For a Vast Future Also: Essays from the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association

By Thomas F. Schwartz | Go to book overview

2
Lincoln’s Constitutional
Dilemma: Emancipation and
Black Suffrage

Eugene H. Berwanger

ABRAHAM LINCOLN has gotten bad press on the topics of emancipation and civil rights for blacks. Much revered as the Great Emancipator in the earlier part of this century, Lincoln in the post-World War II era became the Reluctant Emancipator. Among historians, it became fashionable in the 1950s and 1960s to dissociate Lincoln from his Radical Republican colleagues because of his seeming reluctance to interfere with slavery. According to these critics, the president took his time abolishing slavery; he appeared to like the idea of black suffrage even less. Describing Lincoln’s moves to destroy the peculiar institution, one historian has characterized them as “tortoiselike.” Another has declared: “If General McClellan had ‘the slows’ when it came to advancing against the Confederate army, [Lincoln] had the same affliction when it came to attacking slavery.” Even in the most recendy published text in United States history, a work entitled A People and A Nation, the authors stress Lincoln’s deliberate calltion in reputhating slavery; Lincoln, they argue, “would not let his personal feelings determine his political acts.” Frederick Douglass, renowned black spokesman for equal rights, apparendy concurred. In Douglass’s estimation, Lincoln was “preeminently the white man’s president.”1

Historians have used Lincoln’s own words to prove their assertion. They note, for example, his comment to a Cincinnati allthence in 1859: “I now assure you, that I neither … had, nor have, nor ever had, any purpose in any way of interfering with the institution.” Or they quote from Lincoln’s statement to Horace Greeley, editor of the

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