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Liberating Lincoln

Will this thesis become the new orthodoxy about Lincoln and emancipation? It is quite true that from the outset of the Civil War, slaves began coming into Union lines wherever Northern armies penetrated the South. By so doing they withdrew their labor from the Confederate war effort, weakened the Southern economy, added their labor to the Union war effort, and pushed the Lincoln administration toward a policy of emancipation. Eventually 150,000 of these former slaves fought as soldiers in the Union army. In all of these respects the slaves certainly did much to achieve their own freedom.

But this truth does nothing to lessen Lincoln’s part in the process. If there had been no war there would have been no self-emancipation. If the Union had not won the war, all of the slaves who seized the initiative for freedom by coming into Union lines would have done little more than strip a few leaves from the deeply rooted tree of slavery. And if there had not been an Emancipation Proclamation followed by vigorous presidential leadership to embed it in the Constitution in the form of the Thirteenth Amendment, the legal institution of slavery might well have survived even a Union victory. In all of these respects, Abraham Lincoln was the sine qua non of emancipation—the Great Emancipator in history as well as in myth.

This interpretation is the central theme of LaWanda Cox’s Lincoln and Black Freedom, first published in 1981 and reissued in 1994 by the University of South Carolina Press. And the interpretation is buttressed by Phillip Shaw Paludan’s The Presidency of Abraham Lincoln, a judicious, erudite study that focuses on the constitutional functions of Lincoln’s multiple duties as president, commander in chief, and leader of a dynamic antislavery political party during the only presidential administration in American history entirely bounded by the parameters of war.

Southern states seceded and formed the Confederate States of America in 1861 because of Lincoln’s election as a principled opponent of slavery. The Confederate government precipitated war by attacking Fort Sumter because Lincoln, rejecting the counsel of most of his advisers, refused to withdraw federal troops from the fort. During the next seventeen months, Lincoln demurred from turning the war for Union into a war against slavery because the cause of Union united the Northern people while premature emancipation would divide them and lose the war. With an acute sense of timing, Lincoln first proclaimed emancipation only as a means to win the war (to gain moderate and conservative support) and ultimately as an end—to give America “a new birth of freedom,” as Lincoln said at Gettysburg.

When the shocking casualties of the 1864 military campaigns unnerved Northern people and produced a movement for peace negotiations, Lincoln refused to succumb to pressures to drop emancipation as a condition of peace, even though this refusal threatened his own reelection. In August 1864 he noted that 130,000 black soldiers and sailors were fighting for the Union. They would not continue to do so if they thought the North intended to “betray them. If they stake their lives for us they must be prompted by the strongest motive…the promise of freedom. And the promise being made, must be kept. There have been men who proposed to me to return to slavery the black warriors” who had fought for the Union. “I should be damned in time & in eternity for so doing. The world shall know that I will keep my faith to friends and enemies, come what will.”8

Lincoln won reelection and pressed on to achieve the unconditional surrender of the Confederacy—including the surrender of slavery. But according to Barbara Fields, this achievement was anticlimactic because “by the time Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation, no human being alive could have held back the tide that swept toward freedom.”9 She is wrong. The tide of freedom could have been swept back. On many occasions during the war it was. When Union forces moved through or were compelled to retreat from regions of the South where their presence had attracted and liberated slaves, the tide of slavery closed in behind them and reenslaved those who could not keep up with retreating or advancing armies. Most slaves did not emancipate themselves; they were liberated by Union armies whose commander in chief made them armies of liberation with his Emancipation Proclamation. And no matter how many slaves gained freedom, the institution of slavery would have survived had it not been for Lincoln’s reelection on a platform calling for unconditional surrender of the Confederacy and a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery, both of which came to pass under Lincoln’s leadership because he refused to compromise either of them.

That is why Phillip Paludan asserts without qualification that Lincoln “freed the slaves.” He takes issue with historians who “have divided [Lincoln’s] two great achievements” and “have made saving the Union, at least for the first half of his presidency, a different task from freeing the slaves.” In fact, these achievements “were linked as one goal, not two optional goals.” This theme of Liberty and Union, one and inseparable, provides the frame for Paludan’s narrative. Though the historical sequence becomes occasionally indistinct amid the complex details of the story, the persistent reader will be rewarded with an expanded understanding of Lincoln’s presidency.

Similar rewards from persistence through a thicket of detail (and theory) await the reader of J. David Greenstone’s The Lincoln Persuasion. A political scientist who left this study uncompleted at his death, Greenstone maintains that Lincoln is the most important figure in the history of American liberalism because he melded its two separate streams, humanistic liberalism and reform liberalism. Humanistic liberalism derived from Thomas Jefferson. It emphasized “the freedom of the individual in forming and attaining individual goals” and sought to mediate “preferences among humans according to a utilitarian calculus.” Reform liberalism derived from John Adams and his Puritan forebears. It rejected the moral neutrality of humanistic liberalism in favor of policies to encourage and enable human beings to develop their faculties to the highest possible state. On the issue of temperance, for example, humanistic liberals would mediate competing positions while trying to maximize the broadest possible freedom to drink or not to drink, while reform liberals would seek to discourage drinking in order to free humans from enslavement to alcohol so they could make the most of their faculties.

The touchstone for liberalism in the nineteenth century was slavery. Stephen A. Douglas became the exponent of humanistic liberalism with his position of popular sovereignty permitting white men in a state or territory to vote slavery up or down. Lincoln, of course, was the spokesman for reform liberalism which condemned slavery as a moral wrong that must be “placed in the course of ultimate extinction.” Liberty was the central tenet of reform liberalism, Union of humanistic liberalism; Lincoln’s great achievement, in Greenstone’s view, was to fuse Liberty and Union, giving liberalism a moral imperative that carried into Progressivism, the New Deal, and presumably down to the present—though these parts of the book were left unfinished at the author’s death.

Greenstone uses the phrases “negative liberty” and “positive liberty” to help clarify his interpretation of the bipolarity of liberalism. Paludan also refers briefly to these concepts, citing this reviewer’s work, which in turn borrowed the idea from Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay “Two Concepts of Liberty.”10 Negative liberty can be defined as the absence of restraint, a freedom from interference with individual thought or behavior. A law requiring automobile passengers to wear seatbelts is a violation of their negative liberty, which is best described as freedom from. Positive liberty can best be understood as freedom to—freedom to develop one’s faculties because wearing a seatbelt has saved one from death or crippling injury.

The analogy of freedom of the press perhaps provides a better illustration. This freedom is generally viewed as a negative liberty—freedom from interference with what a writer writes or a reader reads. But an illiterate person suffers from an absence of positive liberty; he is unable to enjoy the freedom to read or write whatever he pleases not because someone censors it but because he cannot read and write. The remedy lies not in the removal of restraint but in the achievement of capacity. True freedom of the press requires a melding of negative and positive liberty—of humanistic and reform liberalism—through absence of censorship and the provision of means for people to achieve literacy.

Negative liberty was the dominant theme in early American history—freedom from constraints on individual rights imposed by a powerful state. The Bill of Rights is the classic expression of negative liberty, or Jeffersonian humanistic liberalism. These first ten amendments to the Constitution protect individual liberties by placing a straitjacket of “shall nots” on the federal government. These strictures, and the corresponding elevation of state’s rights to a Southern religion, became a bulwark of slavery—the “liberty of making slaves of other people,” as Lincoln once put it sarcastically. In 1861 Southern states invoked the negative liberties of state sovereignty and individual rights of property (i.e., slaves) to break up the United States. Lincoln thereby gained an opportunity to invoke the positive liberty of reform liberalism, exercised through the power of the army and the state, to overthrow the negative liberties of disunion and ownership of slaves. This reform liberalism enabled freed slaves to develop their faculties. If America has not lived up to this promise of reform liberalism, it is not because the foundation is absent from the Constitution. Whereas eleven of the first twelve constitutional amendments severely limited the power of the national government, six of the next seven vastly expanded those powers and contained the significant phrase “Congress shall have the power to enforce this article.” The first three post—Civil War amendments abolished slavery and extended equal civil and political rights to freed slaves and their descendants. This achievement combined negative and positive liberty by removing slavery’s restraints on black people and conferring on them the liberties guaranteed in the bill of rights.

Paludan and Greenstone analyze some of these developments while Peterson chronicles their reverberations through the Lincoln tradition. Curiously, none of them refers to Lincoln’s own discussion of negative and positive liberty, in a remarkable wartime speech at Baltimore in which he illustrated the power of parable to make a profound point. “The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one,” said Lincoln on April 18, 1864.

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 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 incompatible things, called by the same name—liberty…. The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one…. 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.11

If there is a better explication of negative and positive liberty, I have never read it. Despite the millions of words written about Lincoln, including these three fine books, he remains his own best interpreter.

  1. 8

    Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 9 volumes (Rutgers University Press, 1953–1955), Vol. VII, 500, 506–507.

  2. 9

    Fields, “Who Freed the Slaves?” p. 181.

  3. 10

    Isaiah Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford University Press, 1970), pp. 118–172; James M. McPherson, Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution (Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. 61–64, 136–138.

  4. 11

    Basler, editor, Collected Works of Lincoln, Vol. VII,pp.301–302.

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