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.