatures, which the Constitution did not forbid. Moreover, he knew that white backlash would be diminished if emancipation were decreed by their own state governments rather than by the federal government.

When that strategy fizzled, Lincoln vigorously supported a measure guaranteeing freedom to all slaves that no court could undo: a constitutional amendment. Using his powers of persuasion, he cajoled Congress to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, which finally did abolish slavery throughout the nation.

Once slavery was abolished, Lincoln wanted the liberated blacks to enjoy real freedom. To that end he signed legislation establishing a Freedmen's Bureau, which Striner rightly characterizes as "an unprecedented social welfare agency." In addition, the president publicly endorsed limited black suffrage in an important speech two days after Robert E. Lee surrendered. His recommendation applied to tens of thousands of black veterans of the Union army as well as "very intelligent" black men.

That speech cost Lincoln his life, for John Wilkes Booth was in the audience and declared to companions who would help him assassinate the president three days later, "That means nigger citizenship. Now, by God, I'll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make." And so it was. Thus, Lincoln was a martyr to black civil rights as much as Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers.

Striner's treatment of Lincoln's pre-presidential years focuses on the period 1854-61. In dealing with the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, Striner notes that it "is easy enough to view Lincoln in a very bad light by our contemporary standards." But he correctly points out that Lincoln's statements that grate most harshly on modern ears (opposing black citizenship rights) were "a defense against the crude demagoguery of Douglas." Douglas, like many of his Democratic colleagues, engaged in shameless race-baiting, compared with which Lincoln's reservations about black equality seem mild. Lincoln argued that the question of black citizenship was a red herring, that the real issue before the public was slavery. Republicans believed slavery was wrong and should not be allowed to expand; Democrats did not believe slavery was wrong and would allow it to expand.

Memorably, Lincoln declared in the final debate:

That is the issue that will continue in this country when these poor tongues of Judge Douglas and myself shall be silent. It is the eternal struggle between these two principles--right and wrong--throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time, and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity, and the other the 'divine right of kings.' It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says, 'You work and toil and earn bread, and I'll eat it.' No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.

Striner makes his case well, skillfully utilizing the work of such fine historians as James M. McPherson, LaWanda Cox, Harry V. Jaffa, and William Lee Miller. He could have strengthened his argument by citing defenses of Lincoln by thoroughgoing abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and Owen Lovejoy. But he does quote Frederick Douglass's too-little-known 1865 speech in which the black orator called Lincoln "emphatically the black man's president, the first to show any respect for their rights as men."

Striner's readable account is not aimed at specialists, who will discover little new in it, but at the general reader, who will be impressed by the relentless way the author shows how relentless was Lincoln's struggle to end slavery.


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David Hewitt - 4/6/2006

Mr. Kirstein and others who make his claims have it wrong. The Emancipation Proclamation was like the Declaration of Independence: it declared a new future reality, only requiring police enforcement. We were not 'freed' literally to be the USA by the declaration; but from July 4th on, our armies fought for independence, and not just justice.
In the same way, the proclamation authorized the union armies to go beyond simply defeating rebel armies and reclaiming lands for the union; now it also authorized them, after Jan. 1st, 1863, to free the slaves in those lands they conquered--even those enslaved by loyal southerners.
Many people today do not realize that Lincoln did not have the power to end slavery in areas on Jan. 1 1863 that were not in rebellion or no longer in rebellion; only by a constitutional amendment (which Lincoln later pushed) could the federal government do that.
No one wants a president, even in wartime, to be able to do anything he or she wants, by executive fiat; certainly the framers didn't want the executive to have that much power, even for the most moral of causes.
Lincoln was "wedded to constitutional protection" like a judge is supposed to be "wedded" to the law; he had no other option. His famous letter to Greeley was written in a very artful way to prepare the political ground for the proclamation, drawing support for the future document from white racists who were still pro-Union. Lincoln needed those people with him in order to win the war and defeat slavery. The Abolitionists had a very necessary role to play politically, and they played it well; Lincoln used their agitations to help change public opinion about slavery and black people.
If Lincoln can be criticized on the issue of slavery, I would criticize him for the extremely slow way he originally visualized destroying slavery. His earlier plea to the Border States to re-order slavery so that it would end 38 years later, in the year 1900--he preferred gradual change--neglected to take seriously enough the soul-destroying affects of slavery on millions of people. He favored gradual change in part because he devalued the abilities of the black people. But as the war progressed, and black men fought, and black women worked hard, he began to change his views. More and more he began to see them as not only political but social equals. Had he not been assassinated, Lincoln would have been a great Reconstruction president.


James T Henry - 4/6/2006

Yes there was a difference between Lincoln and the Abolitionists, and that difference was important. That said, one should not underestimate the importance of the Emancipation Proclamation. It is fashionable to claim it freed no slaves. It did, however, free slaves because it changed the Civil War into a moral cause, and led to the enlistment of thousands of African-American soldiers. Also, the Emancipation was coupled with efforts by Lincoln to get the border states to voluntarily emancipate their slaves, and to ensure ratification of the 13th Amendment. Lincoln had his flaws, and he was not perfectly progressive on race. But, if we could travel in time, I would challenge Mr. Kirstein and any others who would downplay the significance of Lincoln to persuade the freedmen of 1865 that he didn't make and important contribution to their lives and their freedom.


Peter N. Kirstein - 4/3/2006

in the border states AND in those portions of the Confederacy under Union army control.


Peter N. Kirstein - 4/3/2006

The Emancipation Proclamation "freed" slaves where they could not be freed: in those states where rebellion had not been suppressed, and did not free slaves where they could have been: in the border states in those portions of the Confederacy under Union army control.

The fact that Lincoln was morally opposed to slavery but wedded to constitutional protection is what separates this failed president from abolitionists: who were not concerned about legality but about justice: The need to free people from bondage.

His wartime emphasis on union over emancipation, as opposed to union with emancipation, is another example of his pragmatism where slave emancipation might have been averted had the South agreed to terms. Would Lincoln have freed the slaves in a reunited America. Probably not.