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

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.”

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