Re­vis­it­ing the decades that led to the Civil War

LIN­COLN AND THE ABO­LI­TION­ISTS: JOHN QUINCY ADAMS, SLAV­ERY, AND THE CIVIL WAR By Fred Ka­plan Harper, $28.99, 366 pages

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - By James Srodes James Srodes’ lat­est book is “Spies in Pales­tine” (Coun­ter­point, 2016).

Myths die hard. None have re­sisted truth more than the fa­bles that sprang up af­ter Abra­ham Lin­coln’s death launched his ha­giog­ra­phy as The Great Eman­ci­pa­tor of the roughly four mil­lion African-Amer­i­cans held as chat­tel slaves.

His­tory pro­fes­sor Fed Ka­plan at­tempts to un­tan­gle the myths that blur a clear vi­sion of Amer­ica’s racial di­vide. It is a di­vide that came with the ar­chi­tec­ture of our na­tional found­ing in 1786 and which muddy our at­tempts to heal that ap­par­ently wors­en­ing frac­ture in 2017. Mr. Ka­plan has pro­duced other bi­ogra­phies of Lin­coln and John Quincy Adams, among oth­ers, and in this book he brings the two to­gether as ex­am­ples of men who ab­horred the in­sti­tu­tion of slav­ery while shrink­ing from the prospect of the multi-racial so­ci­ety evolv­ing around us to­day.

Mr. Ka­plan’s con­clu­sion, sim­ply stated, is that both Lin­coln and Adams were like many opin­ion lead­ers of the day viewed slav­ery as a dan­ger to pre­serv­ing the still aborn­ing Amer­i­can Union while not be­ing par­tic­u­larly sym­pa­thetic to the in­di­vid­ual plight of the bonds­men in their midst.

Yet even that grudg­ing dis­ap­proval of slav­ery was it­self a com­pli­cated po­lit­i­cal opin­ion to hold dur­ing the early decades of the 19th cen­tury.

That is the other point worth not­ing about this clearly writ­ten book. One can­not revisit the decades lead­ing up to the Civil War with­out find­ing par­al­lels with to­day’s po­lit­i­cal dys­func­tion with its vi­o­lence-prone, grid­locked up­heavals that have our two-party sys­tem swamped by ri­val waves of nar­row-is­sue dem­a­gogues.

Mr. Ka­plan be­gins his ex­am­i­na­tion in 1837 when Lin­coln, a freshly-minted lawyer and mem­ber of the Illi­nois leg­is­la­ture in­tro­duces a bill that con­demns slav­ery. Lin­coln was what was called a “free-soil” Whig, one of the two main par­ties, and one that firmly op­posed both slav­ery and abolition.

As Mr. Ka­plan ex­plains, Whigs, “… be­lieved that the Con­sti­tu­tion al­lowed the na­tional gov­ern­ment to con­trol slav­ery, pre­sum­ably with the con­sent of its res­i­dents, only in the District of Columbia. Oth­er­wise, wher­ever it al­ready ex­isted it was un­touch­able. It could be de­plored but not al­tered.”

That same year John Quincy Adams was plagu­ing the pro-slav­ery del­e­gates in the U.S. House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives with a se­ries of un­suc­cess­ful pro­ce­dural moves to over­ride the firm ban on even dis­cussing slav­ery, let alone block­ing its ex­pan­sion into the newly ad­mit­ted states of the Mid­dle West. Adams, too, was a Whig, af­ter hav­ing been some­thing called a Na­tional Repub­li­can as pres­i­dent in the 1820s, and then an Anti-Ma­son be­fore join­ing the loose and of­ten frac­tious Whig Party. Like Lin­coln, he too avoided the rad­i­cal and un­for­giv­ing Abo­li­tion­ists of his home state of Mas­sachusetts.

Mainly he, like Lin­coln, was a firm Union­ist. Only a strong and united peo­ple could hold and pros­per­ously gov­ern the vast con­ti­nent spread be­fore them like a ban­quet ta­ble for the tak­ing. Slav­ery and the di­vi­sive pas­sions it ig­nited was a threat to that Union. Bet­ter that eco­nomic con­se­quences of a broad na­tional ex­pan­sion erode the fi­nan­cial sup­port that slav­ery brought than to cause a na­tional frac­ture which out­right abolition would pro­duce.

Slav­ery was a dom­i­nat­ing is­sue dur­ing these decades and Mr. Ka­plan ac­knowl­edges that freely. But it was im­por­tant in large part for its im­pact on other is­sues. Texas had just se­ceded from Mex­ico and slave-own­ing ex­pan­sion­ists eyed, and other newly set­tled ter­ri­to­ries with greedy eyes. A war with Mex­ico was im­pend­ing and that too would test na­tional re­solve. Waves of ex­otic im­mi­grants — from Ger­many, and more dis­turb­ing from Ire­land — fu­eled an­ti­im­mi­grant pas­sions. Dis­man­tling the legacy of the Trumpian An­drew Jack­son proved vex­a­tious.

Adams was still sev­eral years away from his leg­endary defense be­fore the U.S. Supreme Court of the slaves who had es­caped on the Amis­tad, a defense that has made him a Hol­ly­wood icon. But again, that praise­wor­thy defense was more grounded on a dis­pute over prop­erty rights than civil lib­er­ties. Still, from his seat in Congress he be­came ever more op­posed to slav­ery and to the rush to ex­pand U.S. ter­ri­tory west­ward for the stresses placed on na­tional unity,

As for the slaves them­selves, Lin­coln would re­main tan­ta­lized by a pop­u­lar scheme of the day to rid Amer­ica of its slaves through projects to col­o­nize new na­tions in the Caribbean and Africa, start­ing with the roughly 400,000 free blacks who would be given in­cen­tives to seek their for­tunes else­where, any­where but here. Liberia and Sierra Leone would be es­tab­lished un­der U.S. pro­tec­tion, but dur­ing his own pres­i­dency Lin­coln could not muster the sup­port or re­sources to pur­sue a greater ef­fort.

Mr. Ka­plan has an in­ter­est­ing take on the Eman­ci­pa­tion Procla­ma­tion that so de­fines what we think about Lin­coln and race. In ad­di­tion to cal­cu­lat­ing its strate­gic im­pact on the fail­ing econ­omy of the Con­fed­er­acy, Mr. Ka­plan also notes that the de­cree free­ing bonds­men in the rebel ter­ri­tory ex­plic­itly did not af­fect those cru­cial states that had not joined the se­ces­sion — Ten­nessee, Ken­tucky, and more closely at hand, Mary­land and Delaware where a sub­stan­tial pop­u­la­tion of slave own­ers also were pro-Union.

What we have is a com­pli­cated tale that, thanks to this book, can be more clearly un­der­stood, and its sim­i­lar­i­ties with to­day’s im­broglio will fas­ci­nate the reader.

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