Freedom, Union, and Power: Lincoln and His Party during the Civil War

By Michael S. Green | Go to book overview

5
The Republicans and Slavery

ON 4 March 1861, Abraham Lincoln stood on the Capitol portico and sought to reassure the South of his peaceful intentions. "One section of our country believes slavery is right, and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong, and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial dispute, " he said. The dispute was more substantial than that, not only between North and South, but within his party. Republicans agreed on the need to confine slavery within its boundaries, but differed on the depths of their opposition to slavery and what their party should do about it. Even some radicals doubted that if freed, slaves could be equal to whites; many conservatives looked askance at granting rights such as suffrage that might help blacks become equal, in law or in fact.1

The passage of four years confirmed some of the wisdom in what was otherwise hyperbole. In the summer of 1863, Horace Greeley called the change of opinion on slavery "comparable with the early progress of Christianity." At Lincoln's request, the 1864 Union platform included a call to amend the Constitution—not to limit slavery, as the 1860 platform sought to do, but to ban it entirely by changing what many Republicans considered a sacred document. By 4 March 1865, when Lincoln stood again on that portico, the amendment had passed Congress. So had a variety of other measures, some of which he supported, some of which he accepted reluctantly. Republicans had been responsible for the prohibition of the domestic slave trade, abolition in the District of Columbia, the confiscation of slaves as rebel property, and the Emancipation Proclamation. At his second inauguration, Lincoln said, "These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war." On 11 April he told a White House crowd, "It is … unsatisfactory to some that the elective franchise is not given to the colored man. I would myself prefer that it were now conferred on the very intelligent, and on those who serve our cause as soldiers." He was more

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