Lincoln's Defense of Politics: The Public Man and His Opponents in the Crisis over Slavery

By Thomas E. Schneider | Go to book overview

Chapter 10
Freedom, Political and Economic

Lincoln's refusal to endorse Hinton Helper's book The Impending Crisis of the South did not mean that he was unconcerned with the economic question presented by slavery, only that he subordinated that question to the political one. A different relation between economics and politics is implied in the definition of slavery that Allen C. Guelzo has ascribed to Lincoln: “he defined slavery as any relationship which forestalled social dynamism and economic mobility, or obstructed 'the paths of laudable pursuit for all.'” This definition is consistent with “indifference to slavery as an injustice to blacks,” at least until “the black slave … began to emerge in Lincoln's mind as a human being with the same Whiggish aspirations for escape and success” as Lincoln had himself. It is also consistent with indifference to slavery as a status in law because only blacks were legal slaves. If Lincoln “used to be a slave,” as he is reported to have said of himself, it was not a change in legal status that made him free. Guelzo apparently follows Richard Hofstadter: “For Lincoln the vital test of a democracy was economic…. This belief in opportunity for the self-made man is the key to his entire career … it is the core of his criticism of slavery.”1 Lincoln faced a rhetorical difficulty in addressing white audiences on the subject of Negro slavery: his auditors had no fear of being enslaved themselves. To make real to them

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