Amid all the talk about Spielberg’s movie about Lincoln, I thought I’d share the back-story to the movie and sketch out Lincoln’s earlier positions on slavery.
In 1861, Lincoln expressed his belief that slavery was legal and constitutional, and he expressed supported the passage of a Constitutional amendment to clarify that legal position. In his first inaugural address, Lincoln declared: “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” He goes on to discuss a proposed 13th amendment to the Constitution, which, in his words, proposed “that the Federal Government shall never interfere with the domestic institutions of the States, including that of persons held to service.” Lincoln expressed his clear support not just for the legal principal but for the passage of such an amendment. ” To avoid misconstruction of what I have said, I depart from my purpose not to speak of particular amendments so far as to say that, holding such a provision to now be implied constitutional law, I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable.” Lincoln not only did not support emancipation, he favored enshrining slavery explicitly in the Constitution.
By 1862, Lincoln’s position had evolved slightly. In his 1862 annual message to Congress, Lincoln advocated the adoption of a plan of gradual emancipation that would take “thirty-seven years” and would be compensated by the delivery of “bonds of the United States.”Lincoln justified his proposal on three grounds: that it would palliate “those who favor perpetual slavery,” that it would bring about peace and prosperity, and that it would improve the wages of white laborers. Lincoln believed that gradual emancipation and compensation would appeal to slave owners because he believed the duration of time and the quality of the compensation would make up their dissatisfaction at losing their slaves. “The time spares both races from the evils of sudden derangement – in fact, from the necessity of any derangement – while most of those whose habitual course of thought will be disturbed by the measure will have passed away before its consummation,” wrote Lincoln. The wording of this argument reveals Lincoln’s attitude towards immediate abolition: he saw it as an “evil” and a “derangement” – derangement being a word synonymous with disorder and confusion. The prospect of the immediate and total liberation of the slaves was not one that Lincoln favored. As to compensation, Lincoln puts his argument in traditional terms. “The measure is both just and economical,” Lincoln writes about compensation. “In a certain sense, the liberation of slaves is the destruction of property – property acquired by descent, or by purchase, the same as any other property.” Lincoln does not challenge the conception of slaves as property, or argue that it is wrong or absurd. He was sympathetic to the idea.
In May of 1862, Major General David Hunter issued a general order proclaiming “Slavery and martial law in a free country altogether incompatible; the persons in these three States – Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina – heretofore held as slaves, are therefore declared forever free.” Lincoln revoked this order. He would later annul other general’s efforts to free slaves in occupied territory or to enlist them in military service.
In January 1863, Lincoln signed the emancipation proclamation freeing slaves in all areas of the United States not under the control of the Union Army. Lincoln’s reasons were pragmatic, not idealistic. “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery,” he wrote. “What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union.” Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation freed slaves only in areas not under Union control (i.e. excluding places like New Orleans), and was thus meant as an incentive for the slave owning class to surrender.
I share these earlier positions of Lincoln with the intention of providing more nuance to idealized portrayals of Lincoln in the media. His position on slavery was a far cry from absolute abolitionism, and his views expressed at the time of the passage of the actual 13th amendment were significantly “evolved” from his earlier views.