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No, Lincoln did not have a “secret plan” to liquidate slavery

[ 44 ] November 28, 2012 |

It’s probably not worth adding to Scott’s corrective observations on Connor Kilpatrick’s Jacobin post, but since I’m currently working on a manuscript about Lincoln in American fiction, I’m more or less helplessly drawn to the ways that Lincoln has been appropriated by historians as well as novelists and filmmakers for every conceivable political aim. As Donald Fehrenbacher once explained, “in the whole gamut of American politics, no reactionary is so blind, no revolutionary is so militant, no misfit so freakish that he cannot find a place in Abraham’s bosom.” So, for example, Thomas Dixon — author of the novels that inspired Griffith’s Birth of a Nation — wrote a hilariously unreadable novel asserting (in the 50th anniversary year of the Emancipation Proclamation, no less) that Lincoln was a lifelong white supremacist who would have either deported or segregated free blacks had he not been unwisely murdered. Kilpatrick’s regard for Lincoln, by comparison, is drawn from an extensive body of historical and imaginative literature arching back to the 1930s Popular Front that posed Lincoln as an instrument of class warfare — liquidating, as Kilpatrick notes, an enormous proportion of the nation’s wealth and presiding over the greatest social revolution in American history. (The “Red Lincoln” historiography survives today, in affectionate as well as neo-confederate varieties. Dixon’s white supremacist Lincoln has substantially less cultural vitality these days, at least so far as I’m able to tell.)

In any event, the “true” or “real” Lincoln is an elusive thing; he had, as one of his biographers noted, an “essential ambiguity” that makes him perpetually available for reinterpretation. So when someone insists, as Kilpatrick does, that Lincoln had a “secret plan” to abolish slavery when he entered the office in 1861, we have to wonder how he arrives at such a precise understanding of Lincoln’s motives. Kilpatrick quotes Lincoln as vowing that “the powder in this bombshell will keep dry and when the fuse is lit, I intend to have them [the South] touch it off themselves,” destroying slavery in the process.

The problem with this interpretation, of course, is the context for Lincoln’s words.

For starters, this particular quotation (which Lincoln biographers like Alan Guelzo among others have used) derives from an 1874 biography of Charles Sumner — a genuine anti-slavery radical — and is set in the middle of a conversation about how and why Lincoln resisted, during the early phases of the war, a policy that actively destroyed slavery. There is no reason to assume that Lincoln did not use those words — they are consistent with everything else we know about his views and policies at the time — but Kilpatrick seems unaware that when Lincoln spoke them in late August or early September 1861, he was explaining to Sumner his rationale for overturning John Fremont’s military emancipation order in Missouri, which he viewed as imprudent and premature. Lincoln would overturn a similar measure in May 1862, when General David Hunter ordered the immediate emancipation of enslaved people in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. Lincoln’s “secret plan,” then, was neither secret nor abolitionist. During the first 16 months of his presidency, Lincoln clearly set into place a process that would eventually lead to complete emancipation, but he was evolving gradually toward that position — not carrying out a clear plan inspired by a “lifelong hatred of slavery.”

Moreover, Kilpatrick’s Lincoln, while presumably carrying out a secret plan of emancipation, was also actively pursuing a variety of projects that would encourage freedpersons to leave the republic they’d labored to enrich. Colonization was the favored policy of Henry Clay, a fellow Whig whom Lincoln always regarded as his “ideal statesman” and whose views on slavery — as Lincoln noted in one of his 1858 debates with Douglas — were identical to his own. In 1862, as federal policy tacked in the direction of confiscation and emancipation, Lincoln’s US ambassador to Brazil, a notoriously racist ex-Whig named James Watson Webb, proposed a settlement along the Amazon River that the Brazilian government politely rejected. Danish officials, meantime, suggested that black Americans be encouraged to migrate to St. Croix, where the abolition of slavery fourteen years earlier had created a drastic labor shortage on the island’s sugar plantations. Lincoln himself became personally interested in a proposal by Ambrose Thompson, a landowner in the Colombian province of New Grenada (present day Panama), to bring free blacks to labor in Thompson’s coal mines. He even met with a small delegation of black ministers from the District of Columbia in August 1862 and recommended Thompson’s colony to them, asking them to encourage their congregations to consider making a fresh start in Central America. None of these proposals ever materialized. Lincoln did, however sign a contract in late December 1862 with Bernard Kock, an American who owned extensive land on Île a Vache (Cow Island) off the coast of Haiti. Kock promised to provide comfortable homes, schools, and churches for up to 5000 former slaves, whom he would employ in the cultivation of Sea Island cotton. The experimental venture was launched in mid-1863 and abandoned in February 1864 after dozens of colonists perished from disease while the rest trudged on in squalor. After ordering the War Department to rescue the few hundred survivors, Lincoln never mentioned colonization publicly again. As his secretary John Hay wrote in his diary, Lincoln had at last “sloughed off” the “humbug.”

All of this is abundantly available in the historical record. He cites Eric Foner, for example, but clearly hasn’t bothered to read <i>The Fiery Trial</i> (which describes Lincoln more or less as I have here). But Kilpatrick is obviously more interested in fabricating a version of Lincoln that services his disappointment with Obama. However else we might characterize the sloppiness of the effort, it’s probably safe to say that Lincoln himself — a careful, cautious thinker who was attuned to nuance and ambiguity — would not have appreciated being used as a blunt instrument.

Comments (44)

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  1. rea says:

    The various colonization projects that Lincoln and others supported were clearly bad ideas in hindsight, but there weren’t any really good, workable ideas for building a just post-emancipation society. Here we are, 150 years later, and we’ve made some progress, but we’re still a mess.

  2. c u n d gulag says:

    Well, it’s not surprising that Obama is no Lincoln, since no one ever was, and has been since – especially since not even feckin’ Lincoln was feckin’ Lincoln!

    Lincoln is one of those hagiogrpahic figures to whom almost ALL sides can attach almost any arguments – except of course, for the actual Secessionists.
    And then, their “intellectual” successors can still find some commonality – and work themselves into a tizzy doing so.

  3. Njorl says:

    I think Lincoln had the same “secret” plan that most moderate Republicans had. Make slavery illegal in as much of the territories as possible. When those territories become states, they will be free states. Then someday, an abolitionist might be electable as president, with abolition-friendly majorities in both houses of congress.

    I think this was well understood. Lincoln’s election did mean the end of slavery, in a slow, inexorable, process to be completed after he left office. The Confederates (in general) were not deluded about what Lincoln’s election meant. Lincoln’s election did mean that only rebellion could save slavery. Except, of course, that rebellion couldn’t save it either.

    • Joe says:

      Don Fehrenbacher’s last book, completed after his death, ends with a discussion about the various things a Republican win provided as a threat to slavery. Ending slavery in the territories would be a key matter but not the only thing. Consider, e.g., a USSC that overturned Dred Scott and provided more protections for blacks in the courts. Or, Republican officeholders in border states. Or, allowing anti-slavery writings in the mails.

    • RedSquareBear says:

      Then someday, an abolitionist might be electable as president, with abolition-friendly majorities in both houses of congress.

      Forget “Obama as Lincoln”, this may be the first “Lincoln as Obama” post I’ve seen…

  4. Bitter Scribe says:

    Why is everyone obsessing over this? Whatever Lincoln did with regard to slavery was insignificant, because the Founding Fathers had already worked tirelessly to abolish slavery. Just ask Michele Bachmann.

  5. stickler says:

    Part of what makes Lincoln so ambiguous and inscrutable to us is the fact that the real, live Lincoln was also ambiguous and inscrutable. That was why he was such a successful politician and leader.

    How many times did his contemporaries come away from a meeting with Lincoln, thinking that he agreed with them? Lots. And that is both a) how successful politicians pave the way for coalition-building, and b) why it was simple then, and simple now, to either turn Lincoln into a stone demigod, or a raving tyrant.

  6. Connor Kilpatrick says:

    Hi davenoon,

    1. James Oakes’s THE RADICAL AND THE REPUBLICAN explicitly characterized that quote as referring to “abolition” (p. 171):

    “Even then Lincoln had no desire to cast himself as a revolutionary hero. When he made his move, he was careful to insist that it was the unavoidable consequence of the slaveholders’ own recklessness. ‘The powder in this bombshell will keep dry,’ Lincoln said of abolition in September 1861, “and when the fuse is lit, I intend to have them touch it off themselves.’ Regardless of who lit the fuse, the bomb went off in 1862.’

    So James Oakes is under a similar delusion? Another “Popular Front” pamphleteer?

    As for Fremont’s order, Lincoln told Fremont in a letter “written in a spirit of caution and not of censure” simply to “modify” his order “so as to conform to the first and fourth sections” of the Confiscation Act.

    And on that Confiscation Act, Oakes writes:

    “I began by accepting the standard assumption that that the first Confiscation Act achieved nothing. But I still wanted to know what Republicans thought they were doing when they passed the law. Why did the Act turn out to be so toothless? Why did it fail to free any slaves? Secondary accounts usually pass over this question; they couldn’t provide me with the answers I needed: who wrote the law, where did it come from, how did people talk about it?

    To my astonishment, I discovered that Section Four of the Act, the clause specifically authorizing the forfeiture of slaves, was written by Senator Lyman Trumbull, chair of the Judiciary Committee, as an emancipation clause. Indeed, it was understood by everyone in Congress to be an emancipation clause. Trumbull’s proposal was denounced by Democrats and border-state congressmen as an emancipation clause, defended almost unanimously by congressional Republicans as an emancipation clause. These men thought they were writing an emancipation bill. That’s what they said at the time.”

    2. Actually, I have read THE FIERY TRIAL, I quoted from it in this very essay, and I highly (highly) recommend that you email Eric Foner if you want to find out whether or not I’m mischaracterizing either Lincoln or Foner’s work.

    Spanks a lot,

    Connor

    • Scott P. says:

      The Confiscation Act, was, in practice, pretty toothless. Lincoln was unenthusiastic about it. and it was not widely enforced. The Act did not explicitly free the confiscatd slaves, and when Hunter attempted to free confiscated slaves, Lincoln reversed the order.

    • davenoon says:

      Regarding the “powder dry” remark, you really ought to read the original source and discover your own error. To claim that Lincoln was an abolitionist at heart, you’re using a story that Sumner tells his own biographer in order to demonstrate that Lincoln wasn’t an abolitionist. I’m not sure what else to tell you there.

      And yes, you quote from Foner’s book on the question of Lincoln’s stance toward the destruction of slavery in 1864. The parts of your essay that I find highly dubious, however, are those that imagine — contrary to everything Foner writes in the book you claim to have read — that Lincoln possessed a “lifelong hatred” for slavery that brought him into office in 1861 with a specific notion — what you in fact call a “secret plan” — of ending it directly. Lincoln did indeed believe slavery was a moral crime and that blacks deserved to be treated with dignity, and he believed specifically that they had a human right to wages and economic freedom. But he was certainly not an abolitionist and was not yet willing to promote anything other than basic “free soil” principles regarding the non-extension of slavery.

      I won’t annoy Foner by asking him to render a verdict on our little pissing match here. I’ll simply invite you to re-read chapters 1-4, though I expect that someone who signs off a comment with “Spanks a lot” (“Smell you later” was too cute?) isn’t likely to walk back an exaggeration anytime soon.

      • Connor Kilpatrick says:

        Hi davenoon,

        How about we huddle up here together and sort this out–that way, neither of us has to think about the other for hopefully a very long time?

        Here’s what I wrote:

        Many of his liberal supporters (and their reactionary opponents) claim that inside Obama’s heart lies a “secret” progressive agenda waiting for the day when the Supreme Court finally turns, a Democratic congressional supermajority is restored, and the mean old people in the south finally die off. This implicitly suggests that Obama and the Democratic Party can be redeemed.

        What was Lincoln’s “secret” agenda? In September of 1861, it was abolition: “the powder in this bombshell will keep dry and when the fuse is lit, I intend to have them touch it off themselves.” In November of 2012, we know Obama’s “secret” agenda: a brutal fiscal austerity aimed primarily at social spending–a regression in the class project begun in the Civil War and Reconstruction eras.

        My point, which I thought was abundantly clear, was to needle those of the Netroots Left who harbor illusions that deep down inside, Obama (and your median Democratic politician, really) wants to be Olof Palme presiding over a social-democratic welfare state but simply cannot due to institutional realities–the filibuster, the Supreme Court, Citizens United, Ben Nelson, etc.

        Because frankly we know what Obama is really dying to do, institutional realities be damned: your basic Hamilton Project round of neo-liberal reforms. I would characterize such a project as something other than a “progressive” or “leftward” dream in any meaningful way.

        Hence the scare-quotes around “secret.”

        Now, the “abolition” bit: as I stated, that’s James Oakes’s characterization of that quote. Which I agree with. Do you think he’s an unserious scholar? If so, please speak up.

        Do you think he is unaware of the greater context in which that quote was uttered? Feel free to say so, but at that point, your beef is now with his scholarship. If you take that route, I believe you will lose.

        “Abolition” here is obviously meant as something different than “abolitionist,” which most people would agree refers to a specific group of radicals like Wendell Phillips, Douglass, and Garrison and their shared ideology and circles in the prewar era.

        Oakes sees the destruction–or “abolition” of slavery–as a gradual process into which Republicans didn’t just “stumble,” pawing in the dark.

        Butler’s “contrabands” to the first Confiscation Act, to the second Confiscation Act which explicitly left room for the far more far-reaching Emancipation Proclamation to, finally, the 13th amendment which “abolished” slavery. So if one is inclined–as both Oakes and I are–to see the first Confiscation Act and the rest of military emancipation as merely the first step in the road that directly and intentionally led to the legal abolition of slavery, then it is entirely fair to use the word “abolition” where he does.

        As to signing off with “spanks a lot”…sorry? Guess I was just trying to add a bit of levity and humor to all the tedium and miserabilist posturing.

        Breast of luck,

        Connor

        • My point, which I thought was abundantly clear, was to needle those of the Netroots Left

          Ah, of course it was.

          See, we’ve been thinking you actually had something to say about Abraham Lincoln, which was based not on your desire to need those other liberals, who are Not True Progressives, but rather, reflected some understanding of Lincoln you believed to be true.

          Because frankly we know what Obama is really dying to do

          I’ve yet to see the slightest reason to believe you have any understanding whatsoever of what Barack Obama really wants to do. It seems to me that your goal is, as always, to “Needle those on the netroots left,” and you fix the intelligence around it.

          “Abolition” here is obviously meant as something different than “abolitionist,”

          Again with this inexplicable certainty of yours. “Abolition” obviously doesn’t refer to the policy supported by “abolitionists” – obviously, you know – and yet Lincoln is supposed to be a radical because of his support for “Abolition,” except that you’re not saying the he supported the then-radical position of “abolitionism.” Obviously, this is all very clear.

        • Scott Lemieux says:

          harbor illusions that deep down inside, Obama (and your median Democratic politician, really) wants to be Olof Palme presiding over a social-democratic welfare state but simply cannot due to institutional realities–the filibuster, the Supreme Court, Citizens United, Ben Nelson, etc.

          I have no idea who this person who thinks that Obama is secretly Olof Palme is, but I suspect there’s a lot of straw in the vicinity.

          My own view on this is that trying to figure out what a politician would “really like to do” in some abstract contexts is an irrelevant parlor game. I very much doubt that Obama is anything other than the moderately liberal Democrat he functionally is, but even if he wasn’t it doesn’t really matter for legislation so long as he’s well to the left of the median votes in Congress (which he certainly is.)

          Because frankly we know what Obama is really dying to do, institutional realities be damned: your basic Hamilton Project round of neo-liberal reforms. I would characterize such a project as something other than a “progressive” or “leftward” dream in any meaningful way.

          Universal health care, climate change regulation, and gay and lesbian equality aren’t “progressive” goals? Your views of what constitutes progressive goals are rather, ah, idiosyncratic.

      • Hogan says:

        But he was certainly not an abolitionist and was not yet willing to promote anything other than basic “free soil” principles regarding the non-extension of slavery.

        That just proves how secret his plan was.

    • rea says:

      I discovered that Section Four of the Act, the clause specifically authorizing the forfeiture of slaves, was written by Senator Lyman Trumbull, chair of the Judiciary Committee, as an emancipation clause. Indeed, it was understood by everyone in Congress to be an emancipation clause

      Well, here you’re on my home ground–this is an issue of statutory construction, not history. You don’t have to be a Scalia-like textualist to understand that if a statute plainly says something, no amount of evidence that the drafters intended it to mean something else entirely is of the slightest use. Legislative intent is useful only to resolve ambiguity.

      The Confiscation Act was a confiscation act, not an emancipation act. The drafters doubtless hoped that confiscation would lead to emancipation, but they didn’t legislate an mechanism for that to occur.

      Note also that the act was extremely limited in scope–it applied only to slaves whose owners volunteered them for labor in support of the Confederate military (Confederate authorities often conscripted slave labor).

  7. JAtheist says:

    I’ve recently been looking up (for my own interests) a certain Thomas DiLorenzo. I’m certainly not a student of history, so if anyone here wanted to chime in on the work/ideas on Lincoln that DiLorenzo champions that would be much appreciated.

    I’m sensing he is a bit hackish from what I’ve seen so far, but I could be completely wrong.

    • Jeremy says:

      He’s a neo-Confederate nutjob, a writer for mises.org, an “expert” on monetary policy that Ron Paul calls to testify before Congress, and the originator of the stupid myth that the Pilgrims starved their first winter until they adopted free-market policies. On the other hand, his book, The Real Lincoln, didn’t win History News Network’s poll for the least credible history book in print.

    • davenoon says:

      Yeah, DiLorenzo’s major arguments were all lifted from the great Lincoln-hating literature of the early 20th century, especially Lyon Gardiner Tyler (one of Pres. Tyler’s sons), Charles Landon Carter Minor, and Mildred Rutherford — all of whom were Confederate apologists. Historians laugh at him.

  8. swr says:

    Lincoln had a better “Marxist” endorsement than the Popular Front. He was endorsed in 1864 by Marx himself.

    • Njorl says:

      Going by what people call “Marxist” nowadays, I think we can safely dismiss Karl Marx as any kind of expert on the subject.

    • Bitter Scribe says:

      Marx was actually fascinated by Lincoln. Regarding the Emancipation Proclamation, he wrote, “Lincoln is a figure sui generis on the stage of history.” I have to paraphrase the rest, but he basically said that in contrast to the absurd posturing of many European leaders, Lincoln, on purpose, made his most historic and important proclamations sound like ordinary legalese.

    • The Stolen Dormouse says:

      The historian-turned-alternate history novelist, Harry Turledove, began one of his series (in which the South successfully seceded) with How Few Remain. In this, a Lincoln who was not assassinated becomes a labor agitator in the free states of the North and West. A quote from a section that Turtledove put on line:

      Joe McMahan pumped his hand. “That was powerful stuff, Mr. Lincoln,” he said. “Powerful stuff, yes indeed.”

      “For which I thank you,” Lincoln said, raising his voice to be heard through the storm of noise that went on and on.

      “Ask you something, Mr. Lincoln?” McMahan said. Lincoln nodded. McMahan leaned closer, so only the former president would hear. “You ever come across the writings of a fellow named Marx, Mr. Lincoln? Karl Marx?”

      Lincoln smiled. “As a matter of fact, I have.”

  9. JRoth says:

    So wait, there are (were?) coal mines in Panama? Amazing!

  10. Jon H says:

    He did, however, have a piece of paper with a list of Communists in the government.

  11. Woodrowfan says:

    Lincoln himself — … — would not have appreciated being used as a blunt instrument.

    So he preferred to be a sword??

  12. S-Curve says:

    Dave, in your work on Lincoln in American fiction, are you doing anything with Flight to Canada by Ishmael Reed? I remember finding that book really interesting when I read it in grad school.

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