There are two ledges that amateur and professional historians alike can veer toward in their analysis of Abraham Lincoln. The first is a hagiography of Lincoln that unabashedly celebrates him as “the Great Emancipator” at the forefront of the abolition movement who saw...
There are two ledges that amateur and professional historians alike can veer toward in their analysis of Abraham Lincoln. The first is a hagiography of Lincoln that unabashedly celebrates him as “the Great Emancipator” at the forefront of the abolition movement who saw black and white equality exactly the same as many of us do today. This is not true. But the counter-narrative, that Lincoln was a white supremacist who used abolition of slavery only as a political tool and was only antislavery when it behooved him, is also not as supported as it may seem. James Oakes takes aim especially at the second of those narratives in his new book, The Crooked Path to Abolition. He accomplishes this by looking at the full picture of Lincoln in his context.
It is important to note, and Oakes is clear, that Lincoln was not a part of the abolitionist movement, even as many of his political enemies claimed he was. “As Eric Foner writes, Abraham Lincoln was not an abolitionist and never claimed to be. But Lincoln always hated slavery as much, he once said, as any abolitionist.” The key, however, is that Lincoln read the constitution as an antislavery document. This was the big political argument of the day: Does the constitution support slavery or is it antislavery? Different people read the Constitution in different ways, and they ascribed different motivations to the founders to support their views. This all was happening less than 60 years after the Constitution was ratified, so it is no wonder that we still do the same sort of thing today. But the truth is, the Constitution could easily be read as pro-slavery or anti-slavery, and there is a reason for that. Oakes explains:
"Given that the Constitution was the handiwork of men who disagreed about slavery, it is hardly surprising that it could be — and was — read as both proslavery and antislavery. Even today scholars disagree over whether the compromises of 1787 produced a Constitution that was fundamentally proslavery. My own view is that, depending on which clauses you cite and how you spin them, the Constitution can be read as either proslavery or antislavery."
Oakes spends a lot of time on the arguments about whether the constitution was proslavery or antislavery, and they are a big part of why the book is worth reading, so I will only outline them here. The proslavery constitution argument boils down to the fugitive slave clause and the three-fifths compromise, both of which assume slavery as the norm and institute, respectively, the right of enslavers to recapture runaway slaves in another state and the ability of southern states to count slaves as three-fifths of a person for representation purposes. These clauses in the constitution are seen as showing support for slavery as an institution, even though the word “slave” is not mentioned.
The antislavery constitution argument, however, starts with the idea that “Freedom is the rule, slavery the exception.” Therefore, enslavers have no rights that are not spelled out in the Consitution itself, which means that there is no “property in man”, as slavery proponents believed, and no one could be coerced to provide a fugitive slave to their enslaver. The enslaver simply had the right to take the runaway for himself.
It is in these crevices of historical context that The Crooked Path to Abolition gets lost, and I mean that in the best possible way. Oakes is able to get the reader so engrossed in the political arguments of the day that you begin to see where Lincoln came from and what he was all about. You begin to see how someone could be so committed to the antislavery constitution and federalism itself that he would not take the opportunity to free every slave with the stroke of his pen (a power he did not actually have) but at the same time took every opportunity to emancipate slaves when he could, persuade others when he couldn’t, and devote his presidency after the Emancipation Proclamation to convincing states it was in their best interests to abolish slavery themselves. This, not the Emancipation Proclamation, is what led to the Thirteenth Amendment and thus the end of slavery in the United States. As Oakes writes, “Lincoln’s sustained effort to get states to abolish slavery, after the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued, remains one of the least-understood features of his presidency.”
There were only two sections of the book where I thought anything substantial was missing, and even those were minor qualms. The first deals with whether Lincoln was a white supremacist or not, and employs the most famous quote in which Lincoln seems to evoke white supremacy outright:
"I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, [applause] — that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will for ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race."
Sounds pretty much like white supremacy, right? Then Oakes writes in defense:
"This was Lincoln’s single most overt endorsement of racial discrimination, yet several historians have noted the oddly negative phrasing Lincoln used here. He didn’t actually say he supported the various forms of inequality he listed; he simply said he had never endorsed the several forms of racial equality he specified. He said there was a “physical difference” between blacks and whites, but he didn’t say what the difference was. Lincoln was clearly aware that many people believed those physical differences — whatever they were — necessitated the superiority of whites and the inferiority of blacks. But Lincoln didn’t say whether he believed that. What he did say was that as long as blacks and whites “must be” assigned a position of superior and inferior he would naturally prefer to be “assigned” to the superior category. But who could disagree with that? Who would “favor” being “assigned” to the inferior position?"
Where Oakes’s defense falls apart, for me, is that Lincoln doesn’t say “as long as blacks and whites must be assigned a position of superior and inferior”. He says “while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior”. That tells me that Lincoln couldn’t imagine a world where true equality exists. And I really don’t blame him for that, given his context. We can see that world much easier from our vantage point, even though it doesn’t yet exist. But I tend to think that, as antislavery as Lincoln was, he couldn’t quite grasp a United States where racial hierarchy didn’t exist. So I mostly agree with Oakes even on this point, and he doesn’t push too hard on it, saying afterward that:
"At the very least Lincoln’s remarks at Charleston paid cowardly deference to the racial prejudices of his listeners. A more straightforward reading is also less exculpatory: Lincoln did not support allowing blacks and whites to “intermarry.” He did not support allowing black men to vote. He did not support allowing blacks to sit on juries, thereby diluting his commitment to due process rights for accused fugitive slaves. In a state that discriminated against African Americans on explicitly racial grounds, to declare that you’d prefer to be assigned to the superior race is to virtually, if not literally, endorse the racial hierarchy. No doubt Lincoln’s defenses of black humanity and fundamental equality were more consistent, more frequent, and quite unambiguous compared to his periodic bowings and scrapings before the racist peanut gallery. But the contradiction is still there, and it cries out for explanation."
So I guess I agree with Oakes completely after all.
The last point is just one I wish he had explained more because I don’t understand why so many slave states would abolish slavery at the end of the war. They ended up abolishing slavery and ratifying the Thirteenth Amendment without any federal incentives. I kept waiting on a full explanation of how this happened, and Oakes writes this paragraph in explanation:
"None of these states abolished slavery because Abraham Lincoln told them to abolish slavery. Rather, Lincoln and the Republicans in Congress had taken advantage of the war to undermine slavery in those states, shifting the balance of power to favor those who opposed slavery and, as often, opposed the long-standing domination of their states by the slaveholding class. Each state was different, but in all of them the agency of the slaves, the empowerment of the non-slaveholders, and federal policy came together to create conditions that made abolition possible."
This is a good broad explanation, and maybe I missed the specifics throughout the second half of the book that would make all of it come together. Then he gets to the meat of it:
"In the last year of the war, six slave states — Arkansas, Virginia, Maryland, Missouri, Louisiana, and Tennessee — abolished slavery on their own — though under enormous pressure from the federal government to do so. To be sure, some of these “states” were barely even states. Virginia’s legislature was entirely a creature of the federal government and at best claimed sovereignty over a handful of counties in proximity to Washington, DC. Louisiana’s legislature was scarcely more representative of the state. Tennessee’s even less so. But as far as the Lincoln administration was concerned, the only legitimate state government was a loyal state government, and in the president’s accounting six “loyal” slave states had abolished slavery."
So that makes a little more sense. But I still feel like something important is missing here. Even with governmental pressure, even with only the loyal parts of the states getting a vote, even with the balance of power shifted (however that worked), I can’t imagine enough votes in, say, the Arkansas state legislature to abolish slavery in 1864. Maybe that’s a failure in my imagination, but I was waiting for a more complete answer and I didn’t find one.
Small nuanced takes aside, The Crooked Path to Abolition is simply a wonderful, detailed account of the political scene before and during the Civil War and how Lincoln led the nation to a place where slavery no longer existed. It helped me see much more clearly how antislavery political leaders used the Constitution as it was to bring about the world they knew was right. That is a highly important message for us today, as it provides a blueprint to create a better America.
I received a review copy of The Crooked Path to Abolition courtesy of W.W. Norton Company and NetGalley, but my opinions are my own