Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Lincoln and the Abolitionists

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Lincoln and the Abolitionists

Article excerpt

History records Abraham Lincoln as the Great Emancipator, yet ardent abolitionists of his day such as William Lloyd Garrison viewed him with deep suspicion. That the 16th president eventually achieved the abolitionists' most cherished dream, says biographer Allen Guelzo, happened through a curious combination of political maneuvering, personal conviction, and commitment to constitutional principle.

One of the ironies of the Civil War era and the end of slavery in the United States has always been that the man who played the role of the Great Emancipator was so hugely mistrusted and so energetically vilified by the party of abolition. Abraham Lincoln, whatever his larger reputation as the liberator of two million black slaves, has never entirely shaken off the imputation that he was something of a half-heart about it. "There is a counter-legend of Lincoln," acknowledges historian Stephen B. Oates, "one shared ironically enough by many white southerners and certain black Americans of our time" who are convinced that Lincoln never intended to abolish slavery--that he "was a bigot ... a white racist who championed segregation, opposed civil and political rights for black people" and "wanted them all thrown out of the country." That reputation is still linked to the 19th-century denunciations of Lincoln issued by the abolitionist vanguard.

It has been the task of biographers ever since to deplore that image of Lincoln as the sort of extremist rhetoric that abolitionism was generally renowned for; or to insist that Lincoln may have had elements of racism in him but that he gradually effaced them as he moved on his "journey" to emancipation; or to suggest that Lincoln was an abolitionist all along who dragged his feet over emancipation for pragmatic political reasons.

Still, not even the most vigorous apologists for Lincoln can entirely escape the sense of distance between the Emancipator and the abolitionists. Indeed, they underestimate that distance, for the differences the abolitionists saw between themselves and Lincoln were not illusory or mere matters of timing and policy. They involved not just quarrels about strategies and timetables, but some genuinely unbridgeable cultural divides. Only when those differences are allowed their full play can we begin to recognize Lincoln's real place in the story of slavery's end. And only when those differences are not nudged aside can we see clearly the question Lincoln poses to the fundamental assumptions of American reform movements, which have drawn strength from the abolitionist example, rather than Lincoln's, ever since.

That the abolitionists disliked Lincoln almost unanimously cannot be in much doubt. They themselves said it too often, beginning as early as the mid-1850s, when Illinois abolitionists regarded Lincoln as a suspect recruit to the antislavery cause. The suspicions only deepened from the moment he stepped into the national spotlight as the Republican candidate for the presidency in 1860. Charles Grandison Finney, the Protestant evangelical theologian and president of Oberlin College, the nation's abolitionist hotbed, scored Lincoln in the first issue of the Oberlin Evangelist to appear after the nominating convention:

The Republican Convention at Chicago [has] put in nomination for President Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, a gentleman who became widely known a year and a half ago by his political footrace against S.A. Douglas for the place of United States Senate from their state. In that campaign he won laurels on the score of his intellectual ability and forensic powers; but if our recollection is not at fault, his ground on the score of humanity towards the oppressed race was too low.

In the eyes of black abolitionist H. Ford Douglass, Lincoln's stature showed no improvement during the 1860 presidential campaign:

I do not believe in the anti-slavery of Abraham Lincoln.... Two years ago, I went through the State of Illinois for the purpose of getting signers to a petition, asking the Legislature to repeal the 'Testimony Law,' so as to permit colored men to testify against white men. …

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