Lincoln Hated Slavery, But Had to Contend With Politics

February 10, 2021

Professor James Oakes offers a new look at Lincoln, how he interpreted the Constitution, and his approach to emancipation and abolition, in a new book.

Professor James Oakes and the cover of his latest book, "The Crooked Path to Abolition: Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery Constitution."

Was the Constitution as written by the Founding Fathers an inherently proslavery or antislavery document? And was Abraham Lincoln "a secular saint, the man who freed millions of slaves with the stroke of his hand," "a reluctant emancipator, an instinctive conservative whose willingness to attack slavery was held in check by his inability to imagine that Black people, once freed, could live as equals among white Americans?"

Both versions of Lincoln assume he had "enormous powers that he simply did not have," writes Distinguished Professor James Oakes (History) in a new book, The Crooked Path to Abolition: Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery Constitution. Oakes proposes a "third Lincoln" whose "deliberate approach to emancipation and abolition" reflected a commitment to consensus along with a deep belief that "the promise of fundamental human equality," as embodied in the Declaration of Independence, "was flatly incompatible with slavery."

Oakes notes that Lincoln never joined an abolitionist society, never endorsed defiance of the Fugitive Slave Act, and "rarely referred" to slavery's "gruesome features." He "never called for the immediate emancipation of the slaves ... and never endorsed the civil or political equality of blacks and whites." Nor did he claim that the Constitution gave Congress the power to abolish slavery in the states. Despite that, Oakes says, Lincoln hated slavery as much as any abolitionist, and "openly attacked slavery as a social, political, and moral evil."

The Crooked Path to Abolition was reviewed in both The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, which called it a "very solid, carefully and rigorously argued book" showing "how antislavery constitutionalism emerged in a dialectical struggle with pro-slavery constitutionalism in antebellum America."

Oakes says that Lincoln — in keeping with the conventional wisdom of millions of Northerners and most of their Congressional representatives —  viewed the Constitution as an antislavery document. In this interpretation, the Constitution gave the federal government power to abolish the Atlantic slave trade, ban slavery from the territories and in Washington, D.C., protect the due process rights of fugitive slaves, and emancipate slaves in wartime.
In contrast, slaveholders viewed the Constitution as inherently proslavery because of the fugitive slave clause and because it counted enslaved persons as three-fifths of a person, which increased the political clout of slaveholding states.

Those two competing views of the Constitution "emerged in reaction to each other" Oakes writes, with "each side solemnly invoking the text produced by the founders." Oakes says his own view is that the document can be read either way, but that "the antislavery reading now strikes me as more compelling — and the proslavery reading less persuasive —  than I once believed." Oakes says one of the "least understood" features of Lincoln's presidency was his use of the Emancipation Proclamation as a "tool" for "exerting pressure" on states to abolish slavery on their own. He also believed the proclamation was "not enough" to ensure slavery's demise. The ratification of the 13th Amendment, which required three-fourth of states supporting it, was an essential final step made possible because of the secession of slave states and admission of new free states.

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