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 repeal of the ban on slavery in the Nebraska Territory, Lincoln reemerged as a dedicated antislavery politician. He was more mature, his speeches were eloquent and sober, his antislavery convictions more resolute. Similarly, few historians would dispute that Lincoln was radicalized by the war itself and that he took an increasingly aggressive approach to slavery until, by the end, he was actively lobbying for the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery everywhere in the United States.

But Freehling doesn’t see much growth in the pre-presidential years. He argues that Lincoln’s antislavery convictions were wafer-thin, amounting to nothing more than vague calls for slaveholders to emancipate their slaves voluntarily—a position that hardly justified the swift secession of seven slave states. Becoming Lincoln is thus designed to seal Freehling’s case for the irrationality of Southern disunionists. He argues that Lincoln’s political genius lay in his ability to articulate an antislavery position so anodyne that it could appeal broadly to a Northern electorate that had no meaningful antislavery convictions. Up to the moment he took the oath of office as president, Lincoln revealed his deep-seated conservatism by stressing the lawlessness of secession rather than any profound concern over slavery.

Throughout the book, Freehling rehearses the familiar neorevisionist contention that a vast ideological gulf separated Lincoln from the abolitionists and radical Republicans. By “abolitionists,” Freehling seems to mean William Lloyd Garrison, whose antislavery rhetoric was more militant than Lincoln’s, but who eventually concluded that the Constitution was so thoroughly proslavery as to rule out the possibility of any meaningful antislavery politics.2 In any case, Freehling is not all that clear about which policies the abolitionist Radical Republicans endorsed but Lincoln opposed. At one point he says that Lincoln never called for Northern troops to invade the South and free the slaves, but before the war not even the most radical Radical Republican would have called for such an invasion, nor for that matter did Garrison.

Only once does Freehling come close to saying what policies the radicals endorsed that Lincoln did not: “The most conservative antislavery agitators, including Lincoln, would do no more than” restore the restriction on slavery south of the Missouri Compromise line. “More radical antislavery moralists,” he adds, would ban slavery from all the western territories:


They would bar slave states from admission into the Union. They would abolish slavery and/or the slave trade in Washington, DC. They would democratize and/or scotch the Fugitive Slave Law. At the climax of their radicalizing campaigns, they would perfect a strangling cordon around US slave states and choke the “curse” toward “ultimate extinction.”

Aside from the awkward prose, what makes this passage so remarkable is that Lincoln endorsed every one of the policies Freehling attributes to the radicals.

As a congressman in the late 1840s, Lincoln had voted repeatedly for the Wilmot Proviso, which would have banned slavery from all the territories acquired from Mexico, and barring slavery from all territories was the platform on which he ran for president in 1860. While in Congress, Lincoln drafted legislation to abolish slavery in Washington, D.C., and reaffirmed his support for it at Peoria in 1854. In 1856 he endorsed antislavery platforms drawn up in Quincy and Decatur, which clearly implied that Congress should admit no new slave states. And he repeatedly called for a revision of the Fugitive Slave Law that would guarantee due process rights to accused fugitive slaves. These were all standard antislavery positions, and they scarcely distinguished the mainstream from Radical Republicans. It is no wonder that historians of antislavery politics—from Don Fehrenbacher and Kenneth Stampp, to Eric Foner and Richard Sewell, to Michael McManus and Corey Brooks—have long stressed the continuity from the abolitionist Liberty Party to the Republican Party, and the strong overlap between abolitionism and antislavery politics.3

The “strangling cordon” leading to slavery’s “ultimate extinction” was not a distinct policy endorsed only by radicals; it was the effect of the various policies Lincoln and most antislavery politicians endorsed. But Freehling argues that the apex of radical antislavery politics lay in the rhetoric of the cordon rather than the policies to which it referred. Lincoln himself reportedly invoked the cordon in his so-called Lost Speech at Bloomington, Illinois, in 1855, which Freehling cites twice. In the version first published in 1896, Lincoln urged his listeners to “draw a cordon, so to speak, around the slave States, and the hateful institution, like a reptile poisoning itself, will perish by its own infamy.”4 Whether this report of the Lost Speech is accurate hardly matters, because the cordon was a metaphor, not a policy. At Bloomington and elsewhere Lincoln continued to endorse a crippled fugitive slave law, a ban on slavery in the territories, and the suppression of slavery on the high seas—policies that would surround the South with free states, free territories, and free oceans.

Lincoln believed that the pressure created by those policies would gradually lead the South to abolish slavery one state at a time. Allowing slavery to expand, he said, would “KEEP men in slavery who would otherwise be free.” Antislavery politicians and abolitionists alike assumed that the steady abolition of slavery would begin in the Border South, then spread east and south. It’s odd that Freehling would miss this, since he has done more than any other historian to highlight the significance of slavery’s relative decline in the Border States—a process that was as disturbing to proslavery politicians in the Deep South as it was encouraging to antislavery politicians in the North.

Lincoln also believed that a majority of the voters in Washington would have supported his abolition proposal. No doubt the slaveholders in the district would have objected, and this is another crucial element of antislavery politics that Freehling misses. He confuses abolition imposed by electoral or legislative majorities with “voluntary emancipation” by the slaveholders themselves. Until 1864, nearly everybody agreed that abolition was something states did. The goal of federal antislavery policy was to nudge the states toward that end. Lincoln and even radicals like Horace Mann were willing to add incentives like federal compensation to soften the opposition, but the goal was to get the slave states to abolish slavery on their own. (Lincoln pursued this policy aggressively during the war.)

But state abolition was nonetheless coercive. In the Northern states, the slaveholders had fought tirelessly against the abolition statutes passed by their own legislatures after the War of Independence. In Indiana and Illinois, slaveholders tried desperately to legalize slavery in their states and, having failed, engaged in all manner of subterfuge to avoid emancipating their slaves. As far as the slaveholders were concerned, state abolition was anything but voluntary.

Freehling notes that, in an effort to expand the Republican Party’s electoral base, Lincoln, the lifelong Whig, temporarily shelved his long-standing support for federal economic development projects, which could still arouse opposition among some Northern voters. But he does not see that for the new Republican Party to succeed, it had to reach beyond its base of core supporters committed to the full panoply of antislavery policies. That meant attracting the votes of Democrats and conservative Whigs who were willing to prevent slavery’s expansion but nothing more. Lincoln’s approach was simple: focus on the one antislavery policy with the broadest appeal to Northern voters—restricting slavery’s expansion into the West. It worked. But that did not mean Lincoln had abandoned the Republican base and no longer supported protective tariffs, railroads, due process rights for accused fugitives, or abolition in the District of Columbia.


William Lloyd Garrison
William Lloyd Garrison; drawing by David Levine

Freehling’s Lincoln would have been familiar to the most prominent Civil War “revisionists” of the first half of the twentieth century. Like J.G. Randall, Freehling posits a Lincoln whose political genius lay in his conservatism, a Lincoln despised by abolitionists and Radical Republicans, a skillful politician who revered the rule of law more than he hated slavery and who adopted emancipation slowly, reluctantly, and only under the tremendous pressure of the Civil War. What distinguishes Freehling from earlier revisionists is his clear-eyed recognition of the horrors of slavery. In his account, slaveholding “paternalism” was a cruel delusion that the slaves resented and resisted—so much so that masters lived in constant fear of rebellion. No revisionist ever cast such an unflinching eye on the horrors of slavery. In half a dozen important books and thousands of pages of deeply researched scholarship, Freehling has traced the rise of an arrogant slaveholding aristocracy whose destruction was necessary for the preservation of American democracy.

Abraham Lincoln and his fellow Republicans felt the same way, but their concern for the fate of democracy was but one part of their broader condemnation of what Lincoln called the “moral, social, and political” evil of slavery. By isolating the political from the moral and social denunciations of slavery, and by underestimating the scope of Lincoln’s antislavery commitments, Freehling makes it hard to appreciate why his victory in 1860 represented an existential threat to slavery itself.

Antislavery Northerners come off as far more aggressive in Joanne Freeman’s engaging The Field of Blood, in which she traces the origins of a fundamental, indeed bloody, conflict over slavery that began long before the Civil War itself and in an unexpected place—the halls of Congress. The seemingly decorous debates historians regularly cite were often marred by outbreaks of pushing, shoving, knife-wielding, pistol-waving violence that were quietly erased from the pages of the Congressional Globe. Some of these violent outbursts are well known, particularly the brutal assault by South Carolina congressman Preston S. Brooks on Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner in 1856. But Freeman shows that the Sumner–Brooks encounter, though singular in some ways, was representative in others. She counts seventy violent outbursts among congressmen between 1830 and 1860, suspects there were more, and notes that the violence accelerated as the struggle over slavery came to dominate the politics of the 1850s.

Freeman is a student of political culture and as such she is less interested in the substance of debate and the formulation of policy than in the rituals surrounding political disputes. What was at stake in these eruptions of physical violence, she argues, was not the life or death of the combatants—only once did they end in the killing of a congressman—but the humiliation and intimidation of opponents. Freeman detects different codes of honor animating Southerners and New Englanders. For Southerners the test of manhood was one’s willingness to fight; for New Englanders personal honor required a disdain for the barbarism of the code duello. Thus in these confrontations Southerners came off as bullies. They were the ones who started the fights and most quickly raised their voices, the first to draw their knives or challenge their opponents to a duel, and in most cases they were inflamed by an antislavery speech delivered by a Northern colleague. The provocations multiplied as more antislavery congressmen were elected and as more Northerners refused to be intimidated.

What Freeman reveals are the physical manifestations of an increasingly irrepressible conflict over slavery. Chapter by chapter, she takes us through a familiar sequence of events—the nine-year-long “gag rule” against antislavery petitions, the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, the attack on Sumner two years later, and the emergence and triumph of the new antislavery Republican Party. In each case, Freeman shifts focus away from the traditional narrative of events and the debates that followed and instead retells the stories through the violent episodes they provoked. She has little to say about what was being compromised in 1850, for example, but a great deal to say about the incident in which Henry Foote of Mississippi pulled a pistol on Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri. (Benton defiantly bared his chest and dared the would-be “assassin” to shoot.)

Freeman’s shift of perspective offers several rewards, not least its clever originality and its sprightly prose. She humanizes the sectional crisis, demonstrating how a seemingly abstract conflict between the North and the South inevitably came down to face-to-face confrontations in the halls of Congress. But there’s a risk that comes with treating politics as ritual. As the number of violent incidents swelled after 1855, Freeman suggests, it became impossible “for Congress to legislate, or for that matter, even to discuss, the issue of slavery.”

But there’s another way to read the evidence. Violence was an adjunct to substantive debate, not an alternative to it. In early 1858, in one of the worst flareups, a fistfight between the antislavery radical Galusha Grow and the pugnacious proslavery extremist Lawrence Keitt exploded into a general melee between Northern Republicans and Southern Democrats. But the incident lasted only a few minutes, nobody was hurt, everybody went back to their desks, and congressional business resumed. The pushing and shoving may have been removed from the Congressional Globe, but what remains are the substantive debates, which reveal the political contours of the fundamental conflict over slavery.

Those congressional debates are the focus of Stephen Maizlish’s A Strife of Tongues. The author of several important essays and one of the best studies of “the triumph of sectionalism,” Maizlish’s new book is the finest account we have of the Compromise of 1850. Where previous studies routinely dismissed antislavery politicians as “fanatics,” “extremists,” or “ultras,” Maizlish carefully reconstructs the various dimensions of both proslavery and antislavery ideology. In so doing he goes a long way toward revealing how intractable the problem of slavery was.

By the late 1840s, Congress was deadlocked by the slavery issue. The immediate cause was the proposal, introduced by the Pennsylvania Democrat David Wilmot, to ban slavery in all the territories recently taken from Mexico. There was nothing new in his proposal. In 1784, in 1820, in 1846, and again in 1860 a clear majority of Northerners took the position that slavery should be banned from all United States territories. By contrast, proslavery Southerners had been gravitating toward increasingly extreme positions and were now denouncing the Wilmot Proviso as little more than fanatical abolitionism.

But territorial expansion was not the only divisive issue. Even as Congress was debating the Wilmot Proviso, Northern congressmen—including Abraham Lincoln—were drafting bills to abolish slavery in Washington. Meanwhile, Northern state legislatures were passing “personal liberty” laws designed to thwart the rendition of fugitive slaves. To proslavery Southerners, this was abolition by a thousand cuts. If slavery were banned from the territories, all the new states coming into the Union would be free states, and the South would soon be overwhelmed by a North that was resolutely hostile to slavery.

By 1849, proslavery and antislavery congressmen had reached a stalemate, unable to agree on any resolution of the territorial question. In January 1850 veteran Kentucky senator Henry Clay introduced an “omnibus” bill designed to address all of the issues that were dividing the country over slavery. Clay would ban the slave trade, but not slavery itself, in Washington. He endorsed a punitive new Fugitive Slave Law that was designed to override the personal liberty laws passed by Northern states. He would admit California as a free state but allow the remaining territories to choose whether to legalize slavery. And he would bribe the slave state of Texas into accepting a boundary that would limit the extent of slavery in the New Mexico Territory.

For nine months, Congress debated Clay’s proposals until, separated into individual measures, they squeaked through on a series of sectional votes. Moderates joined proslavery Southerners to give the South the parts it wanted and then joined antislavery congressmen to give the North what it wanted. The majority of congressmen and senators actually opposed compromise, but the result is known as the Compromise of 1850. The extended debate over Clay’s measures is the subject of A Strife of Tongues, and perhaps the most astonishing thing about Maizlish’s book is that no one has ever done this before. The Compromise of 1850 is a centerpiece of every book ever written on the origins of the Civil War, and yet most accounts are marred by their authors’ tone-deafness to the premises of antislavery politics. By simply taking the debate seriously, Maizlish has made an invaluable contribution to our understanding of the origins of the Civil War.

He begins with a paradox. In the debate over slavery in the territories, the first issue that had to be confronted was whether there was any issue to be confronted. Clay and his fellow advocates of compromise insisted that the territorial issue was merely an abstraction, since climate and geography precluded the possibility that slavery would ever take root in the Southwest. This was a fantasy, as both proslavery Southerners and antislavery Northerners agreed. Cotton cultivation might not thrive there, but slavery and various forms of peonage had long existed in the New Mexico Territory, among Spanish colonizers and Native Americans.5

On the surface it looked like Northerners and Southerners took a variety of positions on slavery in the territories, but Maizlish discerns an underlying sectional divergence. Northerners merely disagreed about the best way to exclude slavery from the territories, whereas Southerners disagreed only about the best way to protect slavery in them. The issue came to a head when President Zachary Taylor proposed the immediate admission of California as a free state, bypassing the territorial stage entirely and thereby bypassing yet another protracted debate.

The problem with Taylor’s proposal, as Southerners saw it, was that in 1850 there were fifteen free states and fifteen slave states, and the admission of one more free state would destroy the sectional “equilibrium” that enabled the slave states to protect themselves, at least in the Senate, from the increasingly powerful antislavery North. Maizlish shows how the Southern demand for equilibrium overshadowed the debate over Clay’s compromise measures. Southerners claimed that the Founders had intended all along to balance the interests of the slave and free states, and they warned that their commitment to the Union depended on maintaining that equilibrium. Maizlish labels Southern Unionism “transactional.”

Northerners dismissed the idea of a sectional equilibrium. The Founders, they claimed, had contemplated no such thing, and it could not be found in the Constitution. Antislavery congressmen and senators went further. The shift in the balance of power in favor of the North was a function of the superiority of free over slave labor, they believed, and no statutes or constitutions could halt the inexorable decline of the slave states. Northerners believed that disunion was not an option for the South, however, because they had come to view the Union as “perpetual,” not merely transactional.

Although Southerners uniformly defended the extension of slavery into the territories, they did not always agree on the terms of their defense. Representatives from the lower South were most likely to describe slavery as a positive good, sanctioned by the Bible, and uniquely suited to the needs of racially inferior blacks. But slaveholders from the Border States often retained an older skepticism about slavery, considered it a necessary evil, and defended the “diffusion” of slavery into the territories on the dubious ground that expansion would alleviate slavery’s harshness. Similarly, Northerners who were virtually unanimous in their opposition to slavery’s extension often disagreed about slavery itself. Whigs were most likely to condemn it as an institution, arguing for territorial restriction on a variety of principled grounds. But Northern Democrats who opposed the expansion of slavery were often openly hostile to emancipation and were primarily concerned with preserving the territories for settlement by free white people.

Southerners routinely dismissed Northerners as money-grubbers who treated their workers more abusively than the South did its allegedly happy slaves. So dependent was the North on the cotton, tobacco, and sugar produced by Southern slaves, one Mississippi congressman argued, that if the Union were destroyed, “your factories will rot down and grass grow in your streets.” Northerners responded in kind. If your slaves are so happy, they asked, why do so many of them escape to the North? Why do you live in constant fear of servile insurrection? But above all, Northerners contrasted the rapid growth and prosperity of the North with the backwardness of the South. Northern children were educated while the South lagged far behind in public schools. Immigrants flocked to the North and largely avoided the South. And far from depending on slavery, Northerners argued that Southern cotton would be produced more cheaply and efficiently with wage labor.

Where Freeman sees two very different concepts of “honor” motivating Yankees and Southerners, Maizlish sees shared values weaponized by each side against the other. Both extolled the prosperity of their respective societies and denounced the misery of the other’s workers. Northerners and Southerners alike defended the “manliness” of their own positions and criticized the effeminacy of their opponents’ arguments. All invoked the legacy of the Founding Fathers and dismissed the “fanatical” departure of their adversaries from the true principles of the American Revolution. For Maizlish, this means that the Civil War was not a conflict of cultures; it was a fundamental conflict over slavery.

Between 1790 and 1860, a majority of Northern congressmen voted against slavery ninety-five out of a hundred times. They voted to deny Missouri admission as a slave state in 1820. Every Northern Whig voted against the first gag rule that suppressed antislavery petitions. Northern congressmen voted repeatedly for the Wilmot Proviso banning slavery from the Mexican territories. They voted overwhelmingly against the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and in 1854 against the Nebraska bill that allowed slavery in the Kansas Territory. Northern legislatures passed dozens of laws inhibiting the rendition of fugitive slaves. They even denied slaveholders the right to travel with their slaves through Northern states.

Beginning in the late 1830s, as Garrison moved toward the conclusion that the Constitution was a hopelessly proslavery document, most abolitionists moved the other way. They expanded the scope of antislavery politics by incorporating more and more parts of the Constitution: the Preamble, with its guarantee of the “blessing of liberty” to all; Article 1, Section 9, guaranteeing the writ of habeas corpus; the Fourth Amendment’s restriction on unreasonable search and seizure; the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of due process; the privileges and immunities clause. If rigorously applied to the free states of the North, the western territories, and the high seas, these basic constitutional protections would severely circumscribe the slave states. By the 1850s, this increasingly robust antislavery constitutionalism had become part of the antislavery mainstream. This is the tradition whose significance, whose very existence, neorevisionists struggle to deny.