Posted by: cousindampier | 24 March 2010

Lincoln and the Civil War

In his recent book on the Civil War, John Keegan writes that the Civil War – unlike other wars – was a necessary war. It was not a necessary war for the preservation of the Union, but for a resolution on the idea of slavery. When I was in school, the knowledge passed along to me was Lincoln did not fight to end slavery until 1863, with the Emancipation Proclamation; before this, he was simply fighting to preserve the Union.

This is a false question – those two options are not mutually exclusive.

Lincoln did say, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.” However, the quote continues: “What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.”

The first part is commonly cited as Lincoln’s view on slavery and the Union, but the problem lies in the mixture of the two. “What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union” The point Lincoln, during the course of the Civil War, continually made clearer was that the Union was not separate from slavery. (Additionally, one month after Lincoln made this comment, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation).

Lincoln’s personal views on slavery were somewhat more extreme. From a speech in Peoria, IL, in 1854: “[The Act has a] declared indifference, but as I must think, covert real zeal for the spread of slavery, I cannot but hate it. I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world — enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites — causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty — criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest”

The larger point in the Union/slavery debate is the question underling why the North fought the Civil War doesn’t need to be asked. Saving the Union and ending slavery were the same problem – one could not happen without the other. Thinking of the causes of the Civil War in two such separate ways presents the core Lincoln’s leadership as two separate which did not cross until 1863. They were not, because the union was not going to survive half-free, half-slave. There was no end to the civil war outside of secession or the end of slavery.

There was a middle ground to the slavery issue, and it was fought during the first half of the 19th Century. Between the Missouri Compromise, Henry Clay’s abilities as mediator, and the personas of Clay, John C. Calhoun, and Daniel Webster, all forms of middle ground had been covered by 1860. As the nation was moving beyond its revolutionary roots, a true resolution was needed.

Why not make slavery a public issue until 1863 then? Politically, losing Maryland and other border states would have made the Union’s job more difficult – though not impossible, for just as the South was fighting a defensive war, the North had to hold out until their industrial capacity was in full force.

More importantly, Lincoln understood the moral issue slavery presented the state, and how the state was just beginning to enter an incredible new era. Lincoln’s task at the end of the Civil War, and in ways during the Civil War, with regiments from California and Oregon and the pivotal campaign fought out “west”, was not to reintegrate the south with the north, but to integrate the west into the Union, as Doris Kearns Goodwin explains in Team of Rivals.

The west was the future – would slavery be allowed in the territories? If the answer was yes, then there was nothing wrong with slavery to begin with. The state was going to allow its expansion and could not decry the idea of bondage while doing so. If no, slavery was wrong. The state was confining it to the already existing portion of the Union where it was.

In his book Lessons of Terror, Caleb Carr states: “Many eminent observers at the time considered Lincoln’s understanding of his country’s predicament simplistic; but in fact, such observers were generally apologists for one faction or another…there was no solution to the crisis at hand save the end of slavery-and that slavery would be ended through war.”

The continuation of the Union and the end of slavery were not separate questions. The two issues were completely intertwined. There was no Union if slavery were allowed to exist or, most importantly, expand.

From his Cooper Union Address in 1860:

Nor can we justifiably withhold this, on any ground save our conviction that slavery is wrong. If slavery is right, all words, acts, laws, and constitutions against it, are themselves wrong, and should be silenced, and swept away. If it is right, we cannot justly object to its nationality – its universality; if it is wrong, they cannot justly insist upon its extension – its enlargement. All they ask, we could readily grant, if we thought slavery right; all we ask, they could as readily grant, if they thought it wrong. Their thinking it right, and our thinking it wrong, is the precise fact upon which depends the whole controversy. Thinking it right, as they do, they are not to blame for desiring its full recognition, as being right; but, thinking it wrong, as we do, can we yield to them? Can we cast our votes with their view, and against our own? In view of our moral, social, and political responsibilities, can we do this?

Wrong as we think slavery is, we can yet afford to let it alone where it is, because that much is due to the necessity arising from its actual presence in the nation; but can we, while our votes will prevent it, allow it to spread into the National Territories, and to overrun us here in these Free States? If our sense of duty forbids this, then let us stand by our duty, fearlessly and effectively. Let us be diverted by none of those sophistical contrivances wherewith we are so industriously plied and belabored – contrivances such as groping for some middle ground between the right and the wrong, vain as the search for a man who should be neither a living man nor a dead man – such as a policy of “don’t care” on a question about which all true men do care – such as Union appeals beseeching true Union men to yield to Disunionists, reversing the divine rule, and calling, not the sinners, but the righteous to repentance – such as invocations to Washington, imploring men to unsay what Washington said, and undo what Washington did.

Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the Government nor of dungeons to ourselves. LET US HAVE FAITH THAT RIGHT MAKES MIGHT, AND IN THAT FAITH, LET US, TO THE END, DARE TO DO OUR DUTY AS WE UNDERSTAND IT.



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