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Preface by Lewis Lehrman"I have always thought that all men should be free; but if any should be slaves, it should be first those who desire it for themselves, and secondly , those who desire it for others. When I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally," President Lincoln told an Indiana Regiment passing through Washington less than a month before his murder.1
Mr. Lincoln thought deeply on the subject of liberty. He knew it was a vital but fragile concept, which needed to be nurtured. Nearly a decade earlier, in the midst of furor over the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Mr. Lincoln had said in Peoria, Illinois: "Little by little, but steadily as man's march to the grave, we have been giving up the old for the new faith. Nearly eighty years ago we began by declaring that all men are created equal; but now from that beginning we have run down to the other declaration, that for some men to enslave others is a 'sacred right of self-government.' These principles cannot stand together. They are as opposite as God and Mammon; and whoever holds to the one must despise the other."2
A few months earlier, he had written some notes – perhaps for a speech not given: "Most governments have been based, practically, on the denial of equal rights of men, as I have, in part, stated them ours began, by affirming those rights. They said, some men are too ignorant, and vicious, to share in government. Possibly so, said we; and, by your system, you would always keep them ignorant, and vicious. We proposed to give all a chance; and we expected the weak to grow stronger, the ignorant, wiser; and all better, and happier together."3
Liberty was the cornerstone of the Republic, enshrined in Declaration of Independence. It was the cornerstone of republican government and a bulwark for the growth of democracy elsewhere. In the Peoria speech, Mr. Lincoln said: "This declared indifference, but, as I must think, covert real zeal, for the spread of slavery, I cannot but hate. 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; cause the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity; and especially because it forces so many good men among 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."4
Mr. Lincoln did not believe that under then current law slavery could be abolished where it already existed. But morally and constitutionally, Mr. Lincoln believed it must and couldbe restricted where it did not exist. In an 1858 speech in Chicago, Mr. Lincoln said: "If we cannot give freedom to every creature, let us do nothing that will impose slavery upon any other creature."5 In Kansas in early December 1859, Mr. Lincoln said "There is no justification for prohibiting slavery anywhere, save only in the assumption that slavery is wrong."6 In Hartford on March 5, 1860, Mr. Lincoln said: "If slavery is right, it ought to be extended; if not, it ought to be restricted – there is no middle ground."7
Mr. Lincoln's respect for work was fundamental for his disdain for slavery. William Wolf wrote in The Almost Chosen People: "Lincoln felt strongly about the essential importance of labor to society and liked to make it concrete by referring to the injunction on work in Genesis. He had known in early life what it meant to earn bread in the sweat of his brow. He was offended by the arrogant complacency of the planter interests and especially by their mouthpieces in the clergy."8 Mr. Lincoln understood that fundamental to one's attitude toward slavery was one's willingness to let others' sweat on one's behalf.
Indeed, work was as fundamental a value as freedom, argued Mr. Lincoln. In 1854, Mr. Lincoln wrote: "The ant, who has toiled and dragged a crumb to his nest, will furiously defend the fruit of his labor, against whatever robber assails him. So plain, that the most dumb and stupid slave that ever toiled for a master, does constantly know that he is wronged. So plain that no one, high or low, ever does mistake it, except in a plainly selfish way; for although volume upon volume is written to prove slavery a very good thing, we never hear of the man who wishes to take the good of it, by being a slave himself."9
"I believe each individual is naturally entitled to do as he pleases with himself and the fruits of his labor, so far as it in no wise interferes with any other man's rights," said Mr. Lincoln in Chicago in July 1858.10 "Work, work, work, is the main thing," once wrote Mr. Lincoln in a letter.11 Relatively early in his political career, Mr. Lincoln had declared: "In the early days of the world, the Almighty said to the first of our race "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread"; and since then, if we except the light and the air of heaven, no good thing has been, or can be enjoyed by us, without having first cost labour. And, inasmuch [as] most good things are produced by labour, it follows that [all] such things of right belong to those whose labour has produced them. But it has so happened in all ages of the world, that some have laboured, and others have, without labour, enjoyed a large proportion of the fruits. This is wrong, and should not continue. To [secure] to each labourer the whole product of his labour, or as nearly as possible, is a most worthy object of any good government. But then the question arises, how can a government best, effect this? In our own country, in it's present condition, will the protective principle advance or retard this object? Upon this subject, the habits of our whole species fall into three great classes – useful labour, useless labour and idleness. Of these the first only is meritorious; and to it all the products of labour rightfully belong; but the two latter, while they exist, are heavy pensioners upon the first, robbing it of a large portion of its just rights. The only remedy for this is to, as far as possible drive useless labour and idleness out of existence. And, first, as to useless labour. Before making war upon this, we must learn to distinguish it from the useful. It appears to me, then, that all labour done directly and incidentally in carrying articles to their place of consumption, which could have been produced in sufficient abundance, with as little labour, at the place of consumption, as at the place they were carried from, is useless labour."12
Perhaps as a young man, Mr. Lincoln had done his share of useless labor to last a lifetime. Mr. Lincoln did what was necessary and he expected others to do the same. His work ethic was fundamental to his attitudes toward slavery. A man had the right to the fruits of his labors – and an obligation to pursue his labors to the best of his ability. And the rewards of hard work were important in politics as well – one reason that the 1849 appointment of Justin Butterfield to the federal Land Commissioner's post so disturbed Lincoln. Butterfield hadn't worked in the election and rewarding him for his lethargy was bad politics and bad government.
Liberty, work, and justice were closely connected concepts for Mr. Lincoln. "The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men's labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatable [sic] things, called by the same name – liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two difference and incompatable [sic] names – liberty and tyranny," Mr. Lincoln told the U.S. Sanitary Commission Fair in Baltimore on April 18, 1864.
"The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep's throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as his liberators, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty; and precisely the same difference prevails to-day among us human creatures, even in the North, and all professing to love liberty. Hence we behold the processes by which thousands are daily passing from under the yoke of bondage, hailed by some as the advance of liberty, and bewailed by others as the destruction of all liberty. Recently, as it seems, the people of Maryland have been doing something to define liberty; and thanks to them that, in what they have done, the wolf's dictionary, has been repudiated," continued Mr. Lincoln.13
Mr. Lincoln's philosophy was often revealed in letters designed for publication. One such letter was to Kentucky editor Albert G. Hodges in April 1864. President Lincoln began: "I am naturally antislavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I cannot remember when I did not so think and feel, and yet I have never understood that the Presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act officially upon this judgment and feeling."14 Mr. Lincoln understood that he could not act outside of the powers granted by the Constitution. The most powerful tool Mr. Lincoln had was the doctrine of military necessity that he used to proclaim emancipation on January 1, 1863.
Mr. Lincoln's view on slavery did not depend on the Constitution alone, but were firmly rooted in the Declaration of Independence. He strongly believed that slavery was wrong – whatever the law stated. "If slavery is right, all words, acts, laws, and constitutions against it are themselves wrong, and should be silenced and swept away," said Mr. Lincoln in a speech in New Haven in early March 1860 in which he addressed the arguments of slavery's defenders: "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."15
The necessity was linked to constitutional provisions associated with the birth of the Union. No President, except in the gravest national emergency, could act alone outside the constitution.
Mr. Lincoln also realized that the pursuit and protection of liberty required a long struggle. After President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, New York Governor Edwin D. Morgan visited the White House. Mr. Lincoln told Morgan, who was also chairman of the Republican National Committee: "I do not agree with those who say that slavery is dead. We are like whalers who have been long on a chase – we have at last got the harpoon into the monster, but we must now look how we steer, or, with one 'flop' of his tail, he will yet send us all to eternity."16 Mr. Lincoln realized that freedom depended upon Union – but he also realized that some supporters of Union opposed the actions he had taken to grant freedom to Southern slaves. He addressed these critics in an open letter to Union supporters meeting in Springfield, Illinois in September 1863.
You dislike the emancipation proclamation; and, perhaps would have it retracted – You say it is unconstitutional – I think differently. I think the constitution invests it's [sic] commander in chief, with the law of war in time of war – The most that can be said, if so much, is that slaves are property. Is there – has there ever been – any question that by the law of war, property, both of enemies and friends, may be taken when needed? And is it not needed whenever taking it, helps us, or hurts the enemy? Armies, the world over, destroy enemie's property when they can not use it; and even destroy their own to keep it from the enemy – Civilized beligerents do all in their power to help themselves, or hurt the enemy, except a few things regarded as barbarous or cruel – Among the exceptions are the massacres of vanquished foes, and non combattants, male and female.
Biographers John G. Nicolay and John Hay wrote: "Admitting the general principle of international law, of the right of a belligerent to appropriate or destroy enemies' property, and applying it to the constitutional domestic war to suppress rebellion which he was then prosecuting, there came next the question of how his military decree of enfranchisement was practically to be applied. This point, thought not fully discussed, is sufficiently indicated in several extracts. In the draft of a letter to Charles D. Robinson he wrote, August 17, 1864: 'The way these measures were to help the cause was not to be by magic or miracles, by inducing the colored people to come bodily over from the rebel side to ours.' And in his letter to James C. Conkling of August 26, 1863, he says: 'But negroes, like other people, act upon motives. Why should they do anything for us if we will do nothing for them? If they stake their lives for us, they must be prompted by the strongest motive, even the promise of freedom. And the promise, being made, must be kept.'"17
Long after Mr. Lincoln first issued the Draft Emancipation Proclamation, Mr. Lincoln met with two Wisconsin politicians. It was August 1864. Former Governor Alexander W. Randall and Judge Joseph T. Mills visited with President Lincoln at the Soldiers' Home on the outskirts of Washington. It was a low point in Union military fortunes and the President's political fortunes. Foes and friends alike seemed determined to deprive President Lincoln of a second term. So embattled did the President seem that Randall urged him to take a vacation from the conflict for two weeks. Mr. Lincoln said that "two or three weeks would do me good, but I cannot fly from my thoughts; my solicitude for this great country follows me where I go."18 The President then discussed with his Wisconsin visitors both the political situation and the impact of emancipation on the conflict. President Lincoln make it clear that by defending the Union, black soldiers had earned their freedom:
"We have to hold territory in inclement and sickly places; where are the Democrats to do this? It was a free fight, and the field was open to the War Democrats to put down this rebellion by fighting against both master and slave long before the present policy was inaugurated.
Clearly, President Lincoln was not about to forget the loyalty of black soldiers or the disloyalty of Confederate ones. Judge Mills wrote: "I saw the President was a man of deep convictions, of abiding faith in justice, truth, and Providence. His voice was pleasant, his manner earnest and emphatic. As he warmed with his theme, his mind grew to the magnitude of his body. I felt I was in the presence of the great guiding intellect of the age, and that those 'huge Atlantean shoulders were fit to bear the weight of mightiest monarchies.' His transparent honesty, republican simplicity, his gushing sympathy for those who offered their lives for their country, his utter forgetfulness of self in his concern for its welfare, could not but inspire me with confidence that he was Heaven's instrument to conduct his people through this sea of blood to a Canaan of peace and freedom."20
Historian Don E. Fehrenbacher wrote of President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation: "In a sense, as historians fond of paradox are forever pointing out, it did not immediately liberate any slaves at all. And the Declaration of Independence, it might be added, did not immediately liberate a single colony from British rule. The people of Lincoln's time apparently had little doubt about the significance of the Proclamation. Jefferson Davis did not regard it as a mere scrap of paper, and neither did that most famous of former slaves, Frederick Douglass. He called it 'the greatest event of our nation's history.'"21
Historian James M. McPherson wrote: "Lincoln left no doubt of his convictions concerning the correct definition of liberty. And as commander in chief of an army of one million men armed with the most advanced weapons in the world, he wielded a great deal of power. In April 1864 this army was about to launch offensives that would produce casualties and destruction unprecedented even in this war that brought death to more Americans than all the country's other wars combined. Yet this was done in the name of liberty – to preserve the republic 'conceived in liberty' and to bring a 'new birth of freedom' to the slaves. As Lincoln conceived it, power was the protector of liberty, not its enemy – except to the liberty of those who wished to do as they pleased with the product of other men's labor."22
According to Fehrenbacher, "There are two principal measures of a free society. One is the extent to which it optimizes individual liberty of all kinds. The other is the extent to which its decision-making processes are controlled ultimately by the people; for freedom held at the will of others is too precarious to provide a full sense of being free. Self-government, in Lincoln's view, is the foundation of freedom."23 Fehrenbacher wrote that President Lincoln "placed the principle of self-government above even his passion for the Union. More than that, he affirmed his adherence to the most critical and most fragile principle in the democratic process – namely, the requirement of minority submission to majority will."24
Mr. Lincoln was resolved to preserve the Union. "I expect to maintain this contest until successful, or till I die, or am conquered, or my term expires, or till I die, or Congress or the country forsakes me." Hay and Nicolay were young men who lived and worked at the White House. They had a front row seat for the drama of emancipation. They noted in their ten-volume biography that if "the Union arms were victorious, every step of that victory would become clothed with the mantle of law. But if, in addition, it should turn out that the Union arms had been rendered victorious through the help of the negro soldiers, called to the field by the promise of freedom contained in the proclamation, then the decree and its promise might rest secure in the certainty of legal execution and fulfillment. To restore the Union by the help of black soldiers under pledge of liberty, and then for the Union, under whatever legal doctrine or construction, to attempt to reenslave them, would be a wrong to which morality would revolt."25
Slavery was the cause. Disunion was the symptom. President Lincoln chose to administer emancipation as the treatment the Union required. Emancipation ultimately was the just penalty for rebellion and the reward for black military service in restoring the Union. Liberty was both a right conferred by the Declaration of Independence and an obligation of the Union incurred by the service of black soldiers. John Hope Franklin wrote that "no one appreciated better than Lincoln the fact that the Emancipation Proclamation had a quite limited effect in freeing the slaves directly. It should be remembered, however, that in the Proclamation he called emancipation 'an act of justice,' and in later weeks and months he did everything he could to confirm his view that it was An Act of Justice."26
By recruiting black soldiers and employing them in combat, the government secured a moral obligation to black Americans which President Lincoln clearly understood. But the contract was not just moral. It was practical. President Lincoln wrote Charles D. Robinson in the summer of 1864: "Drive back to the support of the rebellion the physical force which the colored people now give and promise us, and neither the present nor any coming Administration can save the Union. Take from us and give to the enemy the hundred and thirty-, forty, or fifty thousand colored persons now serving us as soldiers, seamen, and laborers and we cannot longer maintain the contest."27
Black soldiers were literally fighting for their own freedom "Emancipation and the enlistment of slaves as soldiers tremendously increased the stakes in this war, for the South as well as the North," wrote historian James M. McPherson. Southerners vowed to fight 'to the last ditch' before yielding to a Yankee nation that could commit such execrable deeds. Gone was any hope of an armistice or a negotiated peace so long as the Lincoln administration was in power."28
Mr. Lincoln's course of action was slow but deliberate – designed to effect a permanent rather than a temporary change in the status of slavery in America. Nicolay and Hay saw that clearly: "The problem of statesmanship therefore was not one of theory, but of practice. Fame is due Mr. Lincoln, not alone because he decreed emancipation, but because events so shaped themselves under his guidance as to render the conception practical and the decree successful. Among the agencies he employed none proved more admirable or more powerful than this two-edged sword of the final proclamation, blending sentiment with force, leaguing liberty with Union, filling the voting armies at home and the fighting armies in the field. In the light of history we can see that by this edict Mr. Lincoln gave slavery its vital thrust, its mortal wound. It was the word of decision, the judgment without appeal, the sentence of doom."29
Historian LaWanda Cox wrote of Mr. Lincoln's actions on emancipation "On occasion he acted boldly. More often, however, Lincoln was cautious, advancing one step at a time, and indirect, exerting influence behind the scenes. He could give a directive without appearing to do so, or even while disavowing it as such. Seeking to persuade, he would fashion an argument to fit the listener. Some statements were disingenuous, evasive, or deliberately ambiguous."30
In a letter to Kentucky editor Albert G. Hodges, for example, Mr. Lincoln somewhat disingenuously said, "I add a word which was not in the verbal conversation. In telling this tale I attempt no compliment to my own sagacity. I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me. Now, at the end of three years struggle the nation's condition is not what either party, or any man devised, or expected, God alone can claim it. Whither it is tending seems plain. If God now wills the removal of a great wrong, and wills also that we of the North as well as you of the South, shall pay fairly for our complicity in that wrong, impartial history will find therein new cause to attest and revere the justice and goodness of God."31 Mr. Lincoln may not have controlled events, but he did a pretty good job trying to steer them.
Mr. Lincoln himself never claimed to be a liberator – but he did believe in liberation. President Lincoln told Interior Department official T. J. Barnett in late 1862 "that the foundations of slavery have been cracked by the war, by the rebels...and the masonry of the machine is in their own hands."32 Black historian Benjamin Quarles wrote in Lincoln and the Negro:
The Lincoln of the White House years had deep convictions about the wrongness of slavery. But as Chief Magistrate he made a sharp distinction between his personal beliefs and his official actions. Whatever was constitutional he must support regardless of his private feelings. If the states, under the rights reserved to them, persisted in clinging to practices that he regarded as outmoded, he had no right to interfere. His job was to uphold the Constitution, not to impose his own standards of public morality.
Historian David Potter wrote: "In the long-run conflict between deeply held convictions on one hand and habits of conformity to the cultural practices of a binary society on the other, the gravitational forces were all in the direction of equality. By a static analysis, Lincoln was a mild opponent of slavery and a moderate defender of racial discrimination. By a dynamic analysis, he held a concept of humanity which impelled him inexorably in the direction of freedom and equality."34
Abolitionist Frederick Douglas understood this commitment. In his 1876 speech dedicating the Freedmen's monument in Lincoln Park east of the U.S. Capitol, Douglass said: "His great mission was to accomplish two things: first, to save his country from dismemberment and ruin; and second, to free his country form the great crime of slavery. To do one or the other, or both, he needed the earnest sympathy and the powerful cooperation of his loyal fellow countrymen. Without those primary and essential conditions to success his efforts would have been utterly fruitless. Had he put the abolition of slavery before the salvation of the Union, he would have inevitably driven from him a powerful class of the American people and rendered resistance to rebellion impossible. From the genuine abolition view, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent, but measuring him by the sentiment of his country – a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult – he was swift, zealous, radical and determined."35
Historian Allen C. Guelzo noted: "When Frederick Douglass arrived at the White House in August, 1863, to meet Lincoln for the first time, he expected to meet a 'white man's president, entirely devoted to the welfare of the white men.' But he came away surprised to find Lincoln 'the first great man that I talked with in the United States freely who in no single instance reminded me of the difference between himself and myself, or the difference of color.' The reason Douglass surmised, was 'because of the similarity with which I had fought my way up, we both starting at the lowest rung of the ladder." This, in Douglass's mind, made Lincoln 'emphatically the black man's president.'"36
In undated notes to himself, foreshadowing the sublime Second Inaugural which Mr. Lincoln wrote: "The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God can not be for, and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God's purpose is something different from the purpose of either party – and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose. I am almost ready to say this is probably true – that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere quiet power, on the minds of the now contestants. He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And having begun He could give the final victory either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds."37
Mr. Lincoln had no doubt about maintaining the contest until victory for "in giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free."38