- Lincoln was anti-slavery but not an abolitionist, and therefore he made a priority of following the Constitution in his efforts to preserve the union of the American states. Some abolitionists, like William Lloyd Garrison, thought the Constitution was a pro-slavery document and therefore its actions did not deserve the respect and obedience of the American citizenry. Its compromises with slavery were indefensible and therefore citizens of free states should sever their ties with slaveholders and slaveholding states post haste (“No Union with Slaveholders” was the motto on the masthead of his newspaper The Liberator): “Let our erring sisters go,” was his plea.
Lincoln and most Republicans were at pains to disavow the charge that they were abolitionists; they understood themselves to be both anti-slavery and pro-Constitution. They thought the constitutional compromises with slavery had to be upheld as they were instrumental in securing the union of the American states. But for those compromises, there would be no American constitutional union. Moreover, it was a union that derived from the association of American colonies that fought to become independent from Great Britain in their pursuit of freedom. In other words, freedom depended upon independence, and independence depended upon union. Therefore, Republicans (along with northern Democrats) thought that those constitutional compromises with state slavery, despite fundamentally contradicting the liberty that republics are formed to protect, needed to be upheld as an expression of political good faith. That said, good faith on the part of the slaveholding states would eventually entail efforts to extricate themselves (and the American nation) from the hold that slavery had on their economic way of life. Not that there were any explicit statements or commitments by slaveholding states early on to put slavery, as Lincoln phrased it, “on the course of ultimate extinction”; rather, that the logic of republican government obligated citizens who based their freedom upon their natural possession of rights to rid themselves of slavery “as fast as circumstances should permit” (again quoting Lincoln).
The implications for emancipation were that it could only be pursued indirectly at the federal level (i.e., in the few areas where the Constitution empowered the national government to do so, like the foreign slave trade and the regulation of federal territories), while direct efforts to abolish slavery could only be carried out by state governments. So, the federal government could begin its efforts to eliminate American slavery by restricting its entry into the U.S. (i.e., cut off its supply) and preventing its expansion into federal territories. Ove time, slavery would thus wither on the vine, and gradually the nation would outlive its need to make a living by means of “the peculiar institution.” The invention of the cotton gin in the early 1790s disrupted these premises, and made cotton too lucrative an export to forego. What began as a “necessary evil” became a “positive good” in the eyes of those who benefitted from cotton becoming king.
In the 1850s, Lincoln was the most principled and eloquent expositor of the constitutional distinction between direct and indirect emancipation policies, a distinction he tried to maintain as the newly-elected president and then as the commander-in-chief once the Civil War began six weeks into his presidency. Lincoln would issue his Emancipation Proclamation only after his efforts to get loyal slaveholding states to adopt gradual emancipation policies failed, and the need to subvert a slave system that kept the Confederate war machine humming became urgent. (A permanent elimination of the institution of slavery took the form of the 13th Amendment near the end of Lincoln’s first term as president.) For the federal government to emancipate slaves under the Constitution, which hitherto was obligated to return fugitive slaves, Lincoln had to turn a humanitarian end into a constitutional means, which action he explained most famously in his August 1862 reply to NY Tribune editor Horace Greeley, who had complained that the president had not done enough to enforce the Confiscation Acts passed by Congress in 1861 and 1862.
Lincoln addressed the laudable concern for constitutional means and ends throughout his presidency, esp. when criticized for suspending the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus. Many of his most important public statements—whether by speech, public letter, or official executive order—were directed at informing public opinion regarding presidential actions that seemed to go beyond his constitutional authority. Emancipation was just one of the actions he took that even some folks in the North believed was not authorized by the Constitution. Fighting a war to suppress what he considered a massive rebellion or “insurrection” was another action he undertook that certainly many citizens in the South believed was unconstitutional “coercion” against legitimate “secession” (which Lincoln called “the essence of anarchy” and “rebellion sugar-coated”).
- Unlike James Buchanan, the previous president, Lincoln thought he had a sworn duty as president to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States,” which means from both external and internal enemies. After winning the presidential election, not only did the newly elected president have to decide if he would fulfill his obligation under the Constitution, but the American people also had to decide if they would fulfill their obligation as citizens: namely, to obey the president and other elected rulers, esp. the Congress. For citizens to do otherwise would be to subvert the republic as a representative, constitutional regime. Republics require good winners and good losers, and the burden of Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address was to demonstrate that his Administration and his political party would be good winners by following the Constitution and not threaten slavery in the states where it already existed. (Republicans would soon become the majority of the House of Representatives, and also in the Senate once the seceded states vacated their representation in the Senate.)
How Lincoln and the rest of the federal government, along with the American citizenry, responded to the crisis of secession would determine if self-government could succeed as a viable form of the governance of a free people. This involved a willingness not only to trust the incoming Administration and Congress to rule for the benefit of all but also to defend—with force if necessary—the people, territory, and institutions of America. The greatest challenge Americans faced was deciding what to do when a significant portion of the population no longer trusted its national government to rule in its interest. In short, loyal Americans had to decide if secession was a legitimate political alternative to losing an election. If not, were they willing to defend not simply a territory or people from internal attack but also a political way of life (a constitutional republic)?
- Fundamental disagreement about the nature of the federal union under the U.S. Constitution: Lincoln and most Americans understood the Constitution to be a sovereign, national government, whereas those who attempted to secede believed the Constitution to be a mere league or alliance of sovereign states. Under this state compact theory of government, citizens of eventually 11 (of 15) slaveholding American states believed that Lincoln’s election and the growing Republican control of Congress was the culmination of decades of anti-slavery sentiment and action by northern (i.e., free) states. Chief among their complaints was the interference with enforcement of the Fugitive Slave act of 1850, mainly due to the passing of personal liberty laws in several free states. Other events understood by the South to undermine the institution of slavery were the 1859 raid on the armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, by John Brown, and the lack of federal enforcement of the 1857 Dred Scott decision (which ruled that Congress, and by implication territorial legislatures, could not ban slavery in the federal territories).
Appeals to what would later be called “states’ rights”* derived from southern slaveholding interests, who complained that slaveholding Americans were being discriminated against if they could not safely take their property (i.e., their slaves) to federal territories. Without the ability to do so, they could not in the long run maintain parity with free states in the U.S. Senate, for as future states would grow out of territories, the status of slavery in those territories would determine if free or slave states would be added to the American union over time. Already outnumbered by population in the House of Representatives, slave states had long been able to protect their regional interests (which included “the peculiar institution”) by staying even with free states in the Senate. Slaveholding states thus interpreted the growth of the Republican Party to mean the growth of anti-slavery sentiment, which meant slavery would eventually lose its protection under the federal government. In short, secession represented a preemptive strike by slaveholding states in defense of their domestic institutions. Because slaveholding states believed that free states had broken the federal compact through personal liberty laws and such, they thought that secession on their part was not a coercive or unconstitutional act, but rather a simple political acknowledgment that the federal compact no longer was viable and therefore all parties to that contract were free to resume their original sovereign status and form new alliances if they so chose. Thus was born the Confederate States of America.
*Here are the common phrases used before “states’ rights” became popular after the Civil War: sovereign rights, equality (meaning equality of the states), rights of sovereignty, equal right(s) in the Union, constitutional rights, states are sovereign, sovereign state, state sovereignty, and right(s) of a state.
- The aspirations of a victorious loyal citizenry became immensely complicated, if not disrupted, upon Lincoln’s assassination. Reconstruction was a policy Lincoln pursued even before the Civil War ended; in fact, he pursued it in select states of the Rebellion (Louisiana, in particular) but offered it to the citizens of all of the rebellious states as a means of bringing the war to a conclusion. Chief among his aims was restoration of the federal authority (hence, his preferred term, “restoration” rather than “reconstruction”) and, after January 1, 1863, “restoration of all rights to property, except as to slaves.”
The grand difficulty not only for Lincoln but for succeeding Presidents Johnson and Grant was the federal structure of the American government. Although the war was fought by means of a soldiers principally drawn from 19 loyal American states, the peace would be secured by citizens of American states both victorious and conquered. Emancipation and the 13th Amendment produced the freedom of close to 4 million black Americans, most of whom lived among their former oppressors. Nothing short of a continued military presence, directed by the federal government (and one at odds as to which branch should take the lead, the President or Congress), could guarantee the protection of the rights of the freedmen and the reinauguration of loyal state governments within the American constitutional system. The political history of this post-war period (1865-1877, and arguably 2 more decades to cover important Supreme Court rulings) is a series of measures and counter-measures conducted by both federal and state governments that in the end betrayed the best intentions for the protection of black Americans and the aspiration of a truly United States of America, both of which should have been the legitimate consequences of a successful preservation of the American union.