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Discovering Equality

The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery
By Eric Foner
(W.W. Norton, 426 pp., $29.95)

As we begin a raft of sesquicentennials that will carry us through at least the next half-decade—the secession of Southern states, the formation of the Confederacy, the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, Appomattox, and so on—I confess to feeling a mixture of excitement and trepidation. These are all signal events in our history, the roadblocks and thoroughfares in the making of modern America, and at a time of general crisis they are especially important to revisit. But the political atmosphere in this country is now so poisonous, the misinformation so widespread and easily passed, the temptation to haul out any version of the past for contemporary purposes so great, that I fear the sesquicentennials may embitter, rather than salve, already raw political nerves.

One of the first of the sesquicentennials, now just past, is that of the presidential election of 1860. It surely was an election to be remembered. It drew the largest turnout of eligible voters—more than 80 percent—in our history. It pitted four serious candidates against each other, one of whom (Abraham Lincoln) was not even on the ballot in most of the Southern states, and two of whom (John C. Breckinridge and John Bell) won only a handful of votes in the Northern states. It saw the two major parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, vie to use the powers of the federal government either to advance or to halt the spread of slavery into the trans-Mississippi West. It gave the victory to a candidate who won far less than a majority of the popular vote (about 40 percent) though unquestionably a majority of the electoral vote. To top it all, within a month and a half the election initiated a process of rebellion and disunion that resulted in the formation of a new country, the Confederate States of America, and quickly thereafter in a bitter and bloody war.

The publication of Eric Foner’s splendid book is timed to coincide with this sesquicentennial, and it certainly takes a brave and determined soul to enter the fray in this way. We have just come through the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth in 1809, and a veritable avalanche of popular and scholarly biographies has been added to a base of Lincolniana so deep that it could probably bury the nation’s capital. Haven’t we had enough? Shouldn’t we start to dig out? What could there possibly be left to add?

Remarkably, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery serves as an excellent introduction to the new set of commemorations, because Foner not only illuminates Lincoln’s developing views on the question of slavery, but also places him in the broad context of America’s most divisive and consequential political conflict. Although Foner clearly admires Lincoln, he does not obscure Lincoln’s many complicities with the status quo or his zest for the main chance. He shows us a man who, for most of his life, embodied the limited political visions and social prejudices of many Americans who lived north of the Ohio River. Rather than appearing as “destined” for greatness, the Lincoln of this book comes to us as an ambitious—though for the most part small-time—politician and lawyer, devoted to the Whig Party and struggling to reconcile his moral objections to slavery with his commitment to constitutionalism and social peace.

But there is also a much larger canvas. We come to understand, in Foner’s telling, the extent of slavery’s dominion in the first half of the nineteenth century, and the enormous obstacles that slavery’s enemies would face. Slavery was not in decline, nor were slaveholders becoming a disempowered minority. Slavery was deeply embedded in all corners of the United States (fortified by the racism that accompanied it), and slaveholders controlled most branches of the federal government. The “anti-slavery enterprise,” as Charles Sumner called it, battled against great odds, often in tense relation to men of the Lower North such as Lincoln, who were regarded as unreliable and too eager for compromise. And so we come to see how Lincoln grew into a role and a stature that could not have been predicted: into a voice for the “nation,” a determined commander-in-chief, a leader who would sign off on one of the most radical emancipations in the history of the modern world and glimpse, however haltingly, a multi-racial future for the United States. Lincoln would be as much transformed by history’s opportunities as he would help to transform history itself. It is an inspiring story, but a sobering one, too.

Most history books depict the United States in the early decades of the nineteenth century as neatly divided between zones of slavery and freedom—articulated most famously in Lincoln’s own notion of a “house divided”—but in truth Lincoln’s life in the Upper South and Lower North suggests how porous and precarious that division was. Born in the slave state of Kentucky in 1809, Lincoln soon migrated with his family first to Indiana and then to Illinois, both of which had been part of the Northwest Territory before being admitted to the Union as “free states” in 1816 and 1818, respectively. But slaveholders (some of French extraction) had been out there long before, and although Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance in 1787, which officially outlawed slavery, the territorial governor chose to interpret it as prohibiting only the further introduction of slaves rather than the emancipation of those already resident.

When Indiana and Illinois subsequently applied for statehood, slaveholding interests fought hard to engraft slavery onto the constitutions; they failed, and many subsequently strong-armed their slaves into long-term indentures that passed emancipationist scrutiny while effectively mimicking enslavement. Slave hiring continued to link southern Illinois and northern Kentucky, and as late as the 1840s a trade in young black “servants” thrived. So murky were the lines between slavery and freedom that William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper, The Liberator, could declare in 1840 that “Illinois is, to all intents and purposes, a slaveholding state,” and the Illinois legislature would feel the need, eight years later, to enact another emancipation statute. All the while, free people of color were harassed and driven off by the state’s harsh Black Laws, and whites with abolitionist sensibilities were attacked by angry mobs. In 1837, Elijah P. Lovejoy, who had organized the Illinois Anti-Slavery Society, was murdered in the small town of Alton.

Some of Lincoln’s relatives were slaveholders, and he would eventually marry into a prominent slaveholding family from Kentucky, but his parents were Baptists who happened to look upon slavery with aversion. How much this gave shape to his thoughts on slavery is unclear, though it may have planted important seeds of doubt in a world in which such doubts were not easily cultivated. What does seem clear is that Lincoln had more exposure to the banalities of slavery and racial ostracism than to abolitionism, and that he had little taste for radical reform in any of its incarnations. (He never became involved with temperance or any anti-slavery organization, nor did he ever join a church.)

As a young adult, Lincoln moved in circles in which slavery and slave trading were tolerated and racist language almost universally used—he was himself wont to deploy racial epithets for political ends. As a lawyer he did represent a few people charged with harboring fugitives from slavery (though very little of his legal practice had anything to do with slavery or blacks), but he also defended a slaveholder seeking the return of runaways. As a young man in politics, his interests were chiefly in Henry Clay and the vision of a dynamic “American System” rather than in the slavery question, and most of his speeches and his writings dealt with economic issues such as the tariff. If anything, Lincoln eyed the developing anti-slavery movement with suspicion, all the more so after the fledgling Liberty Party may have cost Clay the presidency in 1844.

Still, as Foner demonstrates, Lincoln was independent-minded, widely read in political economy despite little formal education, and a thoughtful student of politics. Although he did not devote much attention to the slavery question before the 1850s, Lincoln did support the Wilmot Proviso (banning slavery in any territory acquired as a result of the Mexican War—it did not pass) and seems to have been influenced by Joshua R. Giddings, the anti-slavery Whig, during his one term in Congress in the late 1840s. Indeed, a loose collection of ideas and dispositions on the issue of slavery appeared in evidence by the time Lincoln returned to private life, and in one form or another he would carry them into his presidency.


Like most members of the Whig Party, Lincoln acknowledged that the Constitution protected slavery in the states where it had been deemed legal, and believed that laws securing slave property—including the Fugitive Slave Law—had to be enforced. But, also like anti-slavery Whigs and free-soil Democrats, he objected to slavery’s expansion into new territories of the trans-Mississippi West, and thought that the federal government had the constitutional authority to confine slavery to the states where it already existed. Eventually he would embrace the more formal argument, first advanced by Ohio’s Salmon P. Chase, that the founders intended freedom to be “national” and slavery “local,” and that the federal government might move against slavery and the slave trade in any of its jurisdictions.

As for the abolition of slavery in the states where it was legal, neither Lincoln nor anyone else in American life (including the radical abolitionists, with the exception of John Brown) had a coherent plan. But we can discern a set of principles. For one thing, Lincoln imagined that any process of emancipation would need to be gradual (freeing, perhaps, the children of slaves and only when they reached adulthood, as many of the Northern states did); and also that it would involve compensation to the slave owners. This was the basis of his proposal, while still in Congress, to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, and it would remain the basis of his vision for abolition until at least the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863.

Lincoln plainly worried about abolishing property rights (though not about compensating slaves for more than two centuries of unrequited labor), had serious doubts about the slaves’ readiness for freedom, and had concerns about the country’s ability to adjust to it. Like Jefferson before him, he had a very difficult time imagining a world of freedom that included whites and blacks. He rejected the notion of social or political equality between the races—though he felt that blacks as well as whites were entitled to the fruits of their labor—and he thought it best if slaves, once freed, would agree to leave the United States, preferably returning to their “long-lost fatherland” of Africa. This, too, was Jefferson’s view, and was known in the political parlance of the time as “colonization.”

What changed over the next decade was not so much Lincoln’s ideas about slavery and freedom as his stature as a spokesman on the national stage. And in many ways it was the Illinois Democrat Stephen A. Douglas who provided the platform. Douglas was already a prominent senator, with visions of a massive American empire based in the Mississippi Valley. He represented a state that leaned Democratic owing to the many migrants from the Upper South who found their way onto the prairie between Springfield and Cairo. He was the architect of the compromise measures of 1850, and was recognized as a potential candidate for the presidency. He was also the leading voice for “popular sovereignty,” or the policy that free people who lived in a federal territory ought to decide the question of slavery or freedom for themselves. To that end, in 1854, he engineered passage of a bill that organized the new territories of Kansas and Nebraska on a popular sovereignty basis and explicitly repealed the thirty-plus-year-old Missouri Compromise (prohibiting slavery in the original Louisiana Territory north of 36 degrees 30 minutes).

Between 1854 and 1860, Lincoln continually responded to Douglas’s actions and speeches, and in so doing he developed a powerful critique of popular sovereignty. While still a Whig, he won considerable attention for a speech delivered in Peoria in which he decried slavery as a “monstrous injustice,” held up the Declaration of Independence as the foundation of the country’s principles, and charged Douglas with enabling slavery’s expansion. Then, as a Republican, he increasingly warned of slavery’s nationalization, spoke of a “house divided” that could not stand half-slave and half-free, and accused Douglas of conspiring to legalize slavery everywhere. By the time he faced Douglas in their great senatorial debates of 1858, Lincoln’s eloquence had gained him enough prominence that newspaper editors across the country sent reporters to cover them.

Foner is the leading authority on this period of our history, and interested readers could have no better guide through the thicket of action that propelled Lincoln to the forefront of American politics and the country into the cauldron of civil war. Indeed, given the recent resurgence of states’-rights ideology and even arguments about the legitimacy of secessionism, Foner offers a compelling view of how Lincoln and the Republicans put together a winning anti-slavery coalition and understood the constitutional questions that faced them.

He reminds us that at the time of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, the Supreme Court had already ruled—in the Dred Scott case of 1857—that the federal government could not prohibit slavery in the western territories. It was a tremendous victory for slaveholders and an apparent blow to popular sovereignty. And while Douglas was often the aggressor in the debates, trying to tar Lincoln with the brush of anti-slavery radicalism and racial egalitarianism, Lincoln, rejecting the charges, pressed Douglas on squaring the decision of the Taney court with the predicates of popular sovereignty. How could a territory now choose to exclude slavery from its borders, and how could non-slaveholding settlers find a place for themselves in the transMississippi West? Dred Scott, Lincoln could insist, rendered popular sovereignty moot and opened the way for the nationalization of slavery.

Had senatorial elections been conducted by direct balloting, Lincoln might well have won. As it happened, senators were chosen by state legislators (this was so until the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913) and, despite Republican gains, Democrats kept hold in Illinois and Douglas retained his seat. But rarely in our history has a losing candidate in a state election derived as much political advantage from the campaign as Lincoln did in 1858. Illinois newspapers soon began promoting him for the presidency; Republicans in other states began to seek his advice. By the fall of 1859, Lincoln seemed ready to accept the challenge.

In early 1860, he headed east for a speaking tour, beginning with a powerful address at the Cooper Institute in New York City. Before an audience packed with prominent Republican leaders, Lincoln argued that the country’s founders had overwhelmingly viewed slavery as an evil to be confined geographically; that in a conflict between the “rights of property” and the “rights of men” it is the rights of men that must prevail (a criticism of Dred Scott); and that Southern slaveholders planned to “destroy the Government” unless they won “all points in dispute.” Imploring Republicans to stand by their principles even in the face of Southern threats, he urged his listeners to “have faith that right makes might.”

Lincoln’s speech would be widely circulated in pamphlet form, and he presented versions of it as he moved through New England, stirring interest and excitement along the way. In the process, he was catapulted from a relative “unknown” to a potential presidential candidate. Indeed, in a developing race whose front-runners were the far more prominent William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Edward Bates, Lincoln became, in the words of an Illinois congressman, “the second choice of everybody.” But his prospects were bolstered by the Republican electoral calculus.


From the time of the Constitution’s ratification, the federal government and the American political economy had been dominated by Southern slaveholders and their allies. They held the presidency for all but eight years (the terms of John Adams and John Quincy Adams); they wielded enormous power in Congress chiefly through their influence over the Democratic Party; they always had parity or a majority on the Supreme Court; and they loomed large in the diplomatic corps in an era of rapid territorial aggrandizement. The entire trans-Mississippi West, as well as Florida, was acquired, or conquered, under the auspices of slaveholding presidents. Slaveholding planters were the richest people in the country and the most formidable landed elite in the Atlantic world. Slave-produced cotton accounted for 60 percent of the value of all American exports. And many of the most powerful economic interests in the Northern states—export merchants, textile manufacturers, bankers, shippers, shoe manufacturers—were deeply tied to the Southern trade in slave-grown cotton, sugar, rice, and tobacco.

Needless to say, the anti-slavery movement had a steep political hill to climb, and up until 1860 the results were only mildly encouraging. The Liberty and Free Soil parties of the 1840s were chiefly electoral spoilers and foundation builders. The Whig Party (where most anti-slavery partisans resided) only managed to win one presidential election after 1840, with a Mexican War hero and Louisiana slaveowner (Zachary Taylor) as its standard-bearer; by the early 1850s the party was unraveling over the slavery question. Franklin Pierce, a New Hampshire Democrat who sympathized with the South, won the presidency in 1852 with over 85 percent of the electoral vote. Although the Republican Party made a very respectable first showing in 1856, winning New England and the Upper Midwest, Pennsylvania Democrat and friend to the South James Buchanan ended up with a twelve-point margin in the popular vote and nearly 60 percent of the electoral vote.

So the challenge for the Republicans, if they wished to take charge of the federal government and move against slavery, was daunting, to say the least. They had strong organizations in the Northern states, but little more than outposts in states such as Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware, and Missouri. As for setting foot further to the South, they could do so only at the risk of their lives. The key for them, in the electoral math, was to win the Lower North and the Far West—Pennsylvania, Indiana, Oregon, California, and, yes, Illinois—where anti-slavery was soft and racism hard. Then the Republicans could achieve an electoral majority.

Hence Lincoln’s potential appeal. Seward and Chase were poster boys of the Republican Party, but they were also known as radicals who would have problems where the Republicans needed to collect more votes; Bates was a conservative and a nativist who would likely alienate staunch Republican voters even while attracting support in the border areas. Lincoln seemed to offer the most promising means of consolidating what the Indiana Republican Schuyler Colfax called a “victorious phalanx.” He recognized, as Foner writes, that “the key to success lay in setting aside what he considered peripheral questions and concentrating on the lowest denominator of Republican opinion—opposition to the ‘spread and nationalization of slavery.’” He also believed, especially owing to his experience in 1858, that Republicans must not permit themselves to become associated with “negro equality.” It didn’t hurt that the Republican convention met in Chicago. Lincoln won on the third ballot with a platform that invoked the Declaration of Independence, denounced popular sovereignty and the Dred Scott decision and the threat of disunion, and pledged to keep slavery out of the federal territories.

It is not entirely clear what the election’s outcome would have been if Lincoln and the Republicans had faced a united Democratic Party headed, say, by the incumbent James Buchanan. But Buchanan chose not to run and the Democratic Party fractured, offering up two candidates: Douglas, who appealed to Northern Democrats, and John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, who appealed to Southern Democrats. Far clearer were the stakes. Both Lincoln and Breckinridge (the biggest vote-getters) proposed to use the powers of the federal government to advance their goals— Lincoln by having Congress reject Dred Scott and close the territories to slavery; Breckinridge by entrenching Dred Scott with a federal slave code that would foil the efforts of slavery’s opponents there—in effect insisting alike that the country could not remain a divided house. Lincoln convinced enough voters in Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Illinois, and barely enough voters in California and Oregon (he would have lost those states if the Democrats had remained united), to win a majority of electoral votes and take the reins of national power.


What did Abraham Lincoln’s election to the presidency signify? Militant Southern slaveholders and their representatives had been contemplating their future in the Union for the previous decade, and by 1860 they warned that a Republican victory at the national level would compel them and their states to secede. Lincoln was well aware of this, and thus of the crisis that a large and loosely integrated country faced. For months thereafter—he was not officially inaugurated until March 4, 1861—Lincoln tried to assure slaveholders that he would uphold the Constitution, enforce the Fugitive Slave Law, and leave slavery in the states alone. He even supported a constitutional amendment (the first Thirteenth Amendment) barring the federal government from ever interfering with slavery in the states.

Yet Foner powerfully demonstrates that we must not underestimate the enormous political transformation that the election of 1860 brought about. Not only did Lincoln become the new president, the Republicans also gained control of both houses of Congress, and of most legislatures and governorships in the northern states. While some Republican leaders (including Seward) showed more flexibility than might have been expected as compromise measures were being proposed, Lincoln, together with much of grassroots Republicanism, remained remarkably firm in his adherence to the party’s fundamental principles. It was, perhaps, the first of his great moments in the presidency, and, as Foner notes, very much of a departure from the proclivities of his hero Henry Clay. “Let there be no compromise on the question of extending slavery,” Lincoln told Illinois Senator Lyman Trumbull. “If there be all our labor is lost, and, ere long, must be done again.” Salmon P. Chase could therefore appreciate what had happened, and see one “of the great wishes of my life” accomplished. “The Slave Power,” he exulted, “is overthrown.”

Slaveholders, especially in the Deep South, could appreciate what had transpired as well. Whatever assurances Lincoln offered as to the safety of their slave property, he was the first American president to speak publicly against slavery, to insist that it would no longer expand with the country, and to suggest that he would welcome its eventual demise. With Republican majorities in Congress, the slaveholders realized, Lincoln would be able to move on a variety of fronts threatening to slavery, and would likely use his patronage power to begin building the party in the Southern states if Republican rule was to be secured, thus nurturing potential enemies in the slaveholders’ own backyards. (Three-quarters of Southern white families owned no slaves—they might be a good starting point for such an effort.) However risky, many Deep South slaveholders came to believe that their long-term prospects were better outside the Union than in it. On December 20, 1860, South Carolina passed an ordinance of secession, and it was soon followed by Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. By early February 1861, representatives of these states gathered in Montgomery, Alabama, and organized themselves into the Confederate States of America.

Many secessionist slaveholders claimed that they were exercising a constitutional right of secession based on the idea of state sovereignty. Others pointed to the right of revolution engrafted into the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln would have none of either, and especially not the former. He utterly repudiated the notion that states could leave the Union: in his view, the Union was created not by the states but by the “people,” and was therefore perpetual. (For the record, there is no right of secession in the Constitution, either explicit or implied. Such a right has never been upheld by an American court. Even the Confederate Constitution says nothing about a right of secession. Most Northerners at the time, Democrats and Republicans alike, including James Buchanan, shared this perspective.) What Lincoln did believe was that individuals were engaging in rebellion against the United States; that the integrity of the federal government had to be maintained or the entire Union might disintegrate into multiple confederacies; and that once they fired on Fort Sumter, the rebels had to be defeated by force of arms.


It is well known that, when the Civil War began, Lincoln’s “paramount object,” as he later explained to Horace Greeley, was “to save the Union,” and was neither “to save or to destroy slavery.” But wars tend to complicate even the best-laid plans—the emancipation of servile laborers across the Atlantic world was often tied up with warfare between states—and Lincoln’s call for seventy-five thousand troops (soon many more) to crush the rebellion in the South opened the floodgates of change. Abolitionists and Radical Republicans saw a worldhistoric opportunity to move against slavery in ways that would not otherwise have been possible and, from the first, pressed Lincoln to grasp it. Free people of color in the Northern states volunteered for military service, hoping to aid in the defeat of the slave regime. And Union commanders in the field with anti-slavery dispositions—John C. Fremont, James H. Lane, David Hunter—looked to take the initiative.

Still, it was not that simple. Lincoln worried that any move against slavery would alienate the loyal or neutral slave border states and push them to the Confederate side, vastly complicating his military goals. He also knew that both the United States Army and the state militias had, from the birth of the republic, excluded men of African descent from their ranks, and that breaking the color line might discourage white enlistment. He therefore rebuffed the free black volunteers and rebuked his errant officers.

But more than political and military expediency held Lincoln back. As Foner shows in his account of the road to emancipation—as fine, thoughtful, and concise an account of developing federal policy as readers could hope to find-Lincoln struggled over how to proceed and learned some tough lessons about what he was up against. His early focus was on the border South, where he hoped to encourage gradual emancipation (through state action) by offering federal assistance as to compensation for slaveholders and colonization for freed slaves. And in Delaware and Maryland one might have expected a favorable response, since the slave populations there had been dwindling in size for decades (and Delaware nearly enacted gradual emancipation in 1847). Instead Lincoln got nowhere.

The resistance of border-state slaveholders to any plan of emancipation, and the prior history of slave emancipation in the northern United States (very gradual), suggested that even under optimal military circumstances the abolition of slavery—if it happened—would probably take a long time. Lincoln himself imagined a thirty-five-year emancipation. Few slaveholders anywhere were ready or willing to face up to the prospect, while most abolitionists would have accepted some form of gradualism. Whatever the outcome of the war, and whatever the leadership qualities and moral integrity of Lincoln, American territory could well have contained slavery into the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries—were it not for the very objects of emancipation policy: the slaves.


Foner’s sights in The Fiery Trial are trained chiefly on Lincoln and his administration, but he is too good a historian to ignore another rebellion of enormous consequence. Even before Lincoln was inaugurated and the guns of war began to fire, slaves on farms and plantations in many parts of the South registered their own understandings of the political sea change that was rocking the country. Some had been following the political conflict over slavery for years owing to literacy (perhaps 10 percent of the slave population was literate), or eavesdropping on their owners’ conversations, or being in earshot of political speeches on court and muster days. They may have learned of the Haitian Revolution, the abolition of slavery in the British West Indies, and the emerging anti-slavery movement across the North: all of which they shared, discussed, and interpreted with other slaves, who then passed it on. By the late 1850s, growing numbers had heard of the Republican Party, of Fremont (who ran on the ticket for president in 1856), and of Lincoln. “During the campaign when Lincoln was first a candidate for the presidency,” Booker T. Washington, who grew up in western Virginia, later remembered, “the slaves on our far-off plantation, miles from any railroad or large city or daily newspaper, knew what the issues involved were.”

Lincoln’s election thereby electrified the slave quarters and convinced more than a few that Lincoln intended to proclaim emancipation, or that he had already proclaimed emancipation but their owners had refused to carry it out. Elevated hopes and expectations led a group of slaves on one plantation to commemorate Lincoln’s inauguration by announcing that they were free and marching off their owner’s estate. A week later a young male slave, who was told that Lincoln planned to abolish slavery, took a canoe out to the federal troops still at Fort Sumter. Farther to the south, at Fort Pickens in Florida, four slaves showed up “entertaining the idea that [the federal soldiers] were placed here to protect them and grant them their freedom.”

Political knowledge, circuits of communication, and expectations among the slaves help us understand what neither the Union nor the Confederacy had anticipated: that the slaves believed the Civil War was about slavery and were determined, when possible, to seize the moment. Despite their owners’ threats and warnings—and sometimes in the face of double-barreled shotguns—they fled their plantations and farms in growing numbers and headed to Union Army encampments, where they imagined freedom might await. Although they quickly discovered that the best they could hope for was short-term protection in a liminal space between slavery and freedom, little by little these slaves forced Union commanders, federal officials, members of Congress, and Lincoln himself to contend with the issue they might have preferred to avoid, and to move in directions that would have been unimaginable when the war began. The crucial story, in sum, may be less about how Lincoln thought about slaves and slavery, and more about how slaves thought about Lincoln and what they did as a result.

As the war dragged on, the fate of slavery became inextricably connected to the military outcome. After all, the Confederacy depended on slave-produced food crops to feed its armies, and needed slaves to build fortifications and staff war-related enterprises. While still wedded to gradualism, compensation, and colonization for the border states, Lincoln began to move, in the spring and summer of 1862, more decisively against slavery in the federal territories and the District of Columbia (where slaveowners received monetary compensation). With congressional leadership, he first made slaves used in aid of the Confederacy subject to “confiscation,” and then turned Union lines (as slaves initially conceived of them) into thresholds of freedom for those owned by rebel masters.

Confronting manpower problems and increasingly cognizant of the eagerness of African Americans—slave and free—to fight, Lincoln began to embrace black service in the Union Army. (Confederates were hamstrung on this issue—no small matter given that slaves composed more than 40 percent of their total population.) And fearing that England and France might award diplomatic recognition to the Confederacy if Union prospects continued to appear uncertain, he decided to link the war effort to abolition.

In September 1862, Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. The document showed the marks of a differentiation between Confederate and non-Confederate states as well as the residues of hesitancy. He gave the states in rebellion until January 1, 1863 to lay down their arms if they hoped to preserve or to help to orchestrate the future of what was left of slavery (and the overwhelming majority of slaves remained behind Confederate lines): thereafter all the slaves in those states would be “then, henceforth and forever free.” But he also excluded the border states and some areas of Union occupation from the Proclamation’s reach, and spoke of federal financial support for stateinitiated gradualism, compensation, and colonization there.

Lincoln entertained little expectation that the Confederacy would quit in time to salvage its slave system, but the official Emancipation Proclamation that he issued on January 1 was an altogether different document. True, he continued to leave the border states and some of the Union-occupied South (where slavery was already crumbling) out of its jurisdiction. Yet the language of gradualism, colonization, and compensation was no longer in evidence. Instead, the Proclamation made provision for the enlistment of black troops, most of whom would have begun the war as slaves, in the Union Army. Never in the history of the modern world, with the exception of Saint-Domingue during the Haitian Revolution (where the emancipation process unfolded over thirteen years), was slavery abolished in so sweeping a fashion. It was a revolution of immense proportions.


Revolutions, of course,can roll backward, and often do. Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in his capacity as “commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States,” and it could only be enforced if the Union won the war and dictated the peace. Emancipation was also a major piece of a larger political puzzle concerning the reconstruction of the shattered Union. Would Confederate states be readmitted to the Union, and under what terms? Would Confederate leaders be punished for the treason Lincoln claimed they committed? Would the plantation system be preserved or cut up into smaller yeoman farms? Would the liberated slaves gain civil and political standing? Until the autumn of 1864, when General William T. Sherman captured Atlanta, Lincoln worried that the war might not be won and that he would fail in his bid for reelection, thereby turning federal power over to George B. McClellan, the Democratic nominee and one of his former generals, who was open to an armistice and the possible sacrifice of emancipation.

Lincoln was already struggling with radical members of his own party over developing Reconstruction policy, and Foner is especially good at helping us understand what was and was not on the table. Lincoln unmistakably gestured toward greater leniency than radicals would have proffered, holding out the prospect of full pardons and the restoration of all rights “except as to slaves” for Confederates who would end their rebellion and take an oath of future loyalty. Nor did he demand that freed slaves be incorporated into the body politic or receive any compensation for what they had endured, describing them instead as “a laboring, landless, and homeless class.” Yet Foner insists that Lincoln’s inclinations on Reconstruction were by no means hard and fast, and that they were designed principally to encourage unionism, end the war, and commence the transition to a post-emancipation world. Lincoln may have been willing to extend the franchise to African Americans on a limited basis—to those, say, who served in the Union Army and Navy—and he certainly seemed to be envisioning a society in which whites and blacks would, in the end, be living together. Colonization, which had been emancipation’s accompaniment for Lincoln and most Republicans, was dead. Whether Lincoln, had he lived, would have been able to steer the country through Reconstruction with more achievements in the matter of black rights and less counterrevolutionary turbulence will always remain a matter of debate, though I do not share Foner’s optimistic tendency.

Yet just as consequential was a new understanding and description of the country that emerged out of war and emancipation. Scholars and the general public conventionally assume that an American “nation” was born with independence and the ratification of the Constitution, and commonly use the terms “nation,” “union,” and “country” interchangeably. In truth, the model of governance that Americans inherited from Great Britain was empire rather than nation, and the Constitution effectively created a federal union or confederacy of states (the word “nation” never appears in the text) whose relations became the subject of increasingly perilous debate. It was Republicans such as Lincoln who began to use the language of nationhood to map out a land free of slavery, while it was Douglas and other Democrats who adhered to a language of empire and union. Not incidentally, during their debates in 1858, Douglas repeatedly criticized Lincoln for his insistence on “uniformity” and mocked Lincoln’s notion that a “house divided against itself cannot stand,” noting all the growth and the accomplishments of the United States “divided into free and slave States.”

Douglas was right. There was room for slavery and a multiplicity of separate sovereignties in an empire or union, but not in a nation-state. What Lincoln marked by his adoption of the idea of freedom as “national,” by his articulation of a “house” that had to be united, by his developing efforts to make the abolition of slavery the central component of reconciliation, and by his powerful words in the Gettysburg Address was not the “saving of the union.” It was the true “birth of the nation.”

Indeed, as the sesquicentennials provoke us to look back at the era of our Civil War, we may justifiably discover a new set of founders who took a Constitution that created a Union and with three powerful amendments—the Thirteenth, the Fourteenth, and the Fifteenth—turned it into a Constitution that made a nation. Those founders included abolitionists and Republicans, white and black, free and slave. (Slaves were among the most militant abolitionists and supporters of the nation.) Together they built a movement capable of claiming the reins of power and waging war against a mighty foe. Had they failed, had the war ended differently, had the Confederacy won its independence or forced an armistice, we might have been left with the shambles of a union or a collection of rivalrous sovereign states in which slavery and freedom existed on a lengthy continuum and the spirit of Dred Scott lived on. Those Americans who are eager to celebrate the historical traditions of states’ rights and secessionism, confident that they had nothing to do with slavery and white supremacy, and those Americans whose legitimate anger at recent public policies may incline them to lend such celebrations a sympathetic ear, should better take the opportunities of the sesquicentennials to revisit, and seriously ponder, the nineteenth-century moments of truth.

Steven Hahn teaches history at the University of Pennsylvania and is the author, most recently, of The Political Worlds of Slavery and Freedom (Harvard University Press). This article ran in the February 3, 2011, issue of the magazine.