The Great Divide

Becoming Lincoln

by William W. Freehling
University of Virginia Press, 369 pp., $29.95
Abraham Lincoln, April 1864
Abraham Lincoln, Washington, D.C., April 1864; photograph by Anthony Berger, printed from a broken negative

Most historians now agree that the slave states seceded to protect slavery. Gone are the days when the so-called revisionist historians argued that the South left the Union in defense of states’ rights or because of high protective tariffs that favored Northern industry over Southern agriculture. These days scholarly disagreement arises over what motivated the North, or, more specifically, the Northern Republicans and their standard bearer, Abraham Lincoln, to choose war over disunion. One group of scholars argues that antislavery politics were weak and relatively inconsequential among mainstream Republicans like Lincoln. They were elected to preserve the Union and reserve the western territories for free white labor, not to undermine slavery in the South. Hence for these scholars—call them “neorevisionists”—secession in response to Lincoln’s election was a hysterical overreaction to a nonexistent threat.

By contrast, “fundamentalists,” as we are sometimes labeled, argue that Northerners who had grown up in societies that had long ago abolished slavery were determined to defend the principles and practices of their free labor society, just as Southerners who had grown up with slavery were equally determined to defend their way of life. Hostility to slavery was so deeply rooted in the North that it had become inseparable from Unionism.1 Most importantly, Lincoln and his fellow Republicans were committed to a number of federal antislavery policies that they believed would lead to what Lincoln called the “ultimate extinction” of slavery.

For Civil War fundamentalists, secessionists understood clearly what Lincoln stood for and concluded, not unreasonably, that his election—along with the growing number of Republicans in Congress—represented a genuine menace to slavery’s long-term survival. Southerners made this very clear in their statements justifying secession. Withdrawing from the Union turned out to be a spectacular miscalculation, but it was not an overreaction. The three books under review offer a useful, if partial, introduction to this scholarly divide.

After a lifetime devoted to the study of proslavery radicalism, William Freehling, arguably the nation’s leading neorevisionist, has produced a characteristically audacious study of Abraham Lincoln. In his telling, Lincoln’s life is a series of ups and downs, promising starts, crushing failures, and impressive recoveries. This premise serves as the background for what Freehling sees as the most astonishing shift of all, from the instinctively cautious antislavery conservative of Lincoln’s pre-presidential years to the Great Emancipator of the later war years.

In one sense this is a familiar account of Lincoln’s evolution. It is a commonplace among historians that Lincoln grew over time, that in his early career he was something of a Whig Party hack. He was opposed to slavery but, like most Northern Whigs, he was chiefly concerned with using state power to promote economic development, a national bank, and public schools. In 1854, stunned by the…


This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.