At the time of his first inauguration, it was widely noted that President Obama was a great admirer of Abraham Lincoln. Those who thrilled at the election of our first black president thought his decision to swear his oath on the same Bible Lincoln had used was fitting and proper. Those who distrusted him found it excessive and vain.
Four years later, the president still had Lincoln on his mind. He hosted members of Congress for a screening of Steven Spielberg’s film, and invited its screenwriter, Tony Kushner, to the White House. At his second inauguration, he quoted the greatest of inaugural addresses, in which Lincoln told the nation that the bloodbath of the Civil War, still raging as he spoke (historians have lately revised upward the estimate of battlefield deaths to three-quarters of a million), was the price demanded by God for America’s original sin of building the republic on the backs of slaves. Lincoln spoke carefully of “American slavery” rather than Southern slavery, and warned, in the phrase cited by Obama, that the price of expiation would not be met till every drop of “blood drawn by the lash” was paid in “another drawn by the sword.”
Our current president then turned to the less violent and more comfortable American story of progress through incremental reform. “Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall” was the alliterative phrase by which he made the turn. Reverting to his habitual appeal for bipartisanship, he spoke of what, on election night, he had called the “painstaking work of building consensus”—the sort of thing that has been a staple of inaugural speeches since Thomas Jefferson declared, after the bitter election of 1800, “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”
But there is a problem here—perhaps the deepest problem of our history. It is the incompatibility between venerating Lincoln as the martyred leader of America’s self-purification through blood and fire and claiming, as many have done, that what makes America exceptional among nations has been its capacity for compromise along a relatively narrow political spectrum. A president temperamentally inclined to seek middle ground was invoking the central instance in our history of a political and moral impasse out of which no middle way could be found—and a savage war succeeded where compromise had failed.
It was not for lack of trying. The Declaration of Independence, which Lincoln called the “sheet anchor” of the republic, was compromised—in both senses of the word—from the start. It became acceptable to all thirteen colonies only after Jefferson struck from his preliminary draft the culminating charge in his list of grievances against the British crown: the king’s complicity with the slave trade, which Jefferson described as a “cruel war against human nature.” After acceding to what he later called the mutilation of his text, Jefferson compromised with himself for the rest of his life over the issue of slavery, decrying it as “unremitting despotism” while retaining his own slaves.
The Constitution, too, was in part a work of evasion and deferral.
The Constitution, too, was in part a work of evasion and deferral. The words “slave” or “slavery” are nowhere to be found in it—a fact from which some anti-slavery politicians, including Lincoln, inferred that the Founders intended that slavery should somehow, sometime, come to an end. “This mode of alluding to slaves and slavery, instead of speaking of them,” Lincoln explained in the speech that made him a serious presidential candidate in 1860, “was employed on purpose to exclude from the Constitution the idea that there could be property in man.” Five years earlier, he had asserted that “the thing is hid away, in the Constitution, just as an afflicted man hides away a wen or a cancer, which he dares not cut out at once, lest he bleed to death; with the promise, nevertheless, that the cutting may begin at the end of a given time.”
It was an attractive (and among Republicans, conventional) analysis—but it was also tendentiously hopeful. The Founders may have regarded the time for emancipation as “given,” but they never disclosed the projected date of the gift. By counting “three-fifths of all other persons” for purposes of congressional representation, they gave the South at least a temporary majority in the new House of Representatives. And they included a clause prescribing that any “person held to service or labour in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another ... be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labour may be due.” The euphemistic use of “persons” for “slaves” was an effort to have it both ways. As a result, the Constitution implicitly recognized slaves as persons, but never explicitly acknowledged that a large minority of Americans, along with their unborn descendants, were destined to live and die enslaved.
This kind of ducking and dodging remained the language of American statecraft through the first half of the nineteenth century. By the eve of the Civil War, with the number of slaves at roughly four million, it was implausible to deny that the Founders had tolerated slavery in their own time as a fact of national life. But it was plausible to ask what they intended concerning its future beyond the borders of the states that made the original compact to form the nation. Even before ratification, five of the original signatories to the Constitution (Connecticut, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island) had passed laws providing for immediate or gradual abolition. These actions raised the question of the status of slave property when transported from a slave state to a free state—whether by the choice of a master who wished to take his “servant” with him on business or pleasure, or by the will of a slave attempting to flee to freedom. Here was a constitutional issue akin to the question today of the legal status of same-sex partners who marry under the laws of one state and then move to a state that does not recognize the legality of their marriage.
There were arguments from historical evidence on both sides. Supporters of slavery cited the fact that James Madison, the mastermind of the Constitution, endorsed the fugitive-slave clause, which protected slave-owners’ property rights outside the slave states. But, as James Oakes points out in his important new book, Freedom National, when Madison’s notes on the debate at the constitutional convention were published in 1840, they revealed that he had declared it “wrong to admit in the Constitution the idea that there could be property in men.”
Oakes’s book shows how this apparent contradiction became the central point of contestation in antebellum politics. Supporters of slavery insisted that human chattel were subject to the same protections that the Constitution afforded to all property. Opponents countered that even those among the Founders who owned slaves conceded the incompatibility of slavery with natural law. On this view, slavery was an institution based solely on positive law—statutes, that is, passed by legislative action within particular states. Since slavery was strictly a local—never a national—institution, it had no legitimacy outside the states whose laws permitted it. To this viewpoint Oakes gives the name “antislavery constitutionalism,” which became the bedrock principle of a new political party, the Republican Party, that emerged in the 1850s. The principle was clear: the Constitution protected slavery wherever state law sanctioned it, but it conferred on the federal government no obligation to tolerate it wherever state law did not apply—not in the territories, not at sea, not in the District of Columbia, and not in any state where slavery had already been abolished.
One effect of this view, both on those who held it and on those who abhorred it, was to discredit the tradition of compromise by which the republic had created and tried to sustain itself. In James Basker’s fine compendium of anti-slavery writings, we find the abolitionist Gerrit Smith writing in 1839 in protest to Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky, who, twenty years earlier, had helped to broker the Missouri Compromise, by which Maine was admitted as a free state, Missouri as a slave state, and future expansion of slavery permitted south of the 36°30′ parallel but proscribed in territories to the north. For two decades, this agreement more or less kept the slavery question out of mainstream politics. But for opponents of slavery within the constitutionalist camp, to allow its spread anywhere in the Union was to make, in Smith’s words, an “unholy compromise, in which tranquility was purchased at the expense of humanity.”
A few years later, another dispute—this one over territories acquired through the Mexican War, including the future states of California, New Mexico, Utah, and Nevada, and most of Arizona—again threatened the pact of co-existence between North and South. In a speech delivered on March 7, 1850, Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts threw his support behind a new compromise. California would be admitted as a free state, the slave trade (but not slavery itself) would be abolished in the District of Columbia, and, in order to appease the South, a new fugitive-slave law would curtail the legal rights of fugitives in free states and impose penalties on anyone harboring them. During Webster’s speech on behalf of this so-called “Compromise of 1850,” one of those listening from the ladies’ gallery was the wife of William H. Seward, Republican senator from New York—the man who was to become Lincoln’s rival for the Republican nomination in 1860, and later his secretary of state. A new biography of Seward by Walter Stahr reports that a few days after hearing Webster’s speech, Mrs. Seward wrote to her sister that the very word compromise had become “hateful to me.” She was not alone. Ralph Waldo Emerson, who had once regarded Webster as “the best head in Congress,” now called him “the head of the slavery party in this country.”
In 1854, the question of slavery expansion arose again, this time in connection with the Kansas and Nebraska territories. Illinois Democrat Stephen Douglas argued for settling the fate of slavery there by putting it to a vote of the local inhabitants, a proposal to which he gave the praising name “popular sovereignty.” When Congress approved the Kansas-Nebraska Act, authorizing this apparently democratic solution, Douglas seemed to have inherited Henry Clay’s mantle as the “Great Pacificator.” But in fact the Kansas-Nebraska act inflamed anti-slavery sentiment by countenancing the expansion of slavery into areas where it had not previously existed. A few years later, Douglas angered Southern Democrats as well by suggesting that the decision of the U. S. Supreme Court in the Dred Scott case in 1857, which seemed to guarantee slaveholders’ right to take their slaves anywhere they pleased, could be negated by local popular vote. When Douglas ran for reelection to the Senate in 1858, his Republican opponent, Abraham Lincoln, accused him of hiding his true convictions under the cloak of compromise. Douglas claimed not to care where, or whether, slavery was voted up or down, but beneath his “declared indifference,” Lincoln detected “a covert real zeal” to see it spread.
This was probably an overstatement deployed for rhetorical purposes. John Burt, in Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism, allows for the possibility that Douglas was personally averse to slavery. But whatever his private convictions, Douglas’s public career was proof that in mid-century America, anyone seeking middle ground found the earth disappearing from beneath his feet. Slave-owning Southerners now regarded the whole history of “compromise” as a sorry story of retreat before the encroaching power of the North. Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina had made that charge on March 4, 1850, three days before Webster’s attempt to compromise again. Calhoun was a dying man, too weak to stand and speak, so a colleague read his words for him. The burden of the speech was that the South no longer had any “compromise to offer ... and no concession ... to make.” Meanwhile, with symmetrical indignation, anti-slavery Northerners saw the same trail of compromise as a series of craven acts by which the natural rights of millions of human beings had been sacrificed to the slave power. According to the man who succeeded Webster in the Senate in 1851, Charles Sumner, “it is by compromise that human rights have been abandoned.”
In July 1861, three months after the outbreak of a war that nearly a century of compromise had failed to avert, Vanity Fair magazine put into verse the last point upon which North and South could cordially agree:
The veriest spawn of the “Father of Lies” Is that creeping creature called Compromise.... Come to your senses! Up! Arise! Ere ye strike on the rock of Compromise!
For lingering believers in the possibility of sustaining a half-slave, half-free republic, a shock had come in October 1859, when the abolitionist John Brown led a small band of followers in armed attack on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Brown’s original plan had been to raise a liberation army of several thousand and to distribute the seized weapons to local slaves, with whom he would then march through the South, arming more slaves as he went, with instructions to use the guns only in self-defense. In the event, he was pinned down in the arsenal for two days before being captured, tried, and executed along with several of his accomplices. The first man to die in the raid was a free black railroad porter whom Brown or one of his comrades shot in the back.
The editors of a new anthology of contemporary and retrospective responses to Brown, John Stauffer and Zoe Trodd, describe, with a serviceable if infelicitous metaphor, his effect on the nation:
Instead of political ideas moving toward a center, as they ordinarily do in America, like milk flowing down the sides of a bowl toward the bottom, they suddenly shot up and out toward the lip, the extreme edges. As a result, revolutionaries became heroes (or antiheroes), while compromisers ... were simply viewed with contempt or suspicion. With his raid on Harpers Ferry, Brown jostled the political bowl.
This view of “the meaning and significance of John Brown,” as Stauffer and Trodd put it, is not new. Nearly forty years ago, in his magisterial book The Impending Crisis, 1848–1861, David Potter wrote that “Unionist sentiment” in the South, “robust up to that time, now suddenly began sinking as the South saw itself isolated and beset in a union with fellow citizens who would turn loose upon it the horror” of slave insurrection. Published around the same time, Steven Channing’s Crisis of Fear: Secession in South Carolina detailed how Brown’s raid created a “base line of race fear” that “stretched unbroken across the state, embracing patrician planter and yeoman farmer.”
Stauffer’s and Trodd’s main contribution is to provide a convenient assemblage of documents illustrating how Brown’s action accelerated the mutual alienation between North and South, but their book is valuable also for its selection of responses from abroad, including comments by Marx, Garibaldi, and John Stuart Mill, who, in his Autobiography, described Brown as a “voluntary martyr.” They also make some counterfactual speculations about what might or might not have happened if Brown had been talked out of his plan (as Frederick Douglass, among other prospective allies, tried to do). They believe that if he had not acted, the Democratic Party would not have split between unionists and secessionists, and Stephen Douglas would have been elected president in 1860 instead of Lincoln. Historians of antebellum America have often been inclined to imagine alternative histories. In his recent book What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848, Daniel Walker Howe, citing the work of Gary Kornblith, surmises that, if Henry Clay had won the presidential election of 1844 instead of the expansionist James K. Polk, the Civil War might never have happened.
Stauffer and Trodd present conflicting points of view about Brown, but it is clear whose side they are on. They see him as a prophet whose resort to violence was “retaliatory” against the physical and psychic violence that slavery inflicted on its victims, to which they think he was especially sensitive because of his own experiences of pain and loss. They think Brown’s mistake was not the initial assault, but his having “delayed unnecessarily” before distributing arms to Virginia’s black population—slaves and freemen alike—who might have risen up in rebellion if he had been quicker to proceed. In their view, Brown was a non-violent man (despite his having participated in the murder of several pro-slavery settlers in Kansas) driven by a deep religious faith to liberate people unable to liberate themselves.
Such an assessment tends to relegate those who opposed both slavery and anti-slavery violence to a purgatory reserved for moral cowards. Seward, for instance, having made his own Senate speech nearly ten years earlier in which he spoke of a “higher law” than the Constitution, now rushed to distance himself from Brown. Stauffer and Trodd concur with Frederick Douglass’s view that Seward thereby fled into “the swamps of compromise and concession,” where, presumably, he was joined by his political rival Lincoln, who also spoke of slavery as an abomination but condemned Brown as a deranged man who “fancies himself commissioned by Heaven” to put an end to it.
Among the antidotes to schematic and moralistic renderings of the past are biographies that convey the day-to-day opacity through which the future cannot be discerned, much less controlled, even by men who wield considerable power. Stahr’s life of Seward is such a book. Sometimes the Seward we meet in its pages resembles Stauffer’s and Trodd’s version. He can be a have-it-both-ways kind of guy—as when he writes to his mentor, Thurlow Weed (chief “wire-puller” of Republican politics, as one historian has called him), professing to be glad that Andrew Jackson survived an assassination attempt, but also glad that someone gave it a try. To this reader, at least, it is the sort of thing that lifts (or lowers) Seward out of the usual formalities and makes him rather likable.
A lot of people, however, have not liked him. Elizabeth Keckley, the former slave who was seamstress to Mary Todd Lincoln, wrote that Mrs. Lincoln distrusted Seward as a man of “no principle.” In their history of the Lincoln administration, the late president’s secretaries John Hay and John Nicolay reported rumors that, in February 1865, at the Hampton Roads conference, Seward intimated to the Confederate commissioners that, if the South gave up its arms and returned to the Union, the restored states might yet block ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, which Congress had passed just a few days earlier. Michael Vorenberg, whose Final Freedom: The Civil War, the Abolition of Slavery, and the Thirteenth Amendment is the authoritative work on the subject, cites no evidence to corroborate this claim, but Seward’s reputation for hedging and trimming has nevertheless dogged him beyond death. In Gore Vidal’s novel Lincoln, Seward is a fawning kibitzer who, still pining for the presidency, flatters Lincoln even as he hopes for his impeachment after Lincoln has ordered political opponents arrested on charges of sedition. In her recent book A World on Fire, about the wartime relations between the United States and Britain, Amanda Foreman accuses Seward of “shameless opportunism” when, as governor of New York, he appealed to the Irish-immigrant vote by railing against England.
What might be called the Seward problem is a microcosm of the larger challenge of coming to terms with anti-slavery politicians who demurred at the abolitionist demand for radical action, and tried instead to undermine slavery without frontally assaulting it. How can one reconcile the slippery Seward with the man whom one Southern paper called “an abolitionist of the deepest dye”? Stauffer and Trodd seem to think it cannot be done. They offer a simple taxonomy of anti-slavery politics in which men like Seward, no less than Lincoln himself, are foot-draggers by comparison with heroes such as Brown. But how, then, do we account for the Seward who proclaimed again and again that the conflict between slavery and freedom was “radical, and therefore perpetual” until one would inevitably give way to the other? Was he a hypocrite who spoke one way and acted another? Do we dismiss him as just another “moderate to conservative Republican” (Stauffer’s and Trodd’s phrase for Lincoln) who faltered in the face of the enormous challenge of destroying slavery without destroying the nation?
Among the many virtues of James Oakes’s book is that it forces us to recast the terms of these questions. One comes away from it with a clarified sense that there really was no such thing as a moderate Republican, someone, that is, willing to make any kind of peace—a truce maybe, but not a peace—with slavery as part of the American future.
“Moderate” Republicans initially preferred a policy of containment based in the tradition of anti-slavery constitutionalism. “The federal government,” Oakes writes, “would surround the South with free states, free territories, and free waters, building what they called a ‘cordon of freedom’ around slavery, hemming it in until the system’s own internal weaknesses forced the slave states one by one to abandon slavery.” Precisely because the implications of this policy were clearer to contemporaries than they have been to some historians, seven slave states seceded from the Union within weeks of Lincoln’s election, and four more followed in response to his call for volunteer troops to put down the rebellion. In Lincoln, the South knew with whom it was dealing: an immoderate enemy of slavery who nevertheless respected constitutional constraints on federal power as he understood them. This was the Lincoln to whom John Burt attributes “tragic pragmatism”—which Burt defines as the commitment to satisfy an “imperative and absolute” moral ideal (in Lincoln’s case, it was the principle of universal equality enunciated in the Declaration) while simultaneously accepting the limits of politics to force the real into conformity with the ideal.
As Oakes puts the matter, “the biggest problem abolitionists faced” (here he uses the term “abolitionist” to encompass both those who renounced deliberative politics as hopeless because of the slavery-friendly Constitution, and those, such as Lincoln, who tried to work within politics) “was not a proslavery public but a Constitution that protected slavery in the states where it already existed.” Yet at the moment of secession, the terms of sectional conflict instantly changed when, by their own choice, eleven states transformed themselves into a foreign enemy. Republicans half-dreaded and half-welcomed this day, but once it came all constitutional bets were off. Oakes rejects the idea that the war began (in the minds of Northerners) as a struggle for restoration of the Union and only gradually became a campaign for emancipation. The originality of Oakes’s book consists in how radically he reduces the significance of this distinction.
By his account, even before the shooting began in earnest, the divergent war aims converged. In May 1861, General Benjamin Butler, commanding Fortress Monroe in Hampton, Virginia, found himself with the problem of deciding what to do with three slaves who had fled their masters and sought his protection. Virginia voters had ratified the ordinance of secession proposed a month earlier by a state convention—so when an officer of the Virginia Artillery demanded that Butler return the slaves to their owner on the basis of the fugitive slave law of 1850, the general replied that “the fugitive-slave act did not affect a foreign country, which Virginia claimed to be.” Oakes shows how this sort of spontaneous field-commander action set in motion a step-by-step enlargement of the emancipatory effect of the war—what I once heard the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates describe as “good mission creep.”
First came the Confiscation Act of early 1861, which permitted seizure of property, including slaves, being used in the Confederate war effort. In August of that same year, in the border state of Missouri, General John C. Frémont expanded his confiscatory power to include slaves not only of direct use to the Confederate war effort, but owned by anyone sympathizing with the rebellion. In the spring of 1862, Major General David Hunter, operating in coastal Georgia, ordered the emancipation of “all persons of color lately held to involuntary service by enemies of the United States.” Seen as part of this sequence, the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment become predestined outcomes of a process set in motion when the first shell was fired on Fort Sumter.
Much of this story has been told before, but Oakes’s telling gives it unprecedented coherence as the systematic exercise of policy rooted in a tradition of “the law of nations,” which, for centuries, had treated the seizure of slaves as among the legitimate spoils of war. Sometimes the telling is a bit too coherent, as when Oakes reads Lincoln’s first inaugural address (in the drafting of which Seward had a hand) as a subtle attack on the fugitive-slave law of 1850, rather than as a reluctant reassurance that he would enforce it—reassurance, at least, to those slave states (Kentucky, Missouri, Delaware, Maryland) that had remained in the Union. But, as Oakes puts it, “conciliation was not the same thing as compromise.” He remarks of Lincoln that he “hated slavery and he hated the war.” The Lincoln we meet in his book is determined that the conclusion of the latter not come before the destruction of the former.
If Oakes writes with an almost aesthetic taste for unity and consistency, Louis Masur, in Lincoln’s Hundred Days, takes up a smaller part of the tale and tells it as a more reactive and improvisatory process. He focuses on the hundred days between Lincoln’s preliminary emancipation proclamation of September 22, 1862, and the final proclamation signed on January 1, 1863. His Lincoln is less the leader of a unified party and more a man buffeted by forces from the right trying to slow him down on the road to emancipation, and from the left trying to drive him faster. He is closer to the Lincoln who wrote, in April 1864, “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.”
Masur’s book recovers the guesswork and gambles that are the stuff of lived history. It also reminds us that the moral clarity we may wish to impose on the past is—or should be—elusive. Enemies of slavery, for instance, were not necessarily friendly to slaves. We meet in Masur’s pages a young Union soldier who exults in “stealing” slaves from the enemy but without the slightest concern for their fates. General Butler himself (we learn from Oakes) was a Democrat who voted more than fifty times for Jefferson Davis at the party’s convention in 1860. But he was also a practical-minded soldier ultimately loyal to the Union, who recognized the value of slave labor to the enemy. Among the strengths of Masur’s book is its account of how the war changed minds—from enlisted and conscripted men to those directing the war—by introducing “slavery to soldiers as a reality, not as an abstraction.” As one Wisconsin Volunteer put it, the rebellion was “abolitionizing the whole army.”
In Masur’s book, we see Sumner pushing, and Lincoln braking, as debate proceeded over whether making emancipation an explicit war aim would hasten victory or retard it. In the fall of 1861, after the Union humiliation at Bull Run, Sumner was sure that the quick “overthrow of slavery will make an end of the war,” while Lincoln, in his December message to Congress (the equivalent of today’s State of the Union address), cautioned that open action against slavery could cause the war to “degenerate into a violent and remorseless revolutionary struggle” by driving the border states into the Confederacy and provoking the solid South to fight harder. When, in March 1862, Lincoln sent another message to Congress proposing a program of compensated emancipation, representative Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania derided the idea as “the most diluted, milk and water gruel proposition ... ever given to the American nation” at the same time that Frederick Douglass, even as he pressed Lincoln to authorize enlistment of black troops, described him as “a brave man trying against great odds, to do right.”
Although neither Oakes nor Masur mentions it, their books put me in mind of an eyewitness essay, “The Great Secession Winter,” written by the young Henry Adams while he was serving in late 1860 and early 1861 as secretary to his father, Charles Francis Adams, Republican representative from Massachusetts. In that essay, Adams identified two wings of the Republican Party:
The policy of the one wing led to a violent destruction of the slave power; perhaps by war, perhaps by slave insurrection. The policy of the other wing was to prevent a separation in order to keep the slave power more effectually under control, until its power for harm should be gradually exhausted, and its whole fabric gently and peacefully sapped away.
Sumner and Stevens belonged to the first wing; Lincoln and Seward (and Adams’s father) to the second. The tendency of modern historiography has been to credit the first with seeing the slave South for what it was: not a failing society back on its heels but a vigorous expansionist power that could only be broken by force.
A number of recent historians, including Stephanie McCurry, Adam Rothman, and Manisha Sinha, have helped to build this case, and now a new book by Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom, goes a long way toward clinching it. Johnson shows in horrific detail how the culture of slave society—intellectual, social, sexual—arose out of the imperative of more and more cotton cultivation. In a brilliant chapter titled “The Carceral Landscape,” Johnson’s book reads as a kind of scholarly companion to Quentin Tarantino’s studiously gothic film Django Unchained. He demonstrates “the spectacular character” of punishment (deliberately evoking the root sense of spectacular as denoting something demonstrative to the eye) by showing how “slaveholders used violence didactically”—creating, with every whipping, with every leashing of a shoeless slave to the saddle of a trotting horse, a spectacle that flooded into the mind of any slave contemplating flight or resistance. This regime of terror was as sophisticated as it was brutal: “the baying of hounds in the woods” becomes “a sort of sonic tracer by which slaveholders could follow ... remotely” the progress of runaways.
What makes Johnson’s book more than a catalogue of horrors is its account of how slave-owners, too, were caught in the cycle of fear. “In order to survive,” he writes, they “had to expand.” As new technologies (not only the cotton gin) and new markets (Europe as well as the industrializing North) drove the expansion of cotton production against any and all compunction, talk of ending slavery, which had once been central to debate about the future of the republic, became a deadly threat to the economy of the South and, to a significant degree, of the whole nation. “Planters whose capital was tied up in land and slaves depended upon advances against cotton for liquidity—and only cotton would do for factors and bankers who had to be certain of the salability of the staple promised in consideration of the capital they had advanced.” The demand for cotton was insatiable. Yet once cotton was harvested, ginned, packed, and shipped, it still had to make its way through a gauntlet of risks till it arrived at the terminus of a long line of creditors who had advanced funds to the seller. En route, it could slide down muddy embankments, rot in leaky warehouses, or be consumed by animals or pilfered by thieves, leaving the seller with a burden of unsecured debt.
Johnson’s point is not to equate the suffering of slaves with the anxiety of slaveholders; but his book has the effect of showing their interdependence in a way that makes the abstractions of political history—“property,” “expansion,” even “slavery” itself—feel vivid and immediate. He shows us a slave regime that feels itself under threat from anti-slavery activists without and insurrectionary slaves within—and thus condemned, with a mixture of relish and self-revulsion, to wage “a counterinsurgency campaign to which there could be no end.” In this context, Henry Adams’s preference for those Republicans who imagined bringing slavery “gently and peacefully” to a close seems naïve—and we are left, again, with the question of whether the concept of compromise in antebellum America had any meaning except as an exculpatory synonym for weakness and irresolution.
In what is perhaps the strongest moment in Spielberg’s film, we get an answer to this question. It comes during the confrontation on the floor of the House between Thaddeus Stevens, known for his then-radical dream of full political and civic equality for black people, and Fernando Wood, the South-sympathizing, race-baiting former mayor of New York City. In fact, the exchange took place between Stevens and a lame-duck Democrat from Ohio, “Sunset” Cox. Putting Cox’s words in Wood’s mouth is a bit of artistic license, but Stevens’s words, in response to Cox’s demand that he explain his position on “negro equality,” are accurately delivered: “I never held to that doctrine of negro equality ... not equality in all things—simply before the laws, nothing else.”
It was a prevaricating lie. It contradicted everything Stevens believed about the ultimate stakes of the war—that the killing and dying were necessary steps toward making the United States a biracial republic in which the equality principle of the Declaration would someday apply to all citizens. But it was also a necessary lie, a tactical retreat in the face of the recalcitrant reality of race hatred in North and West as well as the South. Without this kind of dissembling, there might have been no passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, and the cause of emancipation might have been delayed, or even derailed.
But without these efforts to find a middle way out, the way out of slavery might have been even more arduous and bloody than it proved to be.
If this was dishonorable compromise, then so were Lincoln’s hesitations to push the case for emancipation at the pace some abolitionists wanted. And so were his proposals to try colonization or compensated emancipation, or his slowness to authorize enlistment of black soldiers in the Union army. And so was his tentative statement that, after the war, the franchise might be extended to “very intelligent” blacks. In retrospect, it all looks like hedging, and trimming, and balking, and even—to some writers about the past—like shameful bargaining with the slavery devil itself. Some of it sounds offensive to our ears. But without these efforts to find a middle way out, the way out of slavery might have been even more arduous and bloody than it proved to be.
After Lincoln’s death, Frederick Douglass, who had chafed and sometimes fumed at what seemed his demurrals and delays, put it best:
His great mission was to accomplish two things: first, to save his country from dismemberment and ruin; and, second, to free his country from the great crime of slavery. To do one or the other, or both, he must have the earnest sympathy and the powerful cooperation of his loyal fellow-countrymen. Without this primary and essential condition to success his efforts must have been vain and utterly fruitless. Had he put the abolition of slavery before the salvation of the Union, he would have inevitably driven from him a powerful class of the American people and rendered resistance to rebellion impossible. Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.
Perhaps we might call this uncompromising compromise. Whatever we call it, it worked.
Andrew Delbanco is director of American Studies at Columbia. He is the author, most recently, of College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be (Princeton).