A Topic Best Avoided

Nicholas Guyatt

  • The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery by Eric Foner
    Norton, 426 pp, £21.00, February 2011, ISBN 978 0 393 06618 0

On the evening of 11 April 1865, Abraham Lincoln spoke to a crowd in Washington about black suffrage. The Civil War had been over for a week. Lincoln had already walked the streets of Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital, taking in the devastation at first hand. ‘The only people who showed themselves were negroes,’ the radical senator Charles Sumner noted. The president had been thinking about what would happen after the war since 1862, when his generals began to seize swathes of Confederate territory, but had stubbornly resisted the idea that emancipated slaves would have to be given the vote to consolidate their freedom. Perhaps what he saw in Richmond changed his mind: the eerie absence of the city’s white inhabitants confirmed what Sumner saw as ‘the utter impossibility of any organisation which is not founded on the votes of negroes’. When Lincoln spoke from the White House balcony a week later, he was characteristically cautious. He didn’t advocate universal suffrage for blacks and suggested that the vote might only be ‘conferred on the very intelligent, and on those who serve our cause as soldiers’. For some in the audience, this was more than enough. ‘That means nigger citizenship,’ John Wilkes Booth told his companions. Three nights later, he followed the president to Ford’s Theatre and shot him in the head.

On the morning of 11 April, Lincoln met privately with General Benjamin Butler of Massachusetts. The subject of the meeting went unreported for nearly 20 years. That morning Lincoln admitted that he was ‘troubled about the negroes’ after emancipation. According to Butler, he worried that the 150,000 blacks of the Union army would fight their former masters if denied an equal place in Southern society. Lincoln’s instinct was to ‘export them all to some fertile country with a good climate, which they could have to themselves’. Butler had the perfect plan. Why not send 50,000 black troops to dig a canal across the Panamanian isthmus? Butler would lead the mission, and Congress could provide money to relocate the soldiers and their families in ‘a United States colony … which will hold its own against all comers, and be contented and happy’. America would have its highway between the oceans, and blacks would have a permanent home where they might enjoy freedom without white recrimination. ‘There is meat in that suggestion, General,’ Lincoln supposedly told Butler.

Butler’s story used to be widely accepted. These days, virtually every historian dismisses it. Lincoln’s staunchest defenders insist that he never seriously entertained removing blacks, that his public statements about colonisation in the 1850s and early 1860s were a diversionary tactic intended to persuade a prejudiced public to accept emancipation. More critical historians concede Lincoln’s enthusiasm for colonisation schemes, but argue that his views advanced in the war’s last years, and that his belated endorsement of limited black suffrage demonstrates how much he had ‘grown’ in the White House. Eric Foner has become the leading exponent of the second point of view, and The Fiery Trial is a sustained argument for Lincoln’s growth into greatness. Foner consigns Butler’s claims to an endnote and assures us that ‘most historians doubt the reliability of Butler’s recollection.’

As the United States enters its long commemoration of the Civil War’s sesquicentennial, Lincoln’s interest in black removal presents an awkward problem. The standard story of his achievement is as clear as it is reassuring: he freed the slaves, enabling the republic to escape from its founding sin and renewing the promise that ‘all men are created equal.’ When he died, racist Southerners prevented black citizenship with a sweeping system of segregation that endured for a century. In The Fiery Trial, Lincoln moves, haltingly but inexorably, towards a glimpse of black citizenship that is occluded by an assassin’s bullet. But Butler’s renegade recollection is not the only reason to resist the pull of this narrative. What if Lincoln himself was an advocate of the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine? What if the vision of black belonging forged by radical abolitionists was fatally undermined by Northern enthusiasm for black removal?

Before he went to Washington as president-elect in 1861, Lincoln had spent virtually his entire life in Indiana and Illinois, the heartland of free labour. Slaves were excluded from the Midwest by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787; free blacks were deterred by popular prejudice and, eventually, by a series of restrictive Black Laws. In 1834, when Lincoln began his political career in the Illinois state legislature, slavery was a topic best avoided. Between 1790 and 1830, even as the Northern states embraced gradual abolition, the number of slaves in the United States increased from 700,000 to two million. The old consensus, on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, that slavery was an unfortunate and dwindling inheritance from the colonial period, could no longer be squared with reality. Black and white abolitionists attacked the South with a new vehemence and demanded immediate emancipation; slaveholders rebranded the system as a positive good rather than a necessary evil.

Most Northerners had little appetite for a fight with the South: militant abolitionists were shouted down, roughed up and – in several cases – murdered by white mobs throughout the North. Lincoln set his course between the ‘extremes’ of abolitionism and anarchy. He combined his duties in the state assembly with a burgeoning law practice and waited for an opportunity on the national political stage. When it arrived in 1846, in the form of election to the House of Representatives on the Whig ticket, the timing was dreadful. President James K. Polk, a Democrat, had just declared war on Mexico. Along with many other Whigs, Lincoln denounced Polk, incurring the charge of disloyalty to the troops. Then the Whig Party confirmed its meretriciousness by nominating Zachary Taylor, a returning general, as its presidential candidate for 1848. Lincoln campaigned for Taylor, a Louisiana slaveholder, but was passed over for an appointment when Taylor captured the White House. With little to show for his time in the capital, he returned to Illinois.

Lincoln’s retreat coincided with the realignment in American politics that enabled him to become a national figure. The American victory over Mexico had reopened an old controversy about how to square territorial expansion with slavery. In 1820, a debate over the admission of Missouri had almost undone the Union. It was resolved by a territorial compromise: a line was plotted westwards from the southern border of Missouri, dividing the continent into a slave-holding south and a free north. The compromise held for decades, but the admission of new territories after the Mexican War – including California, which straddled the Missouri line – set off another crisis. Lincoln’s political hero, Henry Clay of Kentucky, proposed to keep the Union intact by trading a free California for slave states elsewhere in the southwest and by tightening the laws forcing Northern states to return escaped slaves to the South. But in the summer of 1850 Clay left Washington, despairing of his ability to steer the bargain through Congress. The legislative triumph went instead to Stephen Douglas, a politician from Illinois who, though four years younger than Lincoln, had already gained the national prominence he craved.

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[*] Colonisation after Emancipation: Lincoln and the Movement for Black Resettlement (Missouri, 192 pp., £31.50, February, 978 0 8262 1909 1).