Abraham Lincoln and a New Birth of Freedom: The Union and Slavery in the Diplomacy of the Civil War

By Howard Jones | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE
Lincoln on Slavery: A Constitutional Right and a Moral Wrong

[The Founding Fathers] meant simply to declare the right [of universal freedom], so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit.

Abraham Lincoln, June 26, 1857

[The black person is] as much entitled to . . . the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness . . . as the white man.

Abraham Lincoln, August 21, 1858

Abraham Lincoln revered the Constitution and the law and therefore viewed slavery as a political-constitutional issue rather than a question of morality.1 As a politician and a pragmatist, he opposed any measure that forced a confrontation over the matter and preferred the indirect remedies of gradual emancipation with compensation, followed by the colonization of free blacks in areas outside the United States. He knew that Article IV, Section 2, of the Constitution gave Congress the "Power to . . . make all needed Rules and Regulations respecting the territory . . . belonging to the United States." And yet he also understood that endless debates would result over the meaning of "all needed Rules and Regulations" when it came to the question of extending slavery into free territory. He consistently opposed its extension, making clear his dilemma: the Constitution and the laws of the land protected slave owners in their property, but the natural rights principles found in the Declaration of Independence prohibited the spread of slavery.

Until the 1850s, Lincoln joined many of his contemporaries in accepting slavery as an unavoidable evil that would eventually fade away if left alone. Those who owned slaves, he declared in the early part of the decade, were not necessarily bad people; rather, they had adopted slavery as a labor system because of the practical demands of climate and economics. Lincoln found southerners no better or worse than northerners: "If we were situated as they are, we should act and feel as they do; and if they were situated as we are, they

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