Yes, Lincoln and the Union Freed the Slaves

The Emancipation Memorial stands in Boston, Mass., June 23, 2020. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
Jamelle Bouie mounts a dishonest effort to rewrite history.

According to New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie, “Neither Abraham Lincoln nor the Republican Party freed the slaves.” Instead, “the slaves freed the slaves.” Emancipation “was something they took for themselves.” The most that can be said of Lincoln and the nation’s political leadership is that they “helped set freedom in motion and eventually codified it into law with the 13th Amendment” (emphasis added). Of the Union Army, Bouie allows only that it “delivered the news of the Emancipation Proclamation.”

It should not be necessary to defend the proposition that Lincoln, the Republicans, and the Union Army played a major role in ending slavery, but here we are. The very act of casting their role aside so blithely is a species of gaslighting. As is the case with most deliberately distorted history, there are elements of uncontroversial truth to Bouie’s narrative, yet its most sweeping claims are false — and the true parts are merely tools for advancing the falsehood.

Bouie is right that black Americans played a significant role in contributing to the abolitionist movement, the escalating sectional tensions that led to secession, the transformation of the Civil War in the North from a war for the Union to a war of liberation, and the Union’s victory. He is wrong to claim that those contributions in and of themselves were enough to bring about the end of slavery, and that Lincoln, the Republicans, the Union Army, and the majority of the American population were merely passive conduits, bobbing like a cork on the unstoppable streams of history.

Bouie skips the crucial step. All the abolitionist agitation in the world only mattered because the people with real political, military, cultural, and economic power in America — the federal government, Northern state governments, the military, the churches, the leaders of the economy, and ultimately, the voting public — eventually chose to side with the abolitionist movement.  It was not a given that they would; in the 1820s and 1830s, they had chosen not to.

Abolitionism in the era of the Founding Fathers was a largely elite phenomenon, originating with the Quakers and dominated by wealthy white Americans such as Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin. Pioneering abolition laws in Pennsylvania and Vermont were the result of the abolitionists’ top-down efforts; so was the resistance to slavery that forced compromises at the Constitutional Convention. (There were parallel movements among French intellectuals and British evangelical Christians such as William Wilberforce, Granville Sharp, and John Newton.)

The second generation of American abolitionists that came around between the 1830s and 1850s, was, by contrast, much more racially integrated. Black writers, preachers, and activists, some of them escapees from slavery, were important to its force and ideas. Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman come down to us as the best-remembered of these. Some leading white abolitionists, such as William Lloyd Garrison, depended on them; the majority of the original subscribers to Garrison’s newspaper were black.

Yet Garrison-style advocates of immediate abolition were a marginal force in American politics until the rise of the Free Soil movement, and they would have been more marginal still without the missionary voices of white leaders such as Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Gerrit Smith, Gamaliel Bailey, Henry Ward Beecher, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Black Christian abolitionist David Walker kicked up a regional storm in 1829 by mailing an abolitionist tract, An Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World, from Boston into the South, leading to attempts to suppress the interstate mailing of abolitionist material. When Garrison, with a much bigger bankroll fattened by wealthy donors, repeated Walker’s tactic in 1835, it became a national issue, with Andrew Jackson, John C. Calhoun, and James Buchanan backing a federal ban that was defeated by Henry Clay in the Senate. The episode illustrates Walker’s groundbreaking influence, but also the necessity of Garrison and his financiers — and the sympathy of mainstream politicians such as Clay — in actually accomplishing anything. For all his significance to his historical moment, giving David Walker more importance than Abraham Lincoln is akin to saying Rexford Tugwell was more important than Franklin Roosevelt.

Garrison, in turn, reached an audience that was tiny compared to what Stowe commanded with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the best-selling novel of the 19th century. She did so by aiming mainly at the sensibilities of middle-class white Christian women. On slavery, as is so often the case in a democracy, only a movement with mass appeal could effect real change. That typically meant bringing together a broad coalition. Social agitators pushed for many reforms in the years from 1830 to 1860, but most of them either had to await a later day or were never adopted.

Consider the example of the abolition of the slave trade by Congress in 1807. Northerners had pressed for abolishing the trade for years, and had to accept a 20-year delay at the Constitutional Convention as the price of empowering the federal government to ban it. The Deep South, hungry for more slave labor, was opposed. The abolition bill, proposed by Thomas Jefferson in his annual message to Congress, passed with the pivotal support of his fellow Virginians. Their motives were mixed: Some felt genuine moral revulsion at the slave trade, some were interested in eliminating foreign competition so they could sell surplus slaves further south, and some feared that Virginia’s safety would be threatened by slave rebellions if its slave population grew faster than its free white population. Many were driven by some combination of those factors, only the last of which — prompted in part by slave revolts such as the Haitian revolution of 1791–1804 and Gabriel’s Rebellion in 1800 in Virginia — supports Bouie’s thesis. To cite one cause that operates at the margins is not to tell the whole story. One could say, truthfully, that secession was pivotal to emancipation, but it would be ridiculous for us to say that “the Confederates freed the slaves.”

As Carl Paulus details in his excellent book, The Slaveholding Crisis, fear of slave rebellions from the Haitian revolution onward fed Southern paranoia about abolitionist “incitement,” as well as the South’s growing belief that controlling the federal government was essential to preserving slavery. That attitude, in turn, drove the rise of the proslavery radicalism that would ultimately end in secession, including the “gag rule” in Congress, the postal-ban campaign, and endless schemes to expand slavery’s domain under federal law. The occasional American rebellion — Gabriel’s, Denmark Vesey’s in South Carolina in 1822, and especially Nat Turner’s in 1831 — acted as an accelerant to this process. So did the British abolition of slavery in 1833, which followed shortly on the heels of a slave uprising in Jamaica, then the main locus of slavery within the British Empire. Here, too, black Americans acted at the margins to prod a Southern backlash, and that backlash would put the North to an escalating series of tests. How the North would react to those tests, however, was not predetermined.

Spain (which governed Cuba), Brazil, and much of West and East Africa and the Arab world made different choices in this period when slavery came under pressure. Spanish policy in Cuba used the large-scale importation of slaves to make local whites fearful of rebellion and dependent on Spanish authority. One Spanish minister’s thinking was summed up by America’s man in Madrid in 1836: “He believes that fear of the negroes is worth an army of 100,000 men, and that it will prevent the whites from making any revolutionary attempts.” British gunboat-backed regime change in Lagos in 1851, which marked the British turn to anti-slavery colonialism in Africa and laid the foundations for modern Nigeria, was triggered by the refusal of the ruling Oba to sign a treaty ending the slave trade. The British installed a new Oba, who signed the treaty over the objections of his neighbors.

If the slaves freed the slaves, why didn’t they do so sooner? Because they couldn’t. While American slave rebellions acted on the fears of white Southerners, they were comparatively rare and uniformly unsuccessful. America was unlike the Caribbean, where slaves vastly outnumbered free whites, were overwhelmingly concentrated on industrial-sized plantations, were disproportionately young and male, and could look to the leadership of new captives with military experience in African wars. The early-to-mid-19th century saw far fewer slave rebellions in America than serf uprisings in Eastern Europe and Russia or peasant rebellions in China. This was not because American slaves were somehow happy with their lot, but because the conditions for a successful rebellion simply did not exist. Even John Brown’s 1859 uprising failed to draw slave support in significant numbers. Brown had attracted black followers in Massachusetts to resist the Fugitive Slave Law, but in Virginia, his military plans were impractical; most slaves in the area likely never even learned of his plan.

Secession arose from a long train of events, some of which — such as the Fugitive Slave Law battles of the early 1850s and the Dred Scott case — featured slaves and free black Americans as litigants or even righteous vigilantes. But the really tectonic events involved the rising Republican Party, the Free Soil movement, and the contests of the American political mainstream: the 1846 Congressional battle over the Wilmot Proviso’s restrictions on slavery in territory acquired from Mexico, the Kansas–Nebraska Act and “Bleeding Kansas,” Preston Brooks’s assault on Charles Sumner, the Lecompton Constitution, the Northern reaction to Brown’s execution, and the election of 1860.

The trigger for secession was Lincoln’s win in that election. The Republican Party was not committed to nationwide abolition in 1860, but its Free Soil stance against expanding slavery one more inch into the territories was clearly enough to be seen by the slaveholding South as a menace to the “peculiar institution.” Lincoln’s election without the support of a single slave state was celebrated by many abolitionists: Phillips crowed that “We have passed the Rubicon.” It was seen that way because of the vocal politics of Lincoln, Sumner, William Seward, Salmon P. Chase, Thaddeus Stevens, Benjamin Wade, and others. Had Lincoln lost the 1860 election, slavery could not possibly have been abolished by 1865. Had Lincoln been defeated for re-election in 1864, we might not have had the Thirteenth Amendment.

Bouie notes, correctly, that once the war began, many slaves fled to the Union lines, and that this pressed the question of emancipation to the Union’s leaders. The question bitterly divided both the civil and military leadership in 1861 and 1862, and it required careful handling by Lincoln. Political generals such as converted Democrat Benjamin Butler and John C. Fremont, who had preceded Lincoln as the Republican presidential nominee, favored emancipation. Commanding general George McClellan, popular with Democrats, was opposed, but was removed from his post after Republicans kept functional control of Congress in the 1862 midterms. Lincoln had to balance the benefits of emancipation to diplomatic relations with Britain and France against the necessity of keeping the border states in line. He recalled Cassius Clay, the ambassador to Russia, to Kentucky to secure its support. Bouie treats Lincoln’s epochal decision as if Stephen Douglas or Andrew Johnson would have done the same thing.

Black “contrabands” provided a labor force to Ulysses S. Grant’s army in the Vicksburg campaign, and from mid-1863 on — after the Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg — black soldiers fought for the Union. Black manpower was a force multiplier for the Union, and there is at least an argument that it tipped the scales in the same way as American involvement in the First World War in 1918 or the militia in the American Revolution after 1776. But the bulk of the work of breaking the Confederacy, and a great deal of the bleeding, had already been done by July 1863. Treating the war’s final 21 months solely as a matter of the slaves’ freeing the slaves also entirely writes Sherman and his army out of the story.

The fallacy of “the slaves freed the slaves” becomes obvious when you consider the struggles of subject peoples and states around the world in the mid 19th century. The revolutions of 1848 nearly all fizzled. The Poles failed to free the Poles from Russia. The Hungarians failed to free the Hungarians from Austria. The Irish failed to free the Irish from Britain, even with creative tactics such as invading Canada from upstate New York. India’s sepoy mutineers and New Zealand’s Māori failed to free themselves from the British Empire. China’s Taiping and Panthay rebels failed to free themselves from the Qing Dynasty. For that matter, neither the Confederates nor the Native American tribes broke the hold of the Union. In each case, rebellion from below failed without the aid and support of either the powers above or an outside ally strong enough to overturn the existing order.

By contrast, the serfs of Russia were freed — because the Tsar freed them. Italy threw off the Austrians — with the help of France and, later, Prussia. The Mexicans threw off French domination — in good part because the Union Army on the Rio Grande frightened off the French. Canada and Australia gained some measure of responsible home rule — because the British government was willing to grant it. Romania unified and escaped Ottoman rule — because of the power politics of the Crimean War and its aftermath.

Bizarrely, Bouie seems oblivious to the irony of framing his column around “Why Juneteenth Matters.” As Cameron Hilditch has observed, Juneteenth exists as a holiday precisely because even the formal orders of emancipation coming from Washington were empty words on a page until the Union Army arrived in sufficient force to compel local slaveholders at gunpoint to obey them. These were not merely passive messengers. If the slaves could have freed the slaves, there would have been no Juneteenth.

In short, African Americans were not passive in the face of slavery, but they could not and did not end it by themselves. Black abolitionists, slave rebellions, and fugitive slaves all put moral and political pressure on the American system. But how the system responded, and the choices and sacrifices it made, were the result of American ideals, American popular opinion, Republican political leadership, and the Union Army.

Why should we care? Because history matters; it evidently matters enough to Bouie that he’d attempt to rewrite it. Why does he feel the need to so overstate this particular historical case? That goes back to the competing historical narratives about America’s first century. Bouie could have argued for the “Black Narrative” — that is, a perspective that insists merely on hearing the voices and including the accomplishments of black Americans. That narrative coexists peacefully with the Union Narrative, which stresses the continuity between Lincoln and the Founding Fathers and the central role of the Lincoln- and Grant-era Republicans in expanding the promise of the Founding. Douglass and some (though not all) black leaders of his era respected the promise of the Founding. Even in his famous “what to the slave is the Fourth of July” speech, Douglass declared, “I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic . . . for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.” His problem with America was different: “Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?”

By seeking to topple Lincoln and Grant from their pedestals, Bouie’s column aligns instead with the Radical Narrative increasingly adopted by his newspaper, in which Lincoln and his view of the Founding must be undermined at every turn, and denied all credit for their successes and their sacrifices. Given Bouie’s ideological commitments, it is not surprising that he would seek to minimize the role of Lincoln-era Republicans, with their classical-liberal ideology, their free-labor economics, their evangelical Christian faith, their American nationalism, and their political base of white Midwesterners, in ending slavery. But we need not play along in his revisionist project.


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