Did Lincoln Come to Support Emancipation?
Or was it that he believed in the rights of all men all along? Allen Guelzo levels a devastating critique at historian Eric Foner in this review of his new book The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery:
Mr. Foner’s use of “growth” functions in the same way. Lincoln may have begun his ascent as a hesitant, racist, capital-mongering politician, we’re told, but lo! he grew into the very model of a modern racial and social progressive and thus becomes “perennially relevant.” What was the catalyst for this growth? The noble army of abolitionists who “forced the question of slavery and the future place of blacks in American society” onto Lincoln’s presidential agenda.
But does “growth” really describe Lincoln? Or is “our contemporary” Lincoln akin to that ever-malleable document the “living Constitution”? Lincoln may not have emerged from his log cabin clutching the Emancipation Proclamation, but what is remarkable about the man is the tenacity with which he held certain core principles and ideas throughout his life. Lincoln insisted that he had “always hated slavery,” and first described slavery publicly as an “injustice” as early as 1837, when he was not yet 30. At the same time, Lincoln also never abandoned his view that gradual emancipation rather than outright abolition was the best means “by which the two races could gradually live themselves out of their old relation to each other, and both come out better prepared for the new.”
If anything, Lincoln was resistant to “growth,” warning one abolitionist politician that he “is hard to be moved from any position which he has taken.” Mr. Foner’s notion that, as president, Lincoln was nudged toward championing emancipation by “the pressure of abolitionists and Radicals” and “the actions of slaves” themselves simply passes understanding. The ranks of the abolitionists, even during the Civil War, were vanishingly small, and we have never had a reliable tabulation of the number of runaway slaves—who, in any case, had no political leverage to exert on the president. If the end of slavery were to come, it would have to come from Lincoln’s own long-held convictions and political sagacity.