Re­vis­ing Lin­coln’s stance on slav­ery

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - HIS­TORY REVIEW BY MANISHA SINHA Manisha Sinha, the Draper chair in Amer­i­can his­tory at the Univer­sity of Con­necti­cut, is the author of “The Slave’s Cause: A His­tory of Abo­li­tion.”

The black in­tel­lec­tual and ac­tivist W.E.B. Du Bois iden­ti­fied the prob­lem of the 20th cen­tury as the prob­lem of “the color line.” Its roots lay in the con­flict over slav­ery and black cit­i­zen­ship in the early Amer­i­can repub­lic. States­men, abo­li­tion­ists, slave­hold­ers and the en­slaved them­selves par­tic­i­pated in this de­bate, which even­tu­ally be­gat the Civil War and eman­ci­pa­tion.

In this dual bi­og­ra­phy of Abra­ham Lin­coln and John Quincy Adams, Fred Kaplan, who has pre­vi­ously writ­ten bi­ogra­phies of both men, com­pares Lin­coln un­fa­vor­ably with abo­li­tion­ists on the great is­sues of the day. Un­like the abo­li­tion­ists, Lin­coln — in Kaplan’s telling — op­posed eman­ci­pa­tion and black rights through much of his life not be­cause he was an anti-slav­ery mod­er­ate, as most his­to­ri­ans have ar­gued, but be­cause he was an in­cor­ri­gi­ble racist and anti-abo­li­tion­ist. Seek­ing to re­vise ha­gio­graphic views of Lin­coln, whom he calls an “an­ti­slav­ery moral­ist,” Kaplan places Adams, whom he dubs an “an­ti­slav­ery ac­tivist,” with the abo­li­tion­ists, even though Adams through­out his long po­lit­i­cal ca­reer never con­sid­ered him­self among their ranks.

The ti­tle of this book is a mis­nomer, as it is not a sus­tained look at the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Lin­coln and the abo­li­tion­ists. Abo­li­tion­ists such as Wil­liam Lloyd Gar­ri­son, Wen­dell Phillips and Fred­er­ick Dou­glass pop in and out of the book, but one gets no sense of the move­ment. In­stead, Kaplan, a pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of English at Queens Col­lege and the Grad­u­ate Cen­ter of the City Univer­sity of New York, de­ploys the views of abo­li­tion­ists and Adams se­lec­tively, mainly to high­light Lin­coln’s short­com­ings and his al­legedly un­chang­ing con­ser­vatism on slav­ery and race. Un­like Dou­glass, Kaplan places Lin­coln not at the head of a great anti-slav­ery move­ment but as a life­long pro­po­nent of a lily-white Amer­ica.

That Lin­coln was not an abo­li­tion­ist, even though he morally ab­horred slav­ery, is not news to his­to­ri­ans. Kaplan high­lights Lin­coln’s role as a lawyer for a slave­holder seek­ing to re­mand his slave, Jane Bryant, and her four chil­dren back to slav­ery; Bryant had lived in Illi­nois and mar­ried a free black man. The author is on less sure ground when he dis­cusses Lin­coln’s re­ac­tion to the mur­der of Eli­jah Love­joy, the abo­li­tion­ist edi­tor killed while de­fend­ing his print­ing press from a mob in 1837. Not only did Lin­coln vote against anti-abo­li­tion­ist res­o­lu­tions in the Illi­nois legislature, he also penned a protest ar­gu­ing that slav­ery was an “in­jus­tice and bad pol­icy” but that abo­li­tion may in­crease rather than abate its evils. In a speech a year later, Lin­coln con­demned mobs that “throw print­ing presses into rivers” and “shoot ed­i­tors.” Yet Kaplan with typ­i­cal over­state­ment con­cludes that Lin­coln saw slav­ery and abo­li­tion as equally evil. In fact, while Lin­coln con­sis­tently con­demned slav­ery as wrong, he came to ap­pre­ci­ate the role abo­li­tion­ists played in the com­ing of eman­ci­pa­tion dur­ing the Civil War. But Kaplan lumps Lin­coln in the same cat­e­gory as his co-coun­sel in the Bryant case, Usher Lin­der, the pro-slav­ery state at­tor­ney gen­eral who per­se­cuted Love­joy and made sure his mur­der­ers got off scot-free.

Adams fares bet­ter in Kaplan’s book. Like many of the North­ern founders, in­clud­ing his fa­ther, Adams put the in­ter­ests of the na­tion above his qualms over slav­ery early in his ca­reer. Kaplan is at his best in de­scrib­ing anti-slav­ery in New Eng­land and South­ern slave­hold­ing mod­er­ates as those “who op­posed slav­ery in prin­ci­ple but hap­pily prof­ited from it.” By the 1830s, Adams was a fel­low trav­eler of the abo­li­tion­ist move­ment but not a mem­ber. Kaplan spends a lot of time writ­ing about Adams’s re­ac­tion to the Mis­souri cri­sis and Love­joy’s mur­der, but says sur­pris­ingly lit­tle about his vir­tu­ally one-man op­po­si­tion to the gag rule against abo­li­tion­ist pe­ti­tions in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives and ab­so­lutely noth­ing about his de­fense of the Amis­tad slave rebels be­fore the Supreme Court.

Kaplan’s un­der­stand­ing of the in­ter­ra­cial abo­li­tion­ist move­ment is out­dated, quaint and er­ro­neous, which un­der­mines his at­tempt to set it up as a foil to Lin­coln. He dis­misses Love­joy as a moral ab­so­lutist, misiden­ti­fies the Amer­i­can Anti Slav­ery So­ci­ety as the Amer­i­can Abo­li­tion So­ci­ety and claims that some abo­li­tion­ists were col­o­niza­tion­ists. Abo­li­tion­ists re­jected the pro­gram of the Amer­i­can Col­o­niza­tion So­ci­ety, founded in 1817 to repa­tri­ate all free blacks back to Africa.

Kaplan praises Adams’s re­jec­tion of col­o­niza­tion in con­trast to Lin­coln’s long-stand­ing sup­port of it. Lin­coln ad­mired Henry Clay, the slave­hold­ing Whig se­na­tor from Ken­tucky, a found­ing mem­ber and pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Col­o­niza­tion So­ci­ety and author of the most im­por­tant sec­tional com­pro­mises be­fore the Civil War, as his beau ideal of a politi­cian. In the cri­sis decade be­fore the war, how­ever, Lin­coln be­gan sound­ing a lot more like Adams than Clay. One can trace his evo­lu­tion in the pol­i­tics of anti-slav­ery from his re­luc­tant sup­port of the Fugi­tive Slave Law to his elo­quent de­nun­ci­a­tion of the Dred Scott de­ci­sion. Kaplan rarely en­gages with Lin­coln’s words, which lay bare the dilemma of a mod­er­ate wrestling with his com­pet­ing loy­al­ties to the Union, the Con­sti­tu­tion and anti-slav­ery. Dur­ing the war, Lin­coln would move from the non-ex­ten­sion of slav­ery to abo­li­tion, and from col­o­niza­tion to black cit­i­zen­ship, but Kaplan is not im­pressed by his ca­pac­ity, as Gar­ri­son put it, to grow in of­fice. He re­pro­duces abo­li­tion­ists’ de­nun­ci­a­tions of Lin­coln for his slow­ness to act but rarely their praise of him when he adopted eman­ci­pa­tion. Lin­coln ful­filled Adams’s pre­dic­tion of the de­struc­tion of slav­ery dur­ing a military con­flict that would al­low the pres­i­dent to evoke his war pow­ers un­der the Con­sti­tu­tion to abol­ish slav­ery. In this sense, Lin­coln was a po­lit­i­cal heir to Adams.

Kaplan also does not note that abo­li­tion­ists such as Owen Love­joy, brother of the mar­tyred Eli­jah, and Charles Sum­ner emerged as con­fi­dantes of the pres­i­dent, but he faults Lin­coln for mak­ing the worst vice-pres­i­den­tial choice in U.S. his­tory, An­drew John­son, dur­ing his re­elec­tion bid in 1864. But nei­ther Lin­coln nor the abo­li­tion­ists fore­saw that he would be as­sas­si­nated and that John­son, the wartime gov­er­nor of Union-oc­cu­pied Ten­nessee known for his ha­tred of the slave­hold­ing elite, would be­come pres­i­dent and is­sue whole­sale par­dons to them. (Ten­nessee, con­trary to Kaplan’s claim, did se­cede from the Union.) And just when he should have left his nar­ra­tive well alone, Kaplan in­dulges in a bit of coun­ter­fac­tual his­tory, gra­tu­itously pre­dict­ing that if Lin­coln had lived, he would not have pre­vented the over­throw of Re­con­struc­tion, Jim Crow or even the crim­i­nal­iza­tion of black­ness, be­cause for him only white lives mat­tered. The black abo­li­tion­ist H. Ford Dou­glas, who crit­i­cized Lin­coln’s fail­ure to sup­port black cit­i­zen­ship be­fore the war, knew bet­ter. The war he pre­dicted would ed­u­cate Lin­coln on col­o­niza­tion. It would also lay the foun­da­tion for an in­ter­ra­cial democ­racy that the na­tion still as­pires to achieve.


Abra­ham Lin­coln hated slav­ery but was not an abo­li­tion­ist; John Quincy Adams agreed with abo­li­tion­ists but did not join their move­ment.


LIN­COLN AND THE ABO­LI­TION­ISTS John Quincy Adams, Slav­ery, and the Civil War By Fred Kaplan Harper. 395 pp. $28.99

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