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UE: POL 110-HA: Democracy in Troubled Times: American Civil War

Practical Instruction in Civic Discourse

The Takeaway - What You Need to Know

Overview - The American Civil War - Three Great Questions

Clash of Union and Confederate Forces

The American Civil War raises several questions of fundamental interest to students of democracy. The first involves the necessity of minority acquiescence to the principle of majority rule arrived at in accordance with constitutional procedure.  The South argued that the federal nature of the constitution reserved the right of individual states to unilaterally withdraw from the union if they disfavored either the legislation or the leadership as determined by the majority.  Lincoln replied that the logic of minority refusal, resistance, and withdrawal would operate to fragment any democratic government. 

The second question resolves around the institution of slavery and its implications for the principle of democratic equality. The South contended that slavery operated in accordance with natural differences among human beings and that the existence of a distinctive Southern culture as well as national economic prosperity demanded its protection.  Lincoln and the Republican Party embraced the recognition of natural equality as the foundation for civil and political freedom, extended that principle universally to cover all men everywhere, and insisted that black slavery be acknowledged as a national evil, prohibited from further expansion, and placed on a course towards ultimate eradication. 

The final question concerns the expansion of national power during the Civil War, not simply with regard to curbing of state powers through the Civil War Amendments which occurred in the aftermath, but with the enhancement and possible abuse of Presidential powers during wartime. 

Essential Questions

  • Was the “Civil War” truly a “war” or merely a “rebellion”  as Lincoln claimed it was?
  • Did Lincoln exceed his constitutional powers in waging war?
  • Could the North have prevented segregation from taking hold in the South after the Civil War?

Copyright © 2013 - Hudson Reynolds, Ph.D.


Causes of the Civil War

Secession, as it applies to the outbreak of the American Civil War, comprises the series of events that began on December 20, 1860, and extended through June 8 of the next year when eleven states in the Lower and Upper South severed their ties with the Union. The first seven seceding states of the Lower South set up a provisional government at Montgomery, Alabama. After hostilities began at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor on April 12, 1861, the border states of Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina joined the new government, which then moved its capital to Richmond, Virginia. The Union was thus divided approximately on geographic lines. Twenty-one northern and border states retained the style and title of the United States, while the eleven slave states adopted the nomenclature of the Confederate States of America.

History Channel
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Get More Information in Detail on Secession - by historian John Niven

How a modern day Confederate looks at the Right of Secession

The first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, known collectively as the Bill of Rights, were adopted as a single unit two years after ratification of the Constitution. Dissatisfaction with guarantees of freedom listed in the Constitution led the founding fathers to enumerate personal rights as well as limitations on the federal government in these first 10 amendments. The Magna Carta, the English bill of rights, Virginia's 1776 Declaration of Rights, and the colonial struggle against tyranny provided inspiration and direction for the Bill of Rights.

The 10th Amendment states: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." This amendment was the basis of the doctrine of states' rights that became the antebellum rallying cry of the Southern states, which sought to restrict the ever-growing powers of the federal government. The principle of states' rights and state sovereignty eventually led the Southern states to secede from the central government that they believed had failed to honor the covenant that had originally bound the states together.

The nullification crisis of the 1830s was a dispute over Northern-inspired tariffs that benefited Northern interests and were detrimental to Southern interests. The legal basis for the Southern call for nullification of the tariff laws was firmly rooted in states'-rights principles. Northern proposals to abolish or restrict slavery- an institution firmly protected by the Constitution- escalated the regional differences in the country and rallied the Southern states firmly behind the doctrine of states' rights and the sovereignty of the individual states. Southerners viewed the Constitution as a contractual agreement that was invalidated because its conditions had been breached. The Confederacy that was subsequently formed by the seceded states was patterned on the doctrine of states' rights. That doctrine, ironically, played a large role in the destruction of the country that it had caused to be created.


A statement by the author indicating point-of-view

I am a Confederate all the way to the bone and would love nothing better than to list only triumphs by our Glorious Nation, but this would not be fair to history. All of my information can be easily verified by anyone who disputes any of it. Those who have actually studied history (or at least paid attention in history class, assuming they had a good teacher like I did - thank you Mr. Simms) know that the War For State's Rights was not about slavery (as the occupational government would like you to believe), but about where (at its most basic level) governing laws, and regulations should come from. This site will, undoubtedly, go through many updates and revisions as time goes on, though I will ONLY post truthful and accurate information. I am not a racist, skinhead, hate-monger, or any of the other labels usually associated with those who dispute the distorted Yankee version of this period in the history of our two countries usually are.

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Abraham Lincoln on Secession

Soon after Abraham Lincoln was elected to the presidency in November 1860, seven southern states seceded from the Union. In March 1861, after he was inaugurated as the 16th President of the United States, four more followed.

The secessionists claimed that according to the Constitution every state had the right to leave the Union. Lincoln claimed that they did not have that right. He opposed secession for these reasons:

  1. Physically the states cannot separate.
  2. Secession is unlawful under the Constitution.
  3. A government that allows secession will disintegrate into anarchy.
  4. That Americans are not enemies, but friends.
  5. Secession would destroy the world's only existing democracy, and prove for all time, to future Americans and to  the world, that a government of the people cannot survive.
Lincoln may have thought the fifth point was the most important. If you traveled the earth in 1860, and visited every continent and every nation, you would have found many examples of monarchies, dictatorships, and other examples of authoritarian rule. But in the all the world, you would have found only one major democracy: The United States of America. Democracy had been attempted in one other nation in the eighteenth century - France. Unfortunately, that experiment in self-government deteriorated rapidly, as the citizens resorted more to the guillotine than to the ballot box. From the ashes of that experiment in self-government, rose a dictator who, after seizing control in France, attempted to conquer the continent of Europe.


Those who supported monarchies felt vindicated by the French disaster, but the United States experiment in self-government remained a thorn in their side. Those wishing for democracy could always point across the ocean and say, "It works there. Why can't we try it here"? In 1860 however, it appeared that the thorn had been removed. The monarchists were thrilled with the dissolution of the United States, and many even held parties celebrating the end of democracy.

Lincoln understood this well, and when he described his nation as "the world's last best hope," these were not idle words. Lincoln truly believed that if the war were lost, it would not only have been the end of his political career, or that of his party, or even the end of his nation. He believed that if the war were lost, it would have forever ended the hope of people everywhere for a democratic form of government.

Lincoln Home: National Historical Site
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Abraham Lincoln on Secession: In His Own Words

First Inaugural Address March 4, 1861

Plainly, the central idea of secession is the essence of anarchy. A majority, held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations and always changing easily with deliberate changes of popular opinins and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people. Whoever rejects it does of necessity fly to anarchy or despotism. Unanimity is impossible; the rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissible; so that, rejecting the majority principle, anarchy or despotism in some form is all that is left.

Message to Congress in Special Session July 4, 1861

The distinct issue, "Immediate dissolution or blood"...embraces more than the fate of these United States. It presents to the whole family of man the question of whether a constitutional republic or democracy -- a government of the people, by the same people -- can or cannot maintain its territorial integrity against its own domestic foes. It presents the question whether the discontented individuals -- too few in numbers to control the administration, according to organic law, in any case -- can always, upon the pretenses made in this case or on any other pretenses, or arbitrarily without any pretense, break up the government and thus practically put an end to free government upon the earth. It forces us to ask: "Is there, in all republics, this inherent and fatal weakness? Must a government, of necessity, be too strong for the liberties of its own people, or too weak to maintain its own existence?"

Was the Civil War Really About Slavery?

       Lincoln's Final Judgment

One eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union, even by war; while the government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it.

       -- See Second Inaugural Address <Below>

Slavery & the Lincoln-Douglas Debates

The Lincoln-Douglas Debates

The Most Famous Example of Civic Dialogue in American History

Who was Stephen A. Douglas?  And what were the Lincoln-Douglas debates?

During the mid-1800s, Stephen A. Douglas had a great deal of influence on issues dealing with slavery in the United States. Douglas's views and plans on what to do with slavery did undergo changes, because his basic goal was to save the Union.

Douglas first became involved with the slavery issue when he proposed what to do with slavery in the land won by the United States in the Mexican War. Douglas wanted to develop the West, and he also wanted to start a transcontinental railroad that would have Chicago as its terminus. Southern senators hoped that New Orleans, St. Louis, or Memphis would become the eastern railroad terminus. To please these senators, Douglas proposed the principle of popular sovereignty in the Kansas-Nebraska Act. It allowed citizens of the new territories to decide if they wanted to enter the Union as a slave state or a free state. Douglas thought popular sovereignty would solve the slavery problem. Instead, it greatly displeased many northerners.

The Dred Scott case, which was about a black man who claimed he was a free man since he resided in a free state, had a profound effect on Douglas and his ideas. In 1857 the Supreme Court ruled that, regardless of his residency, Scott was a slave. It also ruled that since Congress had no power to prohibit slavery in a territory, neither did the government of that territory. This outraged Douglas, who had labored so hard to protect his party's strength in the North by invoking popular sovereignty.

President James Buchanan further angered Douglas and antislavery forces by recommending that Kansas allow slavery under the Lecompton Constitution. Most observers, including Stephen Douglas, believed that the Lecompton Constitution had been obtained fraudulently because the anti-slavery majority in Kansas had previously rejected the constitution in a referendum. Douglas thought that admitting Kansas under the Lecompton Constitution would be a mere parody of popular sovereignty and an embarrassment to the party in most of the North. Infuriated, Douglas broke with Buchanan and the southern Democrats and mobilized western Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives to defeat the Lecompton Constitution. Kansas finally entered the Union as a free state in 1861, after secession was well under way and many southern representatives had left Congress.

Historians have traditionally regarded the series of seven Lincoln-Douglas Debates between Stephen Douglas, who was bidding for reelection to the Senate, and Abraham Lincoln, who had offered the challenge of these debates to Douglas, as among the most significant events in American political history. The debaters attracted national interest because of Douglas's prominence and his break with President Buchanan's administration.

During these debates Lincoln attacked slavery. He doubted African Americans' capacities for equality and explicitly rejected formulas that would give them social and political equality. But he declared that blacks were entitled to the same rights granted to whites by the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln also challenged Douglas on how he could accept the Dred Scott decision and at the same time advocate popular sovereignty.

Douglas responded by reformulating popular sovereignty. In this doctrine, which became known as the Freeport Doctrine, because it was stated first in Freeport, Illinois, Douglas asserted that settlers could exclude slavery from a territory by not adopting local legislation to protect it. In other words, he claimed that even if territorial governments followed the Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott and did not prohibit slavery, municipalities could still do so by failing to support slavery. This furthered his view that demography and geography would make the victory of slavery in the territory almost impossible. To Southerners this doctrine meant that they could be denied the victory they won in the Dred Scott case.

Douglas was reelected to the Senate by a narrow margin in the state legislature, but Lincoln virtually discredited popular sovereignty in Illinois. Douglas's victory resulted form overrepresentation in the legislature of the staunchly Democratic counties in southern Illinois rather than any popularity he might have gained from his Freeport speech.

In 1860 Douglas ran against Lincoln again, this time for the presidency. Douglas, however, was not the only Democrat running for office. The Democratic Party split its votes among three candidates and Republican Abraham Lincoln won the election. Douglas then offered his services to Lincoln during the Civil War and toured the border states to arouse enthusiasm for the Union cause. On this trip Stephen A. Douglas, a man whose life had always been concerned with slavery, died.

[From Kenneth C. Davis, Don't Know Much About the Civil War; Stewart Sifakis, Who Was Who in the Civil War.]
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What was Douglas' real opinion on Slavery and Equality?

Douglas intensified his resistance to antislavery politics, becoming a leading proselytizer of the idea of black racial inferiority and probably the most zealous northern critic of the idea of black rights. As he frequently stated in the latter half of the 1850s, echoing Taney, blacks enjoyed only those rights whites deemed "consistent with the good and safety of society." Even more portentously, Douglas attempted to erase the incompatibility between slavery and national ideals of equality and freedom. He was well aware that the antislavery movement drew inspiration from the Declaration of Independence and that the doctrine of human equality was a stumbling block for anyone, such as himself, who needed to justify the possibility of slavery's expansion. Thus he forcefully and repeatedly denied that the Declaration of Independence applied to blacks. His argument was no mere political maneuvering; it was also a profound reinterpretation of American political thought designed to vitiate the moral critique of slavery and to justify slavery's perpetuity.

Graham Peck -- Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Vol. 26, Issue 2, summer 2005
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Read More of this Fine Scholarly Article on Douglas

Where do I go to learn More about the Lincoln-Douglas debates?

An Exhibition on the Lincoln-Douglas Debates at the Lincoln Library

Abraham Lincoln Responds to the Spread of Slavery into the Territories

           October 18, 1858: Letter to James N. Brown

I do not perceive how I can express myself, more plainly, than I have done in the foregoing extracts. In four of them I have expressly disclaimed all intention to bring about social and political equality between the white and black races, and, in all the rest, I have done the same thing by clear implication.

I have made it equally plain that I think the negro is included in the word "men" used in the Declaration of Independence.

I believe the declara[tion] that "all men are created equal" is the great fundamental principle upon which our free institutions rest; that negro slavery is violative of that principle; but that, by our frame of government, that principle has not been made one of legal obligation; that by our frame of government, the States which have slavery are to retain it, or surrender it at their own pleasure; and that all others -- individuals, free-states and national government -- are constitutionally bound to leave them alone about it..

I believe our government was thus framed because of the necessity springing from the actual presence of slavery, when it was framed.

           March 1, 1859: Speech at Chicago, Illinois

I do not wish to be misunderstood upon this subject of slavery in this country. I suppose it may long exist, and perhaps the best way for it to come to an end peaceably is for it to exist for a length of time. But I say that the spread and strengthening and perpetuation of it is an entirely different proposition. There we should in every way resist it as a wrong, treating it as a wrong, with the fixed idea that it must and will come to an end.

           September 17, 1859: Speech at Cincinnati, Ohio

I think Slavery is wrong, morally, and politically. I desire that it should be no further spread in these United States, and I should not object if it should gradually terminate in the whole Union.

Presidential Powers

Lincoln Suspends the Writ of Habeas Corpus

As the Civil War started, in the very beginning of Lincoln's presidential term, a group of "Peace Democrats" proposed a peaceful resolution to the developing Civil War by offering a truce with the South, and forming a constitutional convention to amend the U.S. Constitution to protect States' rights. The proposal was ignored by the Unionists of the North and not taken seriously by the South. However, the Peace Democrats, also called copperheads by their enemies, publicly criticized Lincoln's belief that violating the U.S. Constitution was required to save it as a whole. With Congress not in session until July, Lincoln assumed all powers not delegated in the Constitution, including the power to suspend habeas corpus. In 1861, Lincoln had already suspended civil law in territories where resistance to the North's military power would be dangerous. In 1862, when copperhead democrats began criticizing Lincoln's violation of the Constitution, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus throughout the nation and had many copperhead democrats arrested under military authority because he felt that the State Courts in the north west would not convict war protesters such as the copperheads. He proclaimed that all persons who discouraged enlistments or engaged in disloyal practices would come under Martial Law. 

Among the 13,000 people arrested under martial law was a Maryland Secessionist, John Merryman. Immediately, Hon. Roger B. Taney, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States issued a writ of habeas corpus commanding the military to bring Merryman before him. The military refused to follow the writ. Justice Taney, in Ex parte MERRYMAN, then ruled the suspension of habeas corpus unconstitutional because the writ could not be suspended without an Act of Congress. President Lincoln and the military ignored Justice Taney's ruling. 

Finally, in 1866, after the war, the Supreme Court officially restored habeas corpus in Ex-parte Milligan, ruling that military trials in areas where the civil courts were capable of functioning were illegal.

Copyright, 1999 - American Patriot Network
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A Slightly Longer Explanation of the Suspension

Civil libertarians are crying foul over the indefinite detention of hundreds of Sept. 11 suspects and plans to try accused terrorists in military tribunals. In defense, some Bush administration loyalists cite another wartime leader who locked up civilians and resorted to army courts, Abraham Lincoln—even though Lincoln faced a radically different situation, and, more important, his civil liberties record stands as a rare blot on his reputation.

In his authoritative Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties (1991), Mark Neely has argued that during the Civil War these two policies—summary arrests and military justice—were of a piece. Both stemmed from the emergency of having an armed rebellion in the nation's midst, and they were viewed as two parts of a single policy. Yet today we think of the policies as separate, if related. So this week I'll consider Lincoln's more famous action, his suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus. Next week, I'll tackle what at the time was considered the more egregious violation, the use of military tribunals to prosecute civilians.

First a definition: The Latin phrase habeas corpus means "you have the body." The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus refers to a common-law tradition that establishes a person's right to appear before a judge before being imprisoned. When a judge issues the writ, he commands a government official to bring a prisoner before the court so he can assess the legality of the prisoner's detention. When the privilege of the writ is suspended, the prisoner is denied the right to secure such a writ and therefore can be held without trial indefinitely. Habeas corpus is the only common-law tradition enshrined in the Constitution, which also explicitly defines when it can be overridden. Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution says, "The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it."

Several times during the war, Lincoln or his Cabinet officers issued orders suspending the writ. The first came early in his presidency. Lincoln had been in office for barely a month when Confederate troops attacked the federal garrison at Fort Sumter in April 1861, starting the Civil War. One of his immediate concerns was how to keep an unobstructed route between Washington, D.C., and the North. He worried that if Maryland joined Virginia and seceded from the Union, the nation's capital would be stranded amid hostile states. On April 19, 20,000 Confederate sympathizers in Baltimore tried to stop Union troops from traveling from one train station to another en route to Washington, causing a riot. So on April 27 Lincoln suspended the habeas corpus privilege on points along the Philadelphia-Washington route. That meant Union generals could arrest and detain without trial anyone in the area who threatened "public safety."

Controversy followed. The most explosive incident centered on John Merryman, a Marylander arrested for insurrectionary activities. Summarily jailed, Merryman petitioned for a habeas corpus writ, which Chief Justice Roger Taney granted. But the commanding officer at Fort McHenry, where Merryman was held, refused to release the prisoner, citing Lincoln's edict. With the army loyal to Lincoln, Taney couldn't enforce his order and railed against the president while Merryman stewed in jail for seven more weeks. After being freed, he was never tried.

The Merryman case and others like it ignited a debate over Lincoln's actions. Democrats argued they were unconstitutional. Taney noted that Article 1 of the Constitution, where habeas corpus is discussed, deals exclusively with congressional powers, meaning that Congress alone can authorize the privilege's suspension. Although correct, Taney's argument framed the debate around a legalistic and secondary issue, that of congressional versus presidential power. It skirted the question of whether the situation warranted a suspension of habeas corpus at all. Thus when in March 1863 Congress passed the Habeas Corpus Act, effectively endorsing Lincoln's actions, civil libertarians were stripped of their main argument. (Taney also criticized Merryman's detention, noting that civilians aren't subject to military justice—an issue I'll get to next week.)

Where Democrats marshaled constitutional arguments against Lincoln's order, Republicans replied that in an emergency, only the president could act fast enough to protect the public safety. Lincoln himself took this line in a famous July 4, 1861, speech to Congress. He also, more memorably, used a pragmatic argument. "Are all the laws but one to go unexecuted," he chided his critics, "and the government itself go to pieces, lest that one be violated?" The phrase has been quoted ever since and even provided the title of a recent apologia by Chief Justice William Rehnquist for wartime suppression of freedoms.

Despite the rhetorical power of Lincoln's speech, there's no evidence the government would have gone to pieces. By the time he issued his April 27 order, Union troops had made their way through Baltimore, and it should have been clear that Washington wasn't going to be fatally isolated. As for dissuading Maryland from seceding, contemporaneous accounts suggest that whatever the administration's fears, no such move was imminent.

If Lincoln's Maryland actions were dubious, a wave of arrests the following summer under another habeas corpus suspension was downright indefensible. The wave began after Congress instituted the first-ever military draft in July 1862. Because the draft proved highly unpopular and hard to enforce, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, at Lincoln's behest, issued sweeping orders on Aug. 8 suspending habeas corpus nationwide—the first time the writ was suspended beyond a narrowly defined emergency area. Stanton decreed that anyone "engaged, by act, speech, or writing, in discouraging volunteer enlistments, or in any way giving aid and comfort to the enemy, or in any other disloyal practice against the United States" was subject to arrest and trial "before a military commission."

The exceedingly broad mandate precipitated a civil liberties disaster. It allowed local sheriffs and constables to decide arbitrarily who was loyal or disloyal, without even considering the administration's main goal of enforcing the draft. At least 350 people were arrested in the following month, an all-time high. Some of the accused had done nothing worse than bad-mouth the president. (That was also true before Aug. 8. On Aug. 6, for example, Union Gen. Henry Halleck arrested one Missourian for saying, "[I] wouldn't wipe my ass with the stars and stripes.")

On Sept. 8, the federal official overseeing these arrests decreed that law enforcement agents were enforcing the Aug. 8 orders too stringently. It was evident that people were being arrested who posed no threat to the public safety. Thereafter, the arrests subsided. Still, Lincoln himself reiterated the suspension on Sept. 24, and arrests without trial continued. Overall between 10,000 and 15,000 people were incarcerated without a prompt trial. On balance, their detention almost certainly did not enhance American security nor hasten the Union victory.

In the last 140 years, America has not faced a crisis anything like the Civil War, and the power to suspend habeas corpus has mostly gone unused. Although (as I'll explain next week) the Supreme Court never definitively ruled Lincoln's suspensions unconstitutional, his actions did come to be seen as a blemish on an otherwise heroic record of wartime leadership. That disrepute into which his behavior fell just may have helped deter his successors from using such measures themselves.

In the days after Sept. 11, George W. Bush was seen conspicuously toting around a new best-seller about the Civil War, as if to suggest he were reading up on the historical lessons of wartime leadership. It would be good if he brushed up not just on our greatest president's heroics but also on his sad mistakes.

Print Sources

The best book on Lincoln and civil liberties during the Civil War is, as mentioned, Mark Neely's The Fate of Liberty: Lincoln and Civil Liberties (1991). James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (1988) is reliable for anything Civil War-related. Dean Sprague's Freedom Under Lincoln (1965) is dated but helpful. Overviews of wartime suppressions of civil liberties include Michael Linfield's Freedom Under Fire: U.S. Civil Liberties in Times of War (1990), which is generally critical toward such suppressions, and William Rehnquist's All the Laws but One: Civil Liberties in Wartime (1998), in which the chief justice generally defends them.

Posted Friday, Nov. 30, 2001 to the Slate, by Dan Greenberg
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The Emancipation Proclamation & the Thirteenth Amendment Abolishing Slavery

With Sojourner Truth in a painting by Franklin C. Courter, made circa 1893.

Abraham Lincoln's Position/s on Slavery

Abraham Lincoln is often referred to as "The Great Emancipator" and yet, he did not publicly call for emancipation throughout his entire life. Lincoln began his public career by claiming that he was "antislavery" -- against slavery's expansion, but not calling for immediate emancipation. However, the man who began as "antislavery" eventually issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all slaves in those states that were in rebellion. He vigorously supported the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery throughout the United States, and, in the last speech of his life, he recommended extending the vote to African Americans.

Lincoln Home: National Historic Site

Read a Good Book on Lincoln's Changing Attitude Towards Slavery

  The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery by Eric Foner

Do we need yet another book on Lincoln, especially in the wake of all the Lincoln volumes that appeared last year in  commemoration of the 200th anniversary of his birth? Well, yes, we do — if the book is by so richly informed a commentator as Eric Foner, the DeWitt Clinton professor of history at Columbia. Foner tackles what would seem to be an obvious topic, Lincoln and slavery, and manages to cast new light on it.
Foner has long been deliberating about Lincoln. He is, most recently, the editor of a collection of essays, “Our Lincoln: New Perspectives on Lincoln and His World,” and among his previous books are a seminal one on the rise of the Republican Party, “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men,” and another, “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877,” in which Lincoln’s fledgling policies toward the defeated South were revised in the decade just after the Civil War.



Having probed the politics of the Civil War era, Foner is in a strong position to offer what amounts to a political biography of Lincoln. His approach in “The Fiery ­Trial” underscores the usefulness of contextual study. Many of history’s leading figures, from Shakespeare and Beethoven through American presidents to popular entertainers, have been written about endlessly by traditional biographers. But barring the discovery of new letters, long-hidden diaries or the like, fresh information is hard to find about eminent people whose every small motion has been put under the biographical microscope.

Recent years have witnessed books on Lincoln’s marriage, his supposed homosexuality, and his melancholia and occasional temper tantrums. Such books are often fascinating and provocative, but their originality and reliability can vary greatly, since no new cache of private ­Lincolniana has recently come to light. Fortunately, there’s a way of re-envisioning even the most famous people: by freshly examining their relationship to their historical contexts. The great figures of history, as Melville wrote, “are parts of the times; they themselves are the times, and possess a correspondent coloring.”

Lincoln was no exception. By venturing into Lincoln’s contexts, Foner doesn’t choose the direction of, say, military history or popular culture or sexual mores. Instead, he keeps sharply focused on Lincoln’s political background. This is a wise move since Lincoln was a politician to the core.

Because of his broad-ranging knowledge of the 19th century, Foner is able to provide the most thorough and judicious account of Lincoln’s attitudes toward slavery that we have to date. Historians have long been puzzled by apparent inconsistencies. One the one hand, Lincoln was the Great Emancipator. There’s no reason to doubt his declaration: “I am naturally antislavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” On the other hand, he had a racist streak. He used the words “nigger” and “darky” in conversation, and he thought that blacks, whom he regarded as physically different from whites, should be deported to Liberia, Central America or somewhere else, since they couldn’t live on equal terms with whites in America. No one was more eloquent than Lincoln in describing the injustice of the institution of slavery; yet rarely did he dwell on the actual sufferings of America’s four million enslaved blacks.

Foner reveals that these contradictions were part and parcel of Lincoln’s upbringing and his participation in party politics. Born in 1809 in the slave state of Kentucky, Lincoln was taken at 7 to live in southwestern Indiana, a region, Foner informs us, that was moderate in its views of slavery but pervaded by racism. Lincoln’s later move to Illinois immersed him in a milieu that coupled tepid antislavery politics with, again, fierce racial prejudice.

Then came Lincoln’s political service in the Whig Party, which contained a range of factions, from fire-eating Southern planters to antislavery New Englanders. Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd, belonged to a family of slaveholders. His political idol, Henry Clay, was himself a man of contradiction: he was a Kentucky slave owner who accepted the hidebound racial views of the time, yet looked forward to a day when the nation’s enslaved blacks would be emancipated. Outside the party system were abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips, who were so outraged by slavery that they called for its immediate abolition or, if that didn’t occur, the separation of the North from the South.

Faced with this welter of attitudes, Foner shows, Lincoln steered a middle course. He believed slavery violated America’s basic principles — a view he expressed forcefully and frequently. Still, he was reluctant to take dramatic action against it, unlike some of the radicals within the Whig Party. He remained so devoted to the American Constitution, with its protections of slavery, that he supported (albeit with reluctance) the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which imposed stiff penalties on Northerners who assisted runaway slaves. At the same time, he never faltered in his effort to prevent slavery’s western expansion, and he refused to follow party conservatives who were overly conciliatory to the South. When the Republican Party formed in the 1850s, Foner explains, it was Lincoln’s middling position that made him the North’s most attractive presidential candidate in 1860 and helped him keep his wits about him during the tumultuous war years. So dexterously did he navigate the political waters that he could rightly claim credit for bringing about slavery’s abolition.

While appreciatively discussing Lincoln’s moderation, Foner takes an unblinking look at the blots on his record: a court case during his lawyer years when he defended a Southerner trying to repossess a slave family that had claimed its freedom in Illinois; his early opposition to political rights for blacks; his stubborn belief in the need to deport American blacks, even after the scheme had become untenable; his statement that he conducted the war to preserve the Union, regardless of whether slavery survived; and an astonishing remark he once made that held blacks responsible for bringing on the Civil War because of their presence in America.

Foner adeptly contextualizes these unsavory aspects of Lincoln’s history. He points out that only a handful of whites in that era espoused racial attitudes that today would be considered consistently progressive. Racism was rampant, and Lincoln reflected it. Above all, he treasured the American Union. And though he venerated the law, he was willing to use his powers as a wartime president to supersede the law, as when he suspended habeas corpus as part of his effort to crush the Southern rebellion.

Lincoln also exhibited a remarkable ability to alter his attitudes according to circumstance. At first dismissive of the abilities of black people, he came to sincerely admire them during the Civil War and eventually made strides toward endorsing political rights for them. Once staunchly opposed to the immediate abolition of slavery, he was the first president who took action in the cause of emancipation and in time, of course, he dedicated the war effort to the goal of freedom.

Lincoln once declared that he couldn’t control events; they controlled him. More cogently than any previous historian, Foner examines the political events that shaped Lincoln and ultimately brought out his true greatness.

David S. Reynolds, a distinguished professor at the CUNY Graduate Center, is the author of
“Walt Whitman’s America,” “John Brown, Abolitionist” and “Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson.”

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 Historian John Hope Franklin on the Emancipation Proclamation

View the Emancipation Proclamation


See a Good Movie on Lincoln's effort to pass the 13th Amendment
Set in 1865, almost 150 years ago, this film puts you right there in Lincoln's chair, his office, his boots and hat, most convincingly. Lincoln will win you over, even if he has to pay for your support. He's obsessed, just like I am at now wanting to OWN this production, even though I watched it just yesterday in the opening theater matinee. It's that good!

Much will be said of the near perfection in stature and acting of Daniel Day-Lewis's portrayal of Lincoln. He plays the statesman, the angry husband, Christian, a manipulator, and a heart-wrenching depiction of loving father. Crawling on the floor to his sleeping son before the fire hearth brings a near tear.  Sally Fields gives what surely will be a nominated performance as Lincoln's wife, elevating her acting career to another new height.  The list of stars and significant performance highlights is endless. It's impossible to cover all that happens in this 2 ½ hour film that moves with such suspense and action that it seems less than half that length. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll beg for more when the credits roll.

Customer Harold Wolf, Nov. 17, 2012

An Historian Looks at Spielberg's Lincoln

Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address - Compare with Pericles' Funeral Oration

Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address

This theologically intense speech has been widely acknowledged as one of the most remarkable documents in American history. The London Spectator said of it, "We cannot read it without a renewed conviction that it is the noblest political document known to history, and should have for the nation and the statesmen he left behind him something of a sacred and almost prophetic character." Journalist Noah Brooks, who witnessed the speech, said that as Lincoln advanced from his seat, "a roar of applause shook the air, and, again and again repeated, finally died away on the outer fringe of the throng, like a sweeping wave upon the shore. Just at that moment the sun, which had been obscured all day, burst forth in its unclouded meridian splendor, and flooded the spectacle with glory and with light." Brooks said Lincoln told him the next day, "Did you notice that sunburst? It made my heart jump." According to Brooks, the audience received the speech in "profound silence," although some passages provoked cheers and applause. "Looking down into the faces of the people, illuminated by the bright rays of the sun, one could see moist eyes and even tearful faces." Brooks also observed, "But chiefly memorable in the mind of those who saw that second inauguration must still remain the tall, pathetic, melancholy figure of the man who, then inducted into office in the midst of the glad acclaim of thousands of people, and illumined by the deceptive brilliance of a March sunburst, was already standing in the shadow of death."

At this second appearing to take the oath of the presidential office, there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement, somewhat in detail, of a course to be pursued, seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention, and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself; and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago, all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it--all sought to avert it. While the inaugeral [sic] address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war--seeking to dissole [sic] the Union, and divide effects, by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.

One eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union, even by war; while the government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war, the magnitude, or the duration, which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!" If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope--fervently do we pray--that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether"

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan--to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.

Abraham Lincoln Online
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