Paul Escott, “What Shall We Do With the Negro?” Lincoln, White Racism, and Civil War America, University of Virginia Press, 2009, 304 pp., $29.50
Paul Escott, who teaches history at Wake Forest University has written a fascinating account of Civil-War-era racial attitudes and how they influenced the conduct of the war. This is not a happy account of crusading abolitionist heroes; instead it is a serious attempt to understand what white people thought about race and how that affected their actions.
Prof. Escott puts Lincoln under the microscope, and makes no apologies for dispelling the rosy illusions many Americans have about “the Great Emancipator.” To a lesser degree, he also examines Jefferson Davis’s views on race and slavery, as well as the reasons Southerners gave for leaving the Union. Prof. Escott traces how racial convictions influenced politics, and demonstrates that the North was in many ways just as “racist” as the South. There is probably no other book that gives so well-rounded and unsentimental a picture of the racial thinking that drove decisions both in the North and the South.
It was racial thinking that drove the country apart, much as some would deny it. Confederate heritage organizations have been hunting for years for any possible reason other than slavery to explain why the South seceded. They say protective tariffs that hurt the South and a distinctly sectional spirit prompted secession. This was part of it, but Prof. Escott quotes effectively from the declarations of secession. Nothing could be clearer: Southerners thought Lincoln’s election was a threat to slavery. As the South Carolina declaration put it, it meant the federal government now believed “that a war must be waged against slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States.” Alabama declared that the election of Lincoln was “so insulting and menacing” to slavery that secession was the only way to preserve it.
Prof. Escott also quotes Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, who wrote of the “great truth” on which the Confederate government was founded: “that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.” Some declarations of secession also cited northern states’ refusal to enforce runaway slave laws as a reason to leave the Union. Prof. Escott adds that Southerners believed their hierarchical, patrician society was superior to the more populist North, but leaves no doubt that the main motive for secession was to protect slavery from outside interference.
But was Lincoln’s election in November 1860 the first step in an abolitionist campaign? It is true that he had famously claimed that “government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,” but in his Cooper Union speech in February 1860 he told a New York audience that although slavery should not be extended to the territories, it should remain unmolested where it was. The ultimate goal for him was separation: “In the language of Mr. Jefferson, uttered many years ago, ‘It is still in our power to direct the process of emancipation, and deportation, peaceably, and in such slow degrees, as the evil will wear off insensibly; and their places be, pari pasu, filled up by white laborers.” Still, any decision on emancipation would have to come from the states because the federal government had no power to bring it about.
Most Republicans were anti-slavery in the sense that they did not want it brought into the territories and would have endorsed Lincoln’s view that the new lands were to be “for the homes of free white people.” Only a small minority were determined to abolish slavery where it already existed.
Lincoln took office on March 4, and the firing on Fort Sumter was still more than a month away. In his inaugural address he said, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”
From the beginning, Lincoln’s primary goal was to bring the seceded states back into the Union. Whatever he did with regard to blacks was in the service of that goal, and he was not alone in hoping the Confederates would come back if they could be assured they could keep their slaves. On February 28, before Lincoln took office, Congress had passed what was known as the Corwin Amendment to the Constitution, which forbade any attempt by Congress to amend the Constitution to give itself the power to “abolish or interfere” with slavery. Seven southern states had already seceded and did not vote on the amendment but it still got the necessary two-thirds majority. Outgoing president James Buchanan endorsed it, and it was presented to the states for ratification. In the brief period between’s Lincoln’s inauguration and the beginning of the war, he wrote letters to all the governors urging them to support state approval. The legislatures of Ohio, Maryland and Illinois actually ratified the amendment before the war got underway in earnest and absorbed the nation’s attention.
Two weeks before the first Battle of Manassas, Congress officially resolved that the war was being fought to preserve the Union and not for the purpose of “overthrowing or interfering with the rights or established institutions” of the Confederate states. It was only later, after it became clear that the Confederacy could not be quickly crushed, that northerners begin to think of abolition as a means to deprive the South of slave labor and also as an added moral objective for what was turning into a bloody slog.
Professor Escott makes a strong case for the view that certainly Lincoln and probably a large number of northerners would have been willing to make virtually any concession on blacks and slavery in order to tempt the Confederate states back into the Union.
Unlike the radical Republicans, Lincoln never thought of slaveholders as moral inferiors, even saying they were “just what we would be in their situation.” He was related by marriage to Confederates. His wife, Mary Todd, came from a family of 14 children, six of whom supported the North and eight supported the South. One of his wife’s sisters was married to a Confederate general.
Virtually until the end of the war, Lincoln supported gradual, compensated emancipation coupled with colonization — on the initiative of the states, but with federal support. Late in 1861, for example, he proposed a compensated abolition program for Delaware that would have been so gradual that some blacks would have remained slaves into the 20th century. The state legislature did not act on it.
Lincoln thought slavery was wrong but that a society with large numbers of free blacks living among whites was just as wrong. Gradual emancipation coupled with colonization would solve both problems. In 1861, he persuaded Congress to pass a resolution in favor of colonization, but nothing came of it.
In August 1862, Lincoln invited black leaders to the White House — the first time blacks ever came in an official capacity — to ask them to persuade their people to emigrate. As Prof. Escott explains: “He accepted as a fact that the racial problem in America was profound and intractable; he wanted to end the conflict between white Americans and reunite the sections; and he favored the removal of black Americans as a solution.”
Lincoln’s reputation as “the Great Emancipator” rests mainly on the proclamation, but Prof. Escott points out that this document is hardly a ringing endorsement of liberty. As is well known, it promised freedom only to those slaves in Confederate-controlled territory, which is to say, to those slaves over whom Lincoln had no power.
It is less well known that what is called the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, issued on Sept. 22, 1862, offered the Confederate states 100 days to stop the fighting and send representatives to Congress. Any state that did so was urged to enact compensated emancipation, with funds to be paid from the US treasury. Blacks so freed would be encouraged to emigrate. However, emancipation was to be strictly a matter to be determined by the states, and any state that returned to the union could keep slavery intact. It was only if the southern states persisted in war that the slaves under their control would be freed. As the Cincinnati Gazette explained, “The way to save Slavery is simply to submit to the Constitution. … The way to destroy it is to persist in rebellion.”
At that time and repeatedly thereafter, Lincoln stated that the proclamation was strictly a war measure designed to weaken the South’s capacity to fight. He did not draft it in anything like the orotund phrases of which he was capable and thereby make it a monument to liberty. If anything, it reads like a bill of lading. At the same time, Lincoln was so solicitous of the cooperation of border state slave-holders that he exempted Kentucky and Tennessee from the proclamation, even though parts of those states were under Confederate control and would therefore have been subject to emancipation. As he explained, “What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps save the Union.” Professor Escott summarizes the three central themes of Lincoln’s thinking at this time about blacks: “that freedom was not an object but a means of victory; that colonization was a major goal; and that no ideas of racial equality were being entertained.”
In his annual message of December 1862, Lincoln called on Congress to pass a Constitutional amendment that would direct the federal government to compensate any state that abolished slavery during the next 37 years, up until the year 1900. He even provided for the possibility that a state might reintroduce slavery after having first abolished it, but that would require repaying any compensation received. The amendment went nowhere, but shows the tentative, leisurely pace at which Lincoln was prepared to free slaves.
Lincoln eventually approved raising black troops but he took some convincing. In the fall of 1862 he complained that “if we were to arm them [blacks], I fear that in a few weeks the arms would be in the hands of the rebels.”
In his Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction of December 1863, Lincoln drew up a road map for future Southern race relations. It included “apprenticeships” and “peonage” for freed blacks that would have been little different from slavery. His only requirement seemed to be that no slaves freed under the Emancipation Proclamation be reenslaved outright.
In a famous conversation reported by General Ben Butler but not otherwise confirmed, Lincoln was still talking about colonization at a time when the war was nearly won. In April 1865, he told the general it would be best for both blacks and whites if blacks could be sent away to some foreign land with a warm climate. At about the same time, he also expressed a mild “preference” that the most intelligent blacks might, under certain circumstances, be allowed to vote. Never in his life did Lincoln talk about social or political equality for blacks.
Prof. Escott devotes a dozen fascinating pages to the Hampton Roads peace conference of Feb. 3, 1865. Lincoln, along with his Secretary of State, William Seward, met with three Confederate representatives, including Vice President Alexander Stephens. No official records were kept of the discussions, but later accounts make it clear that even at this late date, Lincoln’s only non-negotiable demand was peace and reunification. Slavery was still an option. He again held out the possibility of making federal money available to compensate slaveholders for their property. By then, the 13th amendment had already been voted by Congress, but Lincoln suggested that if the Confederate states laid down their weapons and rejoined the Union they could vote as they pleased on the amendment, possibly defeating it. He even proposed the possibility of “prospective” approval of the amendment, or ratification to take place at some future date. This would have avoided what he called the “many evils” of immediate emancipation.
These reports from the conference show that even with the war nearly won, Lincoln was still thinking of ways to stop the killing and reunite the country, and was prepared to sacrifice the interests of blacks to those ends. It is far from certain whether he could have persuaded Congress to vote money for compensation, and some believe he was promising more than he could deliver in the hope of tricking the Confederates into stopping the war. In any case, his priorities at Hampton Roads were what they had always been: Union first, with blacks only a consideration to that end.
The Yankee view
There were certainly crusading egalitarians in the North, but they were rarities. Most whites were like Lincoln: they liked blacks no more than they liked slavery. When former slaves came streaming into Union camps, commanders had to do something with them. Several proposed sending them north but northern politicians would not accept them. In some occupied parts of the South, the Army rented out former slaves to Yankee plantation managers who treated them more harshly than their former masters did.
Many Northerners in the ranks met blacks for the first time. “We found them docile but they are great liars and great thieves,” one wrote. Another noted that their “opinions of conjugal fidelity” were “very loose.”
The US government set up the American Freedman’s Inquiry Commission to think about what should be done with former slaves once the war was over. In its final report, issued in May 1864, the commission concluded that most blacks would stay in the South and that they could be made to work for wages. However, the “African race” was “a knowing rather than a thinking race,” and would never “take a lead in the material improvement of the world.”
Paternalism was widespread. The New York Times, for example, wrote that even if they were free, blacks had no more business voting than did women or Indians, and that it was “little short of insane” to think otherwise. The Times was also relieved to learn that most blacks seemed to want to stay in the South and would not “swarm to the North.”
Prof. Escott reminds us that at the time of the 1864 election, there was so much unhappiness about the war that at one point Lincoln despaired of being reelected. Although his stance on blacks was essentially utilitarian, Democrats accused him of waging war for abolition and called him “a man who loves his country less and the negro more.” Democrats circulated “Campaign Document #11,” with the title, “Miscegenation Indorsed by the Republican Party.” It called the Republicans “the Abolition party now in power,” and said that “their object is to unite in marriage the laboring white man and the black woman, and to reduce the white laboring man to the despised and degraded condition of the black man.”
Prof. Escott notes that there were proponents of slavery in the North, among them New Yorker J. H. Van Everie, who published a book in 1861 called Negroes and Negro “Slavery”: The First an Inferior Race; The Latter its Normal Condition. Democrats circulated his work widely during the 1864 campaign. In Van Everie’s view, “the strongest affection” a slave “is capable of feeling is love for his master.” Free blacks, he argued, were unnatural and “destined to extinction.”
Anti-black campaigning was effective. Only after Atlanta fell to Sherman’s armies in September did voter sentiment shift back towards Lincoln and to further prosecution of the war.
Prof. Escott gives us another indication of the state of northern thinking about blacks. In the months just after the war, Connecticut, Minnesota, and Wisconsin took popular votes on whether to extend the franchise to blacks. All three voted not to. This result was especially significant for Wisconsin. In 1849, the state had voted for black suffrage but the measure had not taken effect because of a technicality. By 1865, the majority had turned against giving blacks the vote. At about the same time, Colorado joined the union, voting itself a constitution that denied blacks the vote.
The Southern view
Prof. Escott notes that there was never unanimity about slavery even in the South. Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Patrick Henry all worried about its consequences, and did not want it extended into the territories. In the upper South there had been active anti-slavery societies in the 1820s and 1830s, but as the sectional controversy sharpened, southerners grew intolerant and it became dangerous to criticize slavery. In private, however, even Robert E. Lee wrote in 1856 that “slavery as an institution is a moral & political evil in this country.”
The most common defense of slavery was that it was part of the divine plan. Even some northern churchmen — Alexander T. McGill of Princeton Theological Seminary, for example — took this view. Ironically, it was after secession, and after slavery had been written into the constitution of the Confederacy, that southerners felt freer to criticize slaveholders. Preachers, in particular, tried to reform the system so as to recognize slave marriage, stop the separation of families, and to consider slaves “a sacred trust” rather than mere property. There was also a strong push to ensure religious instruction for slaves.
It was not long, though, before massive slave defections to Union lines began to disabuse whites of the myth that slaves were loyal by nature. “Those we loved best, and who loved us best — as we thought — were the first to leave us,” was not an uncommon complaint.
As the war ground on and victory seemed less likely, many southerners began to consider the unthinkable: Arm the slaves. As the Jackson Mississippian wrote in 1863, “We must either employ the negroes ourselves, or the enemy will employ them against us.”
Late in the war, Jefferson Davis came around to this view. He had always been a very lenient slaveholder who believed in educating slaves and punishing them only when a jury of older, respected slaves believed it was deserved. By the end of 1864, he was quietly promoting the idea of freeing and arming slaves. At about that time he sent a delegation to France and Britain offering to abolish slavery in return for recognition, but those countries rejected his offer.
By 1864, however, Davis’s prestige was at low ebb, so he recruited the best-loved man in the Confederacy, Robert E. Lee, to be the public voice for arming blacks. Lee believed that without more manpower the South would surely lose the war and that freedmen could be loyal southerners. Lee found that support for black troops was strongest among white soldiers still in the field; they knew better than anyone how thinly they were stretched and welcomed any measure that might bring victory and justify their terrible sacrifices.
On March 13, 1865, by a slim majority, the Confederate Congress passed a law authorizing black troops but not emancipation. Davis wanted to offer emancipation as well, but in any case, the war ended before black Confederates saw action. Prof. Escott notes that most southerners thought that even if black soldiers would have to be freed, they could be kept in a state of “serfage or peonage” that would not be much different from slavery.
“Serfage or peonage” is a partial answer to the question raised by Confederate emancipation: If the South left the Union to preserve slavery, what was the point of independence if slavery had to be sacrificed to achieve it? Southerners expected to be able to control blacks — even if they had served as soldiers — and by 1864 or 1865, after years of war and hundreds of thousands of casualties, the South was determined to go its own way.
Similar questions can be raised about the South’s earlier decisions. If maintaining slavery was the main reason for secession, why were Southerners not reassured by Lincoln’s support for the Corwin Amendment and his promise that he had no desire to interfere with slavery where it already existed? Why did not Southern states reenter the Union and help ratify the Corwin Amendment? While it was still in the Union, the South had at least some northern cooperation in returning fugitive slaves. Outside the Union it would have none. Within the Union, it had some possibility of extending slavery into the territories; outside the Union it had none.
The Southern answer is that independence was always more important than slavery. The 20 years that led up to the secession crisis — 20 years of insult and interference — convinced the South that real protection would come only with independence.
Lincoln always overestimated Union sentiment in the South. If he believed that Southern states would take the bait of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation and reenter the Union he was wrong. By then, his armies had invaded the South, and southerners were committed to repelling invasion, not striking deals. One could argue in retrospect that the South should have taken the bait and, later, should have accepted Lincoln’s terms at Hampton Roads. Compensated emancipation or readmission to the Union in time to block passage of the 13th Amendment would have been much better than defeat, occupation, and uncompensated emancipation. Of course, there is no guarantee a Republican Congress would have approved those terms.
In hindsight, Confederate political calculations were disastrous. At the start of the war, the South could have demanded very strong assurances in return for rejoining the Union, but it felt its destiny was outside the Union. The longer the fighting went on, the dimmer the South’s prospects became, yet it fought until it could fight no more, and got the worst possible peace — forcible reunion on terms set by Republicans.
Ultimately, however, which section — North or South — had the more sensible race policy? The Confederate constitution continued the ban on the slave trade, but an independent South would have entrenched slavery and the presence of blacks. If any territories had joined the Confederacy they would have been slave states. The North had a different policy: free the slaves and encourage them to leave the country; reserve the territories for free white labor. The subsequent history of the United States would have been vastly different if the South had made an early peace and adopted Lincoln’s plan of gradual, federally-funded emancipation and colonization.
Prof. Escott’s book does not draw this conclusion, of course, but it points the reader in that direction. It would have been far better if the country had never had to ask itself, “What shall we do with the negro?” but the North’s answer was wiser and more far-sighted than that of the South.