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Coalitions and politics

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One curious line of reasoning used by many who defend appalling exercises like Confederate History month is to attempt to muddy the waters by observing that Lincoln, the Republicans, or “the North” were not, in fact pure as the driven snow with respect to slaver. On its own terms, this line of argument seems to pretty clearly be a dead end: a moderate shrinking of the moral gap between the North and South would do nothing to move the absolute position of the South on the moral spectrum here, which is what’s at issue when discussing the appropriateness of this kind of public historical narrative. But beyond that, the notion that Lincoln and many Northerners were primarily motivated by goals other than the abolitionist cause is true, but this is a deeply trivial truth. Indeed, the following is true: De Jure slavery was ended in this country by a political coalition which contained the following: some committed abolitionists, some lukewarm, timid abolitionists, and some people who were largely indifferent to the abolitionist cause. (Lincoln himself moved from the second category to the first). In this sense, the end of slavery is exactly like every other major political accomplishment in American history–by skill, luck or both, a group of committed reformers manages to steer a larger coalition long enough to accomplish a major goal. That’s how good things happen in politics. The notion that this ‘revelation’ makes a moral evaluation of the Confederacy more ambiguous is beyond bizarre.

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  • PTS

    I am unsure whether it is right to say that Lincoln was a “timid” abolitionist simply because he was a moderate one.

    I mean, many people (including the more radical Seward) suggested that Lincoln cut a deal with the South on slavery in order to prevent the war (I doubt this would have worked, but it was seriously discussed) and he said no.

  • Incontinentia Buttocks

    Lincoln wasn’t an abolitionist at all.

    Abolitionists were those who (in the historian Jim McPherson’s words) “before the Civil War in the United States had agitated for the immediate, unconditional, and total abolition of slavery in the United States.”

    This simply was not Lincoln’s position. Though Lincoln was certainly deeply opposed to slavery, politically he called for preventing its expansion into new territories, not its immediate end in states that already practiced it.

  • Humza Kazmi

    The quote about Lincoln that always gets brought up in discussions like these is from his 1862 letter to Greeley:

    “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”

    BUT! That quote omits the extremely significant next paragraph:

    I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free.

    I’d definitely categorize Lincoln as an abolitionist.

    • Incontinentia Buttocks

      A personal wish that all people be free no more constitutes abolitionism than a personal wish there be no more wars constitutes pacifism.

      Lincoln was unquestionably antislavery. He was not an abolitionist.

      • Incontinentia Buttocks

        To put this another way: abolitionism entailed not only a position on the moral justification of slavery, but also a view about what to do about the problem of slavery in the U.S. Lincoln shared the abolitionists’ view about the (lack of a) moral justification of slavery. He disagreed with them about what to do about it.

  • Joel Patterson

    Thank you Humza!

    I went to public schools in the South, and our textbooks always included that first paragraph but never the second, which I have just read for the first time. Truly, it provides a clear view of Lincoln’s abolitionist sympathies.

  • rea

    The radical abolitionists didn’t have a plan for getting rid of slavery that didn’t involve getting rid of the United States. At one point, it was the abolitionists who were talking secession. Lincoln (1) conceived tht his primary duty as president involved saving the country–policy changes like abolition had to take second place, and (2) realized that if the country broke up, he wasn’t going to have the power to abolish slavery in the parts that left.

  • djw

    To be clear, I didn’t put much thought into, nor am I committed to, labelling Lincoln an abolitionist, timid or otherwise. I only meant to convey his general location in the coalition circa 1860. I leave the precise labelling of his position to those with greater knowledge of (and greater investment in) this particular historical moment than I.

  • Ed

    Abolitionists were those who (in the historian Jim <McPherson’s words) “before the Civil War in the United States had agitated for the immediate, unconditional, and total abolition of slavery in the United States.”

    This simply was not Lincoln’s position. Though Lincoln was certainly deeply opposed to slavery, politically he called for preventing its expansion into new territories, not its immediate end in states that already practiced it.

    That’s right. “Abolitionist” has a very specific meaning. (Although preventing the expansion of slavery into new territories would most likely have meant the end of slavery eventually, and everyone was aware of that.) And not everyone liked their views and/or their tactics – they were radicals.

    ….by skill, luck or both, a group of committed reformers manages to steer a larger coalition long enough to accomplish a major goal. That’s how good things happen in politics.

    Slavery was finally ended in this country as a result of a long and bloody war that saw the collapse of the constitutional structure of the country before Lincoln forced it back together into a new form. The end of slavery was without question a Good Thing but it was not the primary war aim, and even if it were that would still leave a lot of questions. But if you’re determined to make the Civil War into a dispute between the Children of Light and the Children of Darkness there is little more to be said.

    Since it seems to be necessary to do so (sigh), I add again that the foregoing is in no way an endorsement or defense of McDonnell’s actions, which were/are stupid and wrong. Seeing the Civil War in shades of gray, as it were, does not and should not provide an excuse for contemporary politicians to use the past as a not so subtle way of kicking dirt in the face of African-Americans. Selah.

    • djw

      if you’re determined to make the Civil War into a dispute between a dispute between the Children of Light and the Children of Darkness

      Is that what I’m doing? Really? By pointing out the coalition contained diversity in motives and will, I’m crafting them as “Children of Light”?

    • Incontinentia Buttocks

      This.

  • Jay B.

    But if you’re determined to make the Civil War into a dispute between the Children of Light and the Children of Darkness there is little more to be said.

    No, it was more like the Children of Diverse and Imperfect Motives versus the Children Who Wanted Slavery.

  • efgoldman

    Anyone hasn’t seen Ta-Nehisi’s posts on this, especially the most recent one (and the comments thread) should do so immediately

    http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2010/04/one-last-thought-on-mcdonnell-and-confederate-history/38738/

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