Lincoln – The Reluctant Emancipator

LincolnIn this new book, academic Fred Kaplan argues that Abraham Lincoln did not make a major contribution to solving the American race problem – he left the U.S. with it.  Tracing Lincoln’s political history from the 1830s to his assassination in 1865, the iconic Lincoln is seen as cautious time and time again about closing the gap between moral idealism and political reality in the elimination of slavery.

Lincoln abhorred slavery and thought it was an abomination.  However he was not an abolitionist.  Rather he foresaw that the two races – black and white – could never live alongside each other.  Hence for him, the solution was voluntary and government assisted emigration of blacks to a new home in Africa or Latin America. Both races would be better off.  Slavery would then end of itself at some future date.  Was Lincoln right?

At the start of the US Civil War in 1861, there were about two hundred thousand free blacks in the North and at least 4 million black slaves in the Confederacy.  Lincoln’s new Republican Party in the 1860 presidential campaign made non-extension of slavery to the territories and preservation of the United States it’s two main lines in the sand.  Before Lincoln was elected however, the South could not accept the first line resulting in its secession.  After the election, the North could not accept slave states secession thus leading to the U.S. Civil War – and the death of at least 700,000 young Americans.  If the Union had accepted peaceful separation of slave states, the country would have been diminished for sure, but slavery would have ended peacefully, at least in the north.

George B

Kaplan goes on the argue that Lincoln wasted the first two years of the Civil War by sticking with Gen George B. McClellan as Chief Army Commander.  McClellan, a superb organizer, was reluctant to attack the south because he wanted to leave slavery and the South alone so as to preserve integrity of the country.  He ran against Lincoln in the 1864 presidential election on a platform of negotiating peace but lost.  Was McClellan right?

In 1863, Lincoln reluctantly issued the Emancipation Proclamation only after having first offered the Confederacy the right of continued constitutionally protected slavery in existing slave states, if they would only first return to the Union.  Furthermore, for his continued political support, the proclamation did not apply in the border slave states that had not seceded like Missouri, Kentucky and Maryland.  The proclamation was a propaganda document to aid in the Union war effort, only after Lincoln had pleaded with the Confederacy for an alternate solution that preserved slavery says Kaplan.

John Q

Kaplan’s thesis is centred on the fact that Lincoln was a long-term supporter of the policies of the American Colonization Society whose goal was not abolition of slavery, but voluntary emigration of free blacks from America.  He contrasts this gradualist approach with that of John Quincy Adams (6th U.S. President and prominent statesman) who was an Abolitionist – willing to advocate whatever political action was necessary to immediately end slavery.

Lincoln did go on to abolish slavery with the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in January 1865.  But says Kaplan, this had now become politically necessary to restore unity – Lincoln’s first love.

The assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865 immortalized him as the Great Emancipator and most iconic person in American history.  Kaplan dares to question some of his thinking.  I found this book refreshing but somewhat disturbing and also repetitive in its prose in places.  Politicians aren’t perfect it seems, even good old Abraham Lincoln.



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