How Lincoln and the Founders Viewed Slavery and the Constitution

Detail of portrait of President Abraham Lincoln by George Healey, 1869 (White House Historical Association/via Wikimedia)
The outcry over Tom Cotton’s comments about slavery is historically illiterate.

Arkansas senator Tom Cotton, who recently introduced a bill prohibiting the use of federal funds for teaching the error-ridden and misleading 1619 Project in public schools, came under fire on Sunday for comments about slavery. “As the Founding Fathers said, it was the necessary evil upon which the union was built, but the union was built in a way, as Lincoln said, to put slavery on the course to its ultimate extinction,” Cotton said in an interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

The Lincoln Project, a political-action committee that opposes Republicans, responded with a demagogic tweet that implies Cotton is a white supremacist:


Meanwhile, New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait argues:

[Cotton’s] analysis is woefully incorrect. The Constitution did not place slavery “on the course to its ultimate extinction.” In the decades after the founding, slavery exploded in size.

The Constitution did not establish any process that would allow slavery to be ended peacefully.

But it’s Chait’s analysis here that is woefully incorrect. Anyone with a basic understanding of Lincoln’s views knows that he did indeed believe slavery had been put on the course to its “ultimate extinction” by the Founders.

“I say, in the way our Fathers originally left the slavery question, the institution was in the course of ultimate extinction, and the public mind rested in the belief that it was in the course of ultimate extinction,” Lincoln said in one debate with Stephen Douglas in 1858. “I say when this Government was first established, it was the policy of its founders to prohibit the spread of slavery into the new Territories of the United States, where it had not existed.”

The problem, as Lincoln saw it, was that the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act — which allowed slavery to expand into northern territories where it had been prohibited by the Missouri Compromise — threatened to entrench slavery.

Princeton historian James McPherson offers a concise summary of Lincoln’s views in the book Battle Cry of Freedom:

The founding fathers, said Lincoln, had opposed slavery. They adopted a Declaration of Independence that pronounced all men created equal. They enacted the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 banning slavery from the vast Northwest Territory. To be sure, many of the founders owned slaves. But they asserted their hostility to slavery in principle while tolerating it temporarily (as they hoped) in practice. That was why they did not mention the words “slave” or slavery’ in the Constitution, but referred only to “persons held to service.” “Thus, the thing is hid away, in the constitution,” said Lincoln, “just as an afflicted man hides away a wen or a cancer, which he dares not cut out at once, lest he bleed to death; with the promise, nevertheless, that the cutting may begin at the end of a given time.” The first step was to prevent the spread of this cancer, which the fathers took with the Northwest Ordinance, the prohibition of the African slave trade in 1807, and the Missouri Compromise restriction of 1820. The second was to begin a process of gradual emancipation, which the generation of the fathers had accomplished in the states north of Maryland.

Lincoln himself discussed the Founding Fathers’ views of slavery at great length in his 1854 Peoria speech:

The argument of “Necessity” was the only argument they ever admitted in favor of slavery; and so far, and so far only as it carried them, did they ever go. They found the institution existing among us, which they could not help; and they cast blame upon the British King for having permitted its introduction. BEFORE the constitution, they prohibited its introduction into the north-western Territory — the only country we owned, then free from it. AT the framing and adoption of the constitution, they forbore to so much as mention the word “slave” or “slavery” in the whole instrument. In the provision for the recovery of fugitives, the slave is spoken of as a “PERSON HELD TO SERVICE OR LABOR.” In that prohibiting the abolition of the African slave trade for twenty years, that trade is spoken of as “The migration or importation of such persons as any of the States NOW EXISTING, shall think proper to admit,” &c. These are the only provisions alluding to slavery. Thus, the thing is hid away, in the constitution, just as an afflicted man hides away a wen or a cancer, which he dares not cut out at once, lest he bleed to death; with the promise, nevertheless, that the cutting may begin at the end of a given time. Less than this our fathers COULD not do; and NOW they WOULD not do. Necessity drove them so far, and farther, they would not go. But this is not all. The earliest Congress, under the constitution, took the same view of slavery. They hedged and hemmed it in to the narrowest limits of necessity.

In 1794, they prohibited an out-going slave-trade — that is, the taking of slaves FROM the United States to sell.

In 1798, they prohibited the bringing of slaves from Africa, INTO the Mississippi Territory — this territory then comprising what are now the States of Mississippi and Alabama. This was TEN YEARS before they had the authority to do the same thing as to the States existing at the adoption of the constitution. In 1800 they prohibited AMERICAN CITIZENS from trading in slaves between foreign countries — as, for instance, from Africa to Brazil. In 1803 they passed a law in aid of one or two State laws, in restraint of the internal slave trade. In 1807, in apparent hot haste, they passed the law, nearly a year in advance to take effect the first day of 1808 — the very first day the constitution would permit — prohibiting the African slave trade by heavy pecuniary and corporal penalties.  In 1820, finding these provisions ineffectual, they declared the trade piracy, and annexed to it, the extreme penalty of death. While all this was passing in the general government, five or six of the original slave States had adopted systems of gradual emancipation; and by which the institution was rapidly becoming extinct within these limits.

Thus we see, the plain unmistakable spirit of that age, towards slavery, was hostility to the PRINCIPLE, and toleration, ONLY BY NECESSITY.

So what’s the difference between Lincoln’s description of the Founders’ views of slavery and Cotton’s description of the Founders’ views? An evil temporarily tolerated “ONLY BY NECESSITY” sounds not all that different from the words “necessary evil.”

It’s worth noting that the abolitionist Frederick Douglass agreed with Lincoln about the Founders and the Constitution.

Douglass said in an 1863 speech:

I hold that the Federal Government was never, in its essence, anything but an anti-slavery government. Abolish slavery tomorrow, and not a sentence or syllable of the Constitution need be altered. It was purposely so framed as to give no claim, no sanction to the claim, of property in a man. If in its origin slavery had any relation to the government, it was only as the scaffolding to the magnificent structure, to be removed as soon as the building was completed.

Douglass’s “scaffolding” metaphor is just right: a temporary supporting structure, at most — not a cornerstone, as the authors of the 1619 Project would have it.


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