10 April 2009

A Question

Why didn't Lincoln want to see slavery spread to the territories?


James F. Epperson said...

The belief was that, if slavery were restricted to the 15 slave states we had then, eventually the institution would die on its own. Allowing it to expand would keep it (slavery) going. Everyone understood it would take action by the states to end it (in the absence of the rebellion that did occur); the idea was, if the institution didn't/couldn't expand, then the dollar value of slaves would peak and crash, thus hastening the end of the institution. There are those who ascribe racist beliefs to this: Lincoln didn't want slavery in the territories because he didn't want blacks in the territories; I don't think the record supports this point of view, but I know some folks (DiLorenzo) take it and run with it.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

You are partly correct. Lincoln, and many others, did not want slavery to expand to the territories so that jobs for white laborers would be protected.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Abraham Lincoln speaking in Peoria, Illinois 16 October 1854:

"Whether slavery shall go into Nebraska, or other new territories, is not a matter of exclusive concern to the people who may go there. The whole nation is interested that the best use shall be made of these territories. We want them for the homes of free white people. This they cannot be, to any considerable extent, if slavery shall be planted with them."

Vince said...


I'm concerned by how you handle primary sources. Did you read the Lincoln speech you just cited and make the argument you did with a clear conscience as a historian?

I found and read the speech and specific quotation, and your use of it is awkward and obscure. Lincoln's thesis, as I understood it, is that the expansion of slavery into the the territories represents an expansion of slavery's justification. Originally, it was a legal right or an economic necessity, but more and more people were arguing it to
be a moral right! (And that was very bad for the country, in Lincoln's eyes.) Lincoln's main points, which appealed to and rested on the nation's founding principles/documents (especially the Declaration of Independence), include:

Regarding "the policy of prohibiting slavery in new territory," Lincoln facetiously remarked: "The sacred right of self
government is grossly violated by it! We even find some men, who drew their first breath, and every other breath of their lives, under this very restriction, now live in dread of absolute suffocation, if they should be restricted in the "sacred right" of taking slaves to Nebraska. That perfect liberty they sigh for—the liberty of making slaves of other people—Jefferson never thought of; their own father never thought of; they never thought of themselves, a year ago."

"This declared indifference, but as I must think, covert real zeal for the spread of slavery, I can not but hate. 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."

Regarding the quotation you mentioned, read the next couple sentences for better understanding. In light of the rest of the speech, it shows that Lincoln hated how slavery oppresses many white people, too: "Slave States are places for poor white people to remove FROM; not to remove TO. New free States are the places for poor people to go to and better their condition. For this use, the nation needs these territories." Coupling this quotation with what we know about Northern politics, the labor argument is poor.

Anyway, thanks for pointing me to this speech. I really haven't spent much time reading primary source by or secondary sources about Lincoln (he doesn't have much of a role in Pfanz's Gettysburg: The Second Day), so I hadn't formed much of an opinion about him (I just had a couple stray thoughts). This speech, however, gives me great respect for the man's approach to complicated problems (read the speech for how he addresses the South and acknowledges the North's role in slavery). And I hope others will read the speech on their own.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...


Thanks for the input and the link to the text of the speech, but my opinion of Lincoln's intent is unaltered. This quote is just one example, there is other evidence which would substantiate Lincoln's position. I'm not suggesting Lincoln "favored" slavery. I am suggesting he was largely dispassionate on the moral issue regarding slavery and that his objections were of a "practical" (in his view) nature. His "moral objections" were for public consumption. He was, without question, a masterful politician.

Border Ruffian said...

The party of Lincoln was far more concerned about their own welfare and political power than the welfare of slaves.

Territories become states. States send representatives to congress. The more representatives you have the more power you have. Plain and simple.

Marc Ferguson said...

Vince shows us how an historian looks at a piece of evidence, placing it in greater context and not merely cherry-picking a convenient passage.

Richard - Lincoln's moral objections were for "public consumption," in a predominantly racist Illinois society and political environment?

James Oaks, in his book on Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, argues that Lincoln, although opposed to slavery on principle, hadn't thought deeply about the race and slavery until forced to by Kansas-Nebraska and then the Dredd Scott decision. Over the last decade of his life, his views on these matters evolved. I know that it is fashionable in some circles to attribute any apparent inconsistencies or changes to mere opportunism, but I think the best interpretation of the record is that his personal and political views changed in response to events.


Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...


I could "cherry-pick" dozens of quotes as well as his conduct. How many would you like? Lincoln's comments (as most politicians at all times), have to be carefully examined in light of the time, the political ramifications, and the particular politician's conduct and actions. That is, as you put it, "the greater context." I think when one does that, the evidence is rather convincing that Lincoln's actions regarding the slavery issue were motivated primarily by his political posturing and not by any moral objections to slavery.

Put me in the "mere opportunism" camp.


Michael Lynch said...

Why in the world would Lincoln feign a moral opposition to slavery as a political tactic in 1850's Illinois?

In the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Douglas often played on voters' racism by accusing Lincoln of being too radical in his opposition to slavery. (See especially his remarks at the Aug. 21 Ottawa debate.)

In other words, Lincoln's opposition to the spread of slavery was a political liability, especially in southern Illinois.

Either your analysis of the political climate in 1850's Illinois is way off, or both Lincoln and Douglas were spectacularly inept politicians.


Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

"In the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Douglas often *played* on voter's. . ."

I think you answered your own question. As I've already pointed out, Lincoln was a masterful politician.

Border Ruffian said...

As far as the boon of freedom was concerned, Lincoln and the North were more than willing to throw the slaves under the bus to maintain the status quo of "Union." (See Corwin Amendment that Lincoln wanted made "express and irrevocable.")

"Union" was much to their benefit ($). Dis-union was not.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...


Precisely. The Corwin amendment is exactly what I meant when referring to "conduct and actions."

As with all politicians, watch what they do as much (or more) than what they say.

Michael Lynch said...

I'm afraid that I'm still unclear on your reasoning. Since a moral opposition to slavery was so unpopular in many quarters of Illinois, what benefit would Lincoln derive from feigning it? If it were popular--and it wasn't--what benefit would Douglas derive from applying it to Lincoln? He;d essentially be doing Lincoln's campaigning for him.

You'd have us believe that Lincoln, in an attempt to win votes, adopted a widely unpopular position. That doesn't sound like a masterful politician to me. It sounds like political suicide.


James F. Epperson said...

"Precisely. The Corwin amendment is exactly what I meant when referring to 'conduct and actions.'"

Well, I'm confused. The Corwin Amendment was an empty gesture, an attempt to halt and reverse secession. It did virtually nothing. I don't see how anything duplicitous is concluded based on Lincoln's support for it.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

"The Corwin Amendment was an empty gesture"

In similar fashion to the EP?

"I don't see how anything duplicitous is concluded based on Lincoln's support for it."

Of course not.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

"And, as this subject is no other, than part and parcel of the larger general question of domestic-slavery, I wish to MAKE and to KEEP the distinction between the EXISTING institution, and the EXTENSION of it, so broad, and so clear, that no honest man can misunderstand me, and no dishonest one, successfully misrepresent me."

What is to misunderstand here? Is it not clear what Lincoln was doing? Lincoln was only (ostensibly) "opposed" to the expansion of slavery, not the existence of it. And he was opposed to it for reasons other than any concern about blacks. His concerns were specifically political and economical. Once again, we see the politician walking a fine line, but he made it clear, in regards to Illinois, that he was NOT in favor of citizenship for African-Americans and made specific reference to the state of Illinois - that he opposed such equality.

What is so difficult to understand regarding Lincoln's intent?

James F. Epperson said...

"'The Corwin Amendment was an empty gesture'"

"In similar fashion to the EP?"

Lord, no. The EP freed tens of thousands of slaves.

I believe you misunderstand Lincoln, badly. Lincoln *was* opposed to the existence of slavery, as a matter of principle. He said, on numerous occasions, that if slavery was not wrong, then nothing was wrong. But, as a practical politician, he understood that the only goal which could gain support was to restrict slavery to where it already existed.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

While I am certainly capable of misunderstanding just about anything James, on this particular issue I believe it is you who misunderstand Mr. Lincoln.

Don't fear criticizing him. The record is clear, in my humble opinion.

Michael Lynch said...

With all respect, your use of the "part and parcel" quote from Peoria is flat-out wrong and misleading. The entire speech makes it clear that he's not distinguishing between his personal feelings about slavery as it was and slavery as it was extending. He's simply stating that slavery's extension is practically and legally distinct (because it violates the Missouri Compromise) from slavery where it already existed, which he believed the government did not have the authority to eradicate.

The very first line of that speech is, "The repeal of the Missouri Compromise, and the propriety of its restoration, constitute the subject of what I am about to say."

In distinguishing between slavery and its extension on that occasion, Lincoln was saying, "Look, folks, I'm about to try and explain why the extension of the Missouri Compromise was illegitimate, but that doesn't mean that I think immediate abolition would be legal. So don't accuse me of trying to run roughshod over the South and deprive slaveholders of whatever legal rights they currently have."

When he DOES refer to slavery as it already existed, he says (in the very same speech, mind you), "If all earthly power were given me, I should not know what to do, as to the existing institution. My first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia,—to their own native land." He then goes on to discuss other reasons for the practical impossibility of immediate emancipation, and his reluctance to accord the freed slaves full civil rights, which is a position all historians already know about, and one that he modified during the war. Since he obviously offers a moral critique of pre-existing slavery right there in his remarks, this speech is a poor piece of evidence for a lack of moral concern about slavery on Lincoln's part.

He's not distinguishing between the morality of holding slaves in South Carolina and the morality of taking slaves into previously-free territory. He's distinguishing between the legality of the two. Lincoln always thought the KS-NB Act was wrong both morally and legally, since it repealed the compromise that had been in place for over thirty years.

Lincoln's disapproval of slavery is a matter of historical record, not hero-worship. It's documented in speeches, letters, and recollected conversations, and if you think it wasn't sincere, the burden of proof is on your side. So far, your evidence has been a handful of misused quotations.


Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Sorry Michael, but you suggest my evidence is a handful of misused quotations, then you misuse a handful of quotations to justify your point. Not very convincing.

Again, as with most politicians regarding a controversial topic, they attempt to take both sides, which is exactly what Lincoln did. A modern example would be: "I'm personally opposed to abortion, but believe in a woman's right to choose."

Lincoln is saying: "I'm personally opposed to slavery, but believe in the slaveowner's right to his property." His positioning is a classic example of a slick politician's attempt to co-op an opponent's position.

"His real interest was, as always, the interest of free White labor and free White capital--and free White politicians, Abraham Lincoln above all. What he wanted to to was to take Stephen Douglas's Senate seat and make the West safe for White settlement. But--and this was the delicious irony of the situation--he could not defend the White interest and advance his interest without addressing the main argument of the slaveowners and their supporters, Douglas above all, who said the slaves were either men or property." ~ Lerone Bennett, Jr.

James F. Epperson said...

"I'm personally opposed to abortion, but believe in a woman's right to choose."

And what is wrong with this position? It seems very statesman-like and reasonable to me.

"Lincoln is saying: 'I'm personally opposed to slavery, but believe in the slaveowner's right to his property.'"

And what is wrong with this position, as a practical matter? He is recognizing that the folks who own slaves have rights themselves, and as much as he wishes they didn't own slaves, the best way to eliminate slavery is through some process that respects those rights. Such considerations went by the board, of course, when the rebellion broke out.

Your problem with Lincoln is that he wasn't simplistic and dogmatic.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

"what is wrong with this position"

Nothing is wrong with it, as long as you(or Lincoln's defenders) don't claim the moral high ground.

James F. Epperson said...

Well, there is moral high ground, and then there is moral high ground. Compared to the "slavery is a positive good" folks who thought their holding of chattel was a good and Christian thing to do, Lincoln has the moral high ground. Compared to the civil rights activists of the 1960s, he doesn't have much of it.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

A moral high ground over Southerners in 1861. Lincoln, and his defenders, cannot legitimately make that claim.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Thanks to everyone who participated in our little exercise. Comments have been closed for this post.