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Book traces Lin­coln’s ‘Crooked Path’ to the end of slav­ery

The pres­i­dent, who was anti-slav­ery but not an abo­li­tion­ist, tack­les a com­plex is­sue.

- David Holahan U.S. News · Society · Discrimination · Politics · Human Rights · Abraham Lincoln · United States of America · Illinois · Slavery

Both Abra­ham Lin­coln and the in­sti­tu­tion of slav­ery were em­i­nently com­pli­cated. Lin­coln hated slav­ery but he was not an abo­li­tion­ist, ac­cord­ing to au­thor James Oakes in his lat­est book, “The Crooked Path to Abo­li­tion: Abra­ham Lin­coln and the An­tislav­ery Con­sti­tu­tion” (Nor­ton, 288 pp., ★★★☆).

And re­mark­ably, nei­ther the word “slav­ery” nor its de­riv­a­tives ap­pear in the United States Con­sti­tu­tion, which slave­hold­ers and abo­li­tion­ists alike cited be­fore 1860 as back­ing their cause. The en­slaved are re­ferred to eu­phemisti­cally as “per­sons” who are “held to ser­vice.”

Slave­hold­ers would ar­gue that the Con­sti­tu­tion guar­an­teed their prop­erty rights and that slaves were chat­tel, while abo­li­tion­ists would point to the words “per­sons” and “lib­erty.”

Lin­coln was a lawyer ,, and he sought to use the law, in­clud­ing the Con­sti­tu­tion, as well as his po­lit­i­cal gifts to ad­vance the end of slav­ery. In the end, he was more suc­cess­ful than the abo­li­tion­ists, whose rhetoric he deemed un­help­ful to form­ing a more per­fect union.

In “The Crooked Path to Abo­li­tion,” Oakes de­lin­eates the many things that Lin­coln was not: “He never called for the im­me­di­ate eman­ci­pa­tion of the slaves… he never de­nounced slave­hold­ers as sin­ners and never en­dorsed the civil or po­lit­i­cal equal­ity of Blacks and whites… He never opened his home to fugi­tive slaves … he en­dorsed vol­un­tary col­o­niza­tion of free Blacks … He cer­tainly spoke at col­o­niza­tion meet­ings … but never at an abo­li­tion­ist meet­ing.”

Oakes ably guides the reader through the Byzan­tine le­gal labyrinth of slav­ery Amer­i­can style . If the au­thor’s nar­ra­tive oc­ca­sion­ally waxes repet­i­tive and aca­demic, all is for­given: Most of­ten Oakes brings clar­ity and in­sight to a po­lit­i­cal co­nun­drum of be­wil­der­ing com­plex­ity.

In 1788, when the Con­sti­tu­tion was adopted, there were 13 Amer­i­can states, all per­mit­ting the en­slave­ment of hu­man be­ings. But there were stir­rings of eman­ci­pa­tion. The Con­sti­tu­tion banned slav­ery from Amer­i­can ter­ri­to­ries and em­pow­ered the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to ban the im­por­ta­tion of slaves in 1808 – which it did that year.

Yet slav­ery did not wither, as many of the Found­ing Fathers had hoped it would. In fact, the in­sti­tu­tion be­came more en­trenched, and the de­bate over its fu­ture more con­tentious.

The can that was kicked down the road in 1788 landed, in 1861, at the feet of Lin­coln, who was clear that he was not in fa­vor us­ing the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to ban slav­ery. The Con­sti­tu­tion left that power to the states. In­deed, dur­ing his life­time, his home state of Illi­nois, a free state, passed laws dis­crim­i­nat­ing against free Blacks. That was per­fectly le­gal, too, un­til the Con­sti­tu­tion was amended af­ter the Civil War.

But Lin­coln was dead set against the ex­pan­sion of slav­ery and in fa­vor of us­ing the law­ful power of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to limit the prac­tice.

As adamant as the slav­oc­racy re­mained, time and his­tory were not on its side. On the eve of the Civil War, free states out­num­bered slave states 18 to 15. By the close of the Civil War, there were 27 free and nine slave states, just enough to change Amer­ica’s found­ing le­gal doc­u­ment to ban slav­ery and ex­tend civil right to Blacks, in the­ory any­way. As Oakes points out: What was in­con­ceiv­able in 1960 was fea­si­ble in 1865.

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