The Emergence of Abraham Lincoln

How America’s 16th president went from virtual obscurity to ending slavery.

The following is adapted from a speech the author gave at the Lincoln Forum in Gettysburg on November 17 at which he was awarded its first book prize.

It’s always important to know about Lincoln, and today it is urgent. As Lincoln said in his “House Divided” speech, “If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it.”

The house divided, the incitement of demagogues, appeals to anti-immigrant nativism and racism, a reactionary Supreme Court, a dysfunctional presidency, and the breakup of the old parties—all of these Lincoln confronted in his rise to the presidency.

No one else in the crisis combined Lincoln’s political skill, his force of logic and argument, his sense of when to step forward and when not to step forward prematurely, the clarity of his principles, and his subtlety and practicality in achieving them. At every step of his way, in order to destroy the greatest concentration of wealth and political power in the country—the Slave Power—he had to create new instruments of power, from the Illinois Republican Party to the Union Army. Through his leadership he had to summon “all the powers of earth” to save democracy and overthrow slavery.

Lincoln begins in virtual obscurity, forgotten after one term in the Congress, roaming county courthouse to courthouse in the Eighth Judicial District of central Illinois in the company of an entourage of traveling lawyers like an itinerant troupe of Victorian Shakespearean actors. Lincoln is mainly pressing the claims of small debt collectors or defending against them and studying Euclid’s geometry at night by candlelight.

Suddenly, the crisis begins. In 1854, he was, as he said, “aroused…as he had been never before.” His perpetual rival since he had entered Illinois politics, Senator Stephen A. Douglas, a master demagogue who envisioned himself as the living spirit of the age, desperate to win the Democratic presidential nomination, wanted the credit for sponsoring the first transcontinental railroad, which would have to be constructed across the territory of the great plains, not yet organized into states. Douglas cut the deal in the Kansas-Nebraska Act with the great Southern beasts of the Congress and President Franklin Pierce to erase the Missouri Compromise prohibiting slavery above a certain northern latitude. Whether the territories and eventually states would be free or slave, said Douglas, would be up to the settlers. They could have slavery if they wanted. He called it “popular sovereignty.” Douglas believed his calculated indifference to slavery squared a political circle. Instead, his plan set off the mini-civil war of “Bleeding Kansas.”

Lincoln still thought of himself as a member of the Whig Party, which had split north and south with a sizeable section drifting into the anti-immigrant Know Nothing Party, also known as the American Party. That party’s platform demanded that only native-born Protestants should hold public office. Lincoln didn’t join the Republican Party at first. It was not yet a party. The people calling themselves Republicans in 1854 in Illinois were a small group of radical abolitionists. The Free Soil Party, a broader antislavery organization than those calling themselves Republican, had attracted six percent of the vote in Illinois in the previous presidential election of 1852.

State by state the Republican Party gradually organized, a fragile coalition of former Whigs, Democrats, abolitionists, Free Soilers, and some errant Know Nothings, held together on one common issue: opposition to the extension of slavery.

Now, the prelude to the Illinois Republican convention, ten days that shook the nation: On May 19thand 20th Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, the abolitionist champion, delivers a jeremiad on “The Crime Against Kansas.” On May 21st proslavery Missouri Ruffians sack the free state town of Lawrence, Kansas. On May 22th Sumner is caned nearly to death while seated at his desk on the floor of the Senate by Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina. To this day Sumner’s caning has been described as a response to his alleged personal insults of Southern members of the Senate. But Sumner’s real offense, his unforgiveable offense, was openly, repeatedly and relentlessly to discuss the ultimate forbidden subject, the rape culture of slavery, which was also personal to the Southerners.

The Illinois convention opens on May 29th, 1856. In Bloomington, about 350 delegates cram into the third floor of Major’s Hall above a hardware store. Lincoln writes the platform, keeps together the patchwork and hostile factions and edgy personalities, and delivers the keynote address, his famous “Lost Speech,” apparently lost because it was too radical to publish.

In 1856, the Democrats nominated as their presidential candidate James Buchanan, of Pennsylvania, the former everything, yesterday’s man whose time had finally come. He was a northern man of Southern sympathy, the Southern choice to again cast aside Stephen A. Douglas, who seemed to the Southerners too ambitious, too uncontrollable, too capable, a party of one, and whose indifference to slavery didn’t go far enough for those who considered “the peculiar institution” a “positive good” that should not be restricted.

The Republicans nominated as their first presidential candidate the far west explorer and California senator John C. Fremont. He was attacked as a secret Catholic, of illegitimate birth and not born in the United States. It was the first birther campaign. Buchanan won narrowly. The 1856 results predicted a future in which Illinois would be the Democrats’ weakest link and the Republicans’ greatest opportunity.

With the advent of 1857, on the eve of the new administration, the capital was swept with talk of a momentous decision to be handed down from the Supreme Court. The new president, James Buchanan, wanted that case to settle the question of slavery in the territories once and for all at the beginning of his term. Dred Scott v. John Sanford was the case on the docket. Dred Scott, a slave, had sued his owner, claiming that because he had resided in a free state he was therefore free. Behind the scenes, Buchanan lobbied the justices to speed up the decision. Two days after his inauguration, Chief Justice Roger Taney of the Supreme Court, ruled, “’All men are created equal’” did not mean “the whole human family… The unhappy black race were separated from the white by indelible marks…and were never thought of or spoken of except as property.” Blacks, Taney pronounced, had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” And therefore his decision prohibited the Congress from legislating against slavery extension, opened the territories to the entrance of slaves, and in effect rendered illegal the central idea of the new Republican Party.

Stephen A. Douglas, angling for the 1860 Democratic nomination, fervently defended the decision. He attacked the Republicans—he called it the “Black Republican Party”—to position himself against his opponent in the coming campaign for the Senate, none other than Lincoln. The founders, he stated, sought to “preserve the purity” of the white race and “prevent any species of amalgamation … between superior and inferior races.” What was “amalgamation”? It meant the sexual mixing of the races—and Douglas accused Lincoln of having that as his real agenda

Lincoln answered Douglas on June 26th, 1857.  “Our Declaration of Independence,” he said, “was held sacred by all, and thought to include all; but now, to aid in making the bondage of the negro universal and eternal, it is assailed, and sneered at, and construed, and hawked at, and torn, till, if its framers could rise from their graves, they could not at all recognize it.”

Then Lincoln took flight beyond the law. His precise mind escaped into metaphor to capture the captivity of the slave. “All the powers of earth seem rapidly combining against him. Mammon is after him; ambition follows, and philosophy follows, and the Theology of the day is fast joining the cry. They have him in his prison house; they have searched his person, and left no prying instrument with him. One after another they have closed the heavy iron doors upon him, and now they have him, as it were, bolted in with a lock of a hundred keys, which can never be unlocked without the concurrence of every key; the key in the hands of a hundred different men, and they scattered to a hundred different and distant places; and they stand musing as to what invention, in all the dominions of mind and matter, can be produced to make the impossibility of his escape more complete than it is.”

Lincoln’s imagery in the part of his speech about the imprisoned slave was not abstract to him. Just weeks before he had intervened to rescue a black man held captive behind an iron door in a bolted cell to be sold as a slave. He had not mentioned the incident in his speech.

In early 1855, a free black woman named Polly Mack appeared at the office of Lincoln & Herndon with a tale of woe. Lincoln had previously been her divorce lawyer. In fact, Lincoln had many relationships among the free black community. Her son, John Shelby, had hired himself as a hand on a steamboat on the Mississippi, as Lincoln had done years ago, but when he reached New Orleans without “free papers” he was arrested under the black code and fined. By then his boat had left. Unable to pay his fine he was to be sold into slavery to defray his expenses. He no means to escape. The case was a perversely refracted version of Dred Scott. Through a series of unfortunate circumstances, the free black from a free state would become a slave. Lincoln appealed to the governor of Illinois, who he had slated and elected, but he said he had no legal authority over another state. Lincoln appealed to the governor of Louisiana, who rejected his request to free John Shelby. But through a man Lincoln called “one of my most valued friends,” Abraham Jonas, with whom he had served in the state legislature, both Republican presidential electors in 1856, and indeed Lincoln’s closest and most prominent Jewish friend, he reached out to Jonas’ brother, an attorney in New Orleans. He told Lincoln that John Shelby could be released by purchasing his liberty. Lincoln collected some funds from a few friends, but paid most of it out of his own pocket. And in June of 1857 he bought Shelby’s freedom, his first act of emancipation.

In May of 1858, preparing for his nomination as the Republican candidate for the Senate at the state convention, Lincoln began work on his acceptance speech. Just before the convention, Lincoln held a rehearsal, inviting about a dozen of his advisers and friends to the law library at the Statehouse. Upon finishing his reading, they were unanimous—Lincoln must not give the speech. One gently told him it was “ahead of its time.” Another, less kindly, called it a “damned fool utterance.”

On June 16th, Lincoln spoke. “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved. I do not expect the house to fall; but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward till it will become alike lawful in all the States old as well as new—North as well as South.”

Lincoln had spent more than twenty years yearning for his chance to take on Stephen A. Douglas. He challenged him to a series of seven debates. In towns all over the state Douglas called Lincoln a traitor in the Mexican War, a clown, and a drunk, but his main line of attack was that he was for “negro equality,” though Douglas didn’t use the word “negro,” dismissed that the Declaration of Independence included blacks as a “monstrous heresy,” damned Lincoln for his radical “house divided” speech, and claimed that Lincoln favored sex with black women, “amalgamation,”  which he said was “worthy of a medal” from Frederick Douglass. Time and again, Douglas drove home his point that “this government was made on the white basis…made by white men for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever.” Of, by and for …

Douglas’ attack on race to shift the debate from slavery put Lincoln on the defensive as he attempted to answer his demagoguery. In one debate in the conservative southern part of the state in order to aid in the election of a legislative candidate who could help elect him he retreated to say he could not admit to the social equality of blacks, which, not to excuse it, was the widely accepted view of even most abolitionists. But Lincoln immediately qualified his statement, adding that “there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence” and that “he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man.” This moment was his low point in the debates. From then on, he soared. In Galesburg, in one long breath, Lincoln called slavery wrong sixteen times—and “a moral, social and political evil.” He said of Douglas, “When he invites any people, willing to have slavery, to establish it, he is blowing out the moral lights around us. When he says he ‘cares not whether slavery is voted down or voted up,’—that it is a sacred right of self-government—he is, in my judgment, penetrating the human soul and eradicating the light of reason and the love of liberty in this American people.” In Quincy, in the next debate Lincoln called slavery wrong 33 times. In Alton, in the last debate, Lincoln said about the struggle over slavery, “It is the eternal struggle between these two principles—right and wrong—throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time; and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity and the other the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says, ‘You work and toil and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.’ No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.”

Lincoln won the popular vote, but lost the election because it was determined by gerrymandered legislative districts, not a problem limited to the 19th century. He lost, but counted himself in the resistance. “The fight must go on,” he wrote. “The cause of civil liberty must not be surrendered at the end of one, or even, one hundred defeats. Douglas had the ingenuity to be supported in the late contest both as the best means to break down, and to uphold the Slave interest. No ingenuity can keep those antagonistic elements in harmony long. Another explosion will soon come. Yours truly A. LINCOLN”

On the evening of January 5th, 1859, the eve of Stephen A. Douglas’ foreordained election by the Illinois state legislature, an inner group of Republicans, Lincoln’s closest political friends, met with him in the Capitol’s law library to discuss how to “keep the party afloat.” According to Judge David Davis, who was the maestro of the lawyers that Lincoln traveled with across central Illinois, after various names of possible presidential contenders were raised, Lincoln spoke up. “Why don’t you run me?” Lincoln asked. “I can be nominated, I can be elected, and I can run the government.” David Davis was surprised. “We all looked at him and saw that he was not joking.”

Flash forward: At eight in the evening, on February 27th, 1860, fifteen hundred notables in New York, who had paid an admission price of twenty-five cents gathered in the Great Hall of the Cooper Union, anticipating the words of the man whose debates with Douglas they had read in the newspapers but whom few of them had ever seen. Lincoln’s sponsor, the Young Men’s Central Republican Union, had come into existence to provide a forum for potential alternatives to Senator William Henry Seward, considered the inevitable Republican candidate. The group was created by some of the most influential liberal figures in New York who regarded Seward’s political machinations corrupt.

At Cooper Union, Lincoln demolished the argument underlying the Dred Scott decision, that the founders were proslavery and proved that most were in fact antislavery. And he denounced the threats of secession and civil war. “Your purpose, then, plainly stated, is that you will destroy the Government, unless you be allowed to construe and enforce the Constitution as you please, on all points in dispute between you and us. You will rule or ruin in all events.”

Finally, unapologetically and unreservedly, he issued a call to battle. “Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the Government nor of dungeons to ourselves. LET US HAVE FAITH THAT RIGHT MAKES MIGHT, AND IN THAT FAITH, LET US, TO THE END, DARE TO DO OUR DUTY, AS WE UNDERSTAND IT.”

The crowd that had been taken aback ninety minutes earlier by the appearance of the “ungainly” speaker now rose, cheering, waving hats and handkerchiefs. More importantly, Lincoln’s speech was printed in the New York newspapers.

In late April the Democrats gathered for their convention at the unfortunate site of Charleston. Douglas had a clear majority, but two-thirds of the delegates were required for nomination. The Southern states rights ultras proposed a platform plank that no territory could prohibit slavery. Douglas simply favored the Dred Scott decision. But that was insufficient for the Southern ultras. In a vote of delegates, the Douglas platform passed. Alabama led a walkout. Seven Southern states walked out. They seceded from the party. It was the explosion that Lincoln predicted would come within the Democratic Party. And still Douglas could not be nominated by two-thirds. After 56 ballots, the convention adjourned. The secessionists convened across town. Later they nominated their own ticket of Vice President John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky for president. The Democratic Party was broken. And yet another party emerged, led by Senator John Bell of Tennessee, appealing to the old Whigs and Know Nothings. But who would be the Republican nominee?

Judge David Davis arrived at the fortunate site of the Republican convention, Chicago, on Saturday, May 12th, “the first on the ground,” four days before the convention’s start, to set up a headquarters at the Tremont Hotel, a sign affixed to the door of his room: “Illinois Headquarters.” Davis created a political machine overnight, marshaling the Illinois delegates and alternates, and the entourage of the Eighth Judicial Circuit.

Thurlow Weed, the Republican political boss of New York, Seward’s alter ego, arrived to manage his nomination. Weed’s operation was reinforced with thirteen cars packed with two thousand Seward “irrepressibles” from New York that pulled into the Chicago railway station and, according to a reporter, “singing songs not found in hymn-books.” Weed soon began promising key political figures larges piles of cash for swaying their delegations.

The proceedings began on Wednesday, May 16th, in a brick and wooden structure that could hold at least ten thousand people and was topped on its arch with letters reading: “REPUBLICAN WIGWAM.” It was the largest indoor space in the country, built in short order for the event itself, considered a marvel, an example of the will and muscle of Chicago.

While Weed passed out money Davis cut deals with politicians who were anxious that Seward with his political baggage could not win and that Lincoln, the fresh face, was the true available man. Lincoln sent Davis a message: “Make no contracts that will bind me.” “Lincoln ain’t here,” said Davis with finality, “and don’t know what we have to meet, so we will go ahead, as if we hadn’t heard from him, and he must ratify it!” And Davis “went ahead with his negotiations.” Cabinet posts were discussed. Pennsylvania and Indiana swung to Lincoln.

On the day that the struggle within the Wigwam reached its climax, Lincoln in Springfield played handball against an alley wall with some boys. Then he went to his law office. Soon, a wire arrived: “TO LINCOLN YOU ARE NOMINATED.”

Dawn on Election Day was greeted in Springfield by the firing of a cannon, awakening citizens to their duty to file to the courthouse opposite the capitol, the sole polling place in town. Lincoln spent the day in the governor’s office with a view from the window of the voters coming and going. By nightfall, he retreated to the telegraph office with a few friends to watch the ticker. Lincoln felt relaxed enough to have dinner, wandering to Watson’s Saloon, taken over by the ladies for the occasion. His entrance was greeted by their voices in unison, “How do you do, Mr. President?” Just as he was about to eat, a runner rushed in with a telegram showing a diminished Democratic vote in New York City, the last hope for the Democrats to win New York and throw the election into the House of Representatives. Lincoln walked back to the telegraph office. Near dawn he said he “guess’d he’d go home now.” He found Mary asleep. He tried to wake her. “Mary! Mary! We are elected!”

Lincoln won with less than forty percent of the vote. He received not a single vote in ten Southern states, the Republican Party having been kept off the ballot. For the first time in a presidential election the invincibility of the South on the issue of slavery was broken. A president pledged against its expansion would soon be in charge of the executive branch, invested with the power of federal patronage, the ability to appoint federal judges and justices of the Supreme Court, and command of the armed forces. The day after the election, the Stars and Stripes over federal buildings were lowered across South Carolina and State Rights flags, a red star on a white background, and Palmetto State flags were hoisted in its place.

On December 20th in Charleston the delegates of the secession convention assembled in the South Carolina Institute Hall, thereafter known as Secession Hall, where months earlier the Democratic Party broke apart, to sign the document of secession. The ultimate clause denounced “the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is not to be entrusted with the administration nor the common Government, because he has declared that that ‘Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,’ and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.”

Abraham Lincoln’s fiery trial was about to begin.

“Fellow citizens,” he said, “we cannot escape history.”

There is no end to the past. Far from there being nothing new to be said about Lincoln, the story is inexhaustible. I have tried to see Lincoln and his world whole and round, to penetrate the political life he lived, how he saw it far and wide through his alert eyes, how he grew through his insatiable desire for knowledge, how he navigated by his understanding of human nature, especially the motives of ambitious political men. In researching and writing the history of Lincoln the historiography of Lincoln shines a light, but it can also cast obscuring shadows.

Lincoln scholars of the present day have done more to illuminate him than any since John Hay and John Nicolay. Yet there still remains the moonlight and magnolia of the Lost Cause, rankling the country in the battles over Confederate monuments; the residue of the so-called Civil War revisionists, who have insisted that the house divided would have somehow peacefully settled the question of slavery if not for the passion of the antislavery movement; and denigrators of all sorts of Lincoln. And then there is the unique historical school of Donald Trump, led by Donald Trump, who cites the authority of Lou Dobbs, of Fox News, in asserting that he is a greater president than Washington and Lincoln.

The anti-Lincoln tradition is as rooted as the Lincoln tradition, even predating the popular anti-Lincoln pamphlet from the 1864 campaign, “Abraham Africanus I, His Secret Life,” in which Lincoln is depicted as a “low, cunning, pettifogging, cringing, artful, Illinois stump lawyer” in league with the devil, who advises him, “Issue a Proclamation of Emancipation. You remember you said at Chicago, July 10, 1858, ‘I hate, and have always hated slavery as much as any other Abolitionist.’ It will run well with your words.”

Lincoln has long been a figment of myth as well as a figure of history. In the anti-Lincoln tradition, there is the tyrant and the fraud with a cold will to power, not the Great Emancipator but the Great Centralizer, the political huckster who exploits the question of slavery to gain the highest office in order consolidate an authoritarian government. This version has been variously advanced by Edmund Wilson, the literary critic and nostalgic Copperhead sympathizer in his Patriotic Gore, and an assortment of neo-Confederates claiming to expose “The Real Lincoln.”

A variation on the theme is that Lincoln was not only an unprincipled cynical hack politician, but also a dyed-in-the-wool racist, a dedicated white supremacist, who did everything he could to preserve slavery, not the Great Emancipator but a new kind of Great Oppressor of black people. In short, President Abraham Lincoln’s policies on emancipation are distorted and conflated into President Andrew Johnson’s policies on Reconstruction.

In 1968, Lerone Bennett, an editor at Ebony magazine, in an article entitled “Was Abe Lincoln A White Supremacist?,” and in 2000, in a book entitled Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream, stated, among his many claims, that Lincoln was “the embodiment” of “racist tradition,” “a liar and hypocrite,” “a man who race-baits in order to get elected,” “an oppressor,” “the archetype of the sensitive, suffering, ineffectual, fence figure—in America, in the Third Reich, in Algeria, in South Africa—who is born on a fence and lives and dies on a fence, unable to accept or reject the political evil that defines him objectively,” “has nothing to say to us,” that the Emancipation Proclamation was a document of “enslavement” not liberation, and “that the Republic has been unfortunately deluded by scholars who have systematically hidden the truth in one of the most extraordinary episodes in the history of scholarship.”

The historian James McPherson, definitively reviewing Bennett’s work in the New York Times in 2000, acknowledged that he rightly pointed out instances of Lincoln’s prejudice “of his time and place,” but noted Bennett’s obvious errors and omission of facts and Lincoln’s own words that contradict his thesis. McPherson observed that most scholars believed Bennett had produced “a tendentious work of scholarship, marred by selective evidence taken out of context, suppressive of contrary evidence, heedless of the cultural and political climate that constrained Lincoln’s options and oblivious of Lincoln’s capacity for growth, which enabled him to transcend the racist environment of his youth…. No reader who accepts Bennett’s ‘unimpeachable fact’ that ‘Lincoln supported the enslavement of the four million slaves’ will be able to understand why seven slave states seceded in response to Lincoln’s election.” And McPherson writes about on Bennett’s view of the Emancipation Proclamation, “All parts of this interpretation are wrong, and the re-enslavement thesis is absurd. “

McPherson concluded by quoting an indisputable source on Lincoln’s unfinished policy of emancipation after the 13thAmendment. “Bennett’s Lincoln is not only a reluctant convert to Emancipation; he is also an unwavering opponent of equal citizenship for the freed slaves, beholden as he is to his ‘dream’ of an all-white America. But in what turned out to be his last public speech, on April 11, 1865, Lincoln signaled that he would support the right to vote for freed slaves who were literate or had served in the Union armed forces. Bennett condemns this endorsement as an ‘invidious distinction’ (because white voters would not face such requirements) of a piece with Lincoln’s commitment to white supremacy. At least one listener to Lincoln’s speech did not agree. ‘That means nigger citizenship,’ muttered John Wilkes Booth. ‘Now by God, I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make.’”

Now, why discuss this particular interpretation that was largely discredited a generation ago?

This year the New York Times has launched a worthy venture called the 1619 Project, named after the year of the first slave’s arrival in Virginia, to reinterpret the country’s history and explain the consequences of slavery. The editor of the issue of the Times Magazine on August 14th devoted to the 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones, in her introductory article and in interviews, recapitulates Lerone’s Bennett’s projection of Lincoln as an inveterate racist and committed white supremacist, and the Emancipation Proclamation as a sham. She cherry-picks Lincoln’s quotes from the Lincoln-Douglas debates and states that Lincoln “ended slavery as a political maneuver. So we need to get rid of that myth.” Citing Bennett as its inspiration, this revived assessment of Lincoln has got the chronology confused, the context missing, and the politics misleading.

Charles Blow, a New York Times columnist, on November 3, writing on the theological and pseudo-scientific reasons “to justify and maintain slavery; to argue and fight against reconstruction; to justify black codes and Jim Crow; to sanction racially disparate drug policies and penalties, including mass incarceration; and now to excuse the killings of black people by the police,” arrived finally as if by the force of logic at Lincoln. “Abraham Lincoln,” he wrote, “during the Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858, took it even further, saying, ‘There is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.’” On that stretched line of causation removed from all historical complexity he rests his entire understanding of Lincoln.

Ben Bradlee, my editor when I was on the staff of the Washington Post, liked to quote the saying that originated with Phil Graham, the publisher of the Post, “Journalism is only the first rough draft of history.” Journalism records events as they are unfolding, when we do not know where they will lead, based on partial and imperfect information, a refracted contemporary vision. Here we have history not even as the first rough draft of journalism. Though there is always more to know about the past, a lot is known; though there is always room for interpretation, excluding the broad range of facts tends to produce narrow-minded polemics. In history, as well as journalism, there might be some other sources to cite.

Considering Lincoln, future drafts of history in any project might give some weight, for example, to those abolitionists who knew Lincoln and came to appreciate the harsh political circumstances and intense hostility under which he had to labor to reach his objectives.

Zebina Eastman, editor of the Free West, an abolitionist newspaper in Illinois, was at first skeptical of Lincoln when he reemerged back into politics in the mid 1850s, but became a firm supporter. Eastman wrote of Lincoln: “He is a politician as every man must be who holds an important office, and such men, and only such, can kill slavery because…the life of slavery is its political power.” In the introduction to his history, The Black Code of Illinois, Eastman stated, “In this State were trained for their great work, a Grant and a Washburne [Congressman Elihu Washburne, a friend of Lincoln and advocate early in the war for the unknown Ulysses Grant], and for the completion of it all was raised up ABRAHAM LINCOLN, to become the emancipator of the four million slaves that, by the powers of evil, had been nursed in the bosom of this Republic.”

Owen Lovejoy, brother of the murdered abolitionist newspaper editor, the first great martyr of the movement, Elijah P. Lovejoy, was the leader of the early abolitionist party in Illinois, the Liberty Party, and recruited Lincoln to join the embryonic Republican Party of Illinois. Owen Lovejoy was himself elected as a Republican member of Congress and became one of Lincoln’s staunchest advocates. “I tell you,” he said, “Mr. Lincoln is at heart as strong an anti-slavery as any of [the abolitionists], but he is compelled to feel his way. He has a responsibility in this matter which many men do not seem to be able to comprehend.” 

William Lloyd Garrison, founder of the great abolitionist journal, The Liberator, despised politics, especially party politics and politicians, whom he denounced to be in a pact with the devil, which was his view of the Constitution. Garrison said that though Lincoln was “six feet four inches high, he is only a dwarf in mind.” But when Lincoln ran for reelection, Garrison rethought his entire understanding and endorsed him. And this is what Garrison stated on May 20th, 1864: “For my own part, when I remember the trials through which he has passed, and the perils that have surrounded him—perils and trials unknown to any man, in any age of the world, in official station—when I remember how fearfully pro-slavery was the public sentiment of the North, to say nothing of the South—when I remember what he has had to deal with—when I remember how nearly a majority, even at this hour, is the seditious element of the North, and then remember that Abraham Lincoln has struck the chains from the limbs of more than three millions of slaves; that he has expressed his earnest desire for the total abolition of slavery; that he has implored the Border States to get rid of it; that he has recognized the manhood and citizenship of the colored population of our country; that he has armed upwards of a hundred thousand of them, and recognized them as soldiers under the flag; when I remember that this Administration has recognized the independence of Liberia and Hayti; when I remember that it has struck a death blow at the foreign slave trade by granting the right of search; when I remember that we have now nearly reached the culmination of our greatest struggle for the suppression of the rebellion and its cause, I do not feel disposed, for one, to take this occasion, or any occasion, to say anything very harshly against Abraham Lincoln.”

Frederick Douglass, fugitive slave, author of the bestselling slave narrative of his life, editor of the Northern Star, and radical abolitionist met with Lincoln three times. He had often been fiercely critical, at one time calling Lincoln the “miserable tool of traitors and rebels” who had shown himself to be “a genuine representative of American prejudice and negro hatred.” In their final encounter, on March 4th, 1865, Douglass listened in the crowd to Lincoln’s second inaugural address. “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”

Afterward, Douglass went to the White House, where at the door officers grabbed him by the arm to remove him. He told them it was a mistake, that Lincoln wished to see him. He sent a note inside. Soon he was let into the East Room where Lincoln was surrounded by admirers. “Recognizing me, even before I reached him, he exclaimed, so that all around could hear him, ‘Here comes my friend Douglass.’” “I am glad to see you,” said Lincoln. “I saw you in the crowd today, listening to my inaugural address. How did you like it?” “Mr. Lincoln,” Douglass replied, “I must not detain you with my poor opinion, when there are thousands waiting to shake hands with you.” “No, no,” he said, “you must stop a little, Douglass; there is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours. I want to know what you think of it?” “Mr. Lincoln,” said Douglass, “that was a sacred effort.”

On the eleventh anniversary of the assassination, on April 14th, 1876, Frederick Douglass delivered his “Oration on the Memory of Abraham Lincoln.” With the passage of time, Douglass reflected: “Despite the mist and haze that surrounded him; despite the tumult, the hurry, and confusion of the hour, we were able to take a comprehensive view of Abraham Lincoln, and to make reasonable allowance for the circumstances of his position. We saw him, measured him, and estimated him; not by stray utterances to injudicious and tedious delegations, who often tried his patience; not by isolated facts torn from their connection; not by any partial and imperfect glimpses, caught at inopportune moments; but by a broad survey, in the light of the stern logic of great events, and in view of that divinity which shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will, we came to the conclusion that the hour and the man of our redemption had somehow met in the person of Abraham Lincoln. It mattered little to us what language he might employ on special occasions; it mattered little to us, when we fully knew him, whether he was swift or slow in his movements; it was enough for us that Abraham Lincoln was at the head of a great movement, and was in living and earnest sympathy with that movement, which, in the nature of things, must go on until slavery should be utterly and forever abolished in the United States …. Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.”

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Sidney Blumenthal

Sidney Blumenthal is the author of All the Powers of Earth, The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln 1856-1860, A Self-Made Man, and Wrestling with His Angel, the first three volumes in his five-volume biography. He is a former assistant and senior adviser to President Bill Clinton and senior adviser to Hillary Clinton. He has been a national staff reporter for the Washington Post, Washington editor and writer for the New Yorker, and a contributor to the Washington Monthly.