Mike Parker: The truth about Lincoln, the Civil War and slavery
One of the most pernicious falsehoods promoted today about the American Civil War contends the focus of the war was to end slavery. Nothing could be further from the truth. However, as George Bernard Shaw once said, “The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.”
If the main objective of the South had been to maintain slavery, then a war was unnecessary. Even before Abraham Lincoln took office as U.S, President, he was working behind the scenes with Ohio Representative John Corwin to produce a constitutional amendment that would perpetually protect slavery where it then existed.
An article by John A. Lupton, the associate editor of The Papers of Abraham Lincoln project, discusses a form letter from Lincoln to Florida Gov. Madison S. Perry transmitting “an authenticated copy of a Joint Resolution to amend the Constitution of the United States.”
On March 16, 1861, Lincoln sent the same letter to all of the governors of the states, including states that had already seceded from the Union and formed their own government, the Confederate States of America.
The Corwin Amendment, as it is called, would have been the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The particular form of the amendment that passed, though not a provision Lincoln proposed, provided that “no amendment shall be made to the Constitution, which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish, or interfere within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State.”
If ratified, the amendment would have guaranteed the right of citizens of slaveholding states to keep their slaves. After heated debate, the amendment passed both houses of Congress on March 2, 1861, two days before Lincoln took office. The amendment was an effort to appease Southern slaveholders and forestall further secession.
All Southern states had to do to maintain slavery was stay with the Union and ratify the Corwin amendment. Why fight a war to protect slavery when simply amending the Constitution would achieve the desired results?
The issue at hand was not the destruction of slavery in the South. Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address makes this point plain. Lincoln 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.
“Those who nominated and elected me did so with full knowledge that I had made this and many similar declarations and had never recanted them; and more than this, they placed in the platform for my acceptance, and as a law to themselves and to me, the clear and emphatic resolution which I now read:
“‘Resolved, That the maintenance inviolate of the rights of the States, and especially the right of each State to order and control its own domestic institutions according to its own judgment exclusively, is essential to that balance of power on which the perfection and endurance of our political fabric depend; and we denounce the lawless invasion by armed force of the soil of any State or Territory, no matter what pretext, as among the gravest of crimes.’”
I do not understand how the point can be any clearer: Lincoln did not intend to interfere with slavery where it currently existed.
However, “Where it [slavery] currently exists” was the sticking point. The issue for Lincoln and the Republicans was not eliminating slavery, but rather preventing the expansion of slavery. In fact, the 1856 Republican Party Platform had this provision about slavery: “All unoccupied territory of the United States, and such as they may here after acquire, shall be reserved for the white Caucasian race, a thing that cannot be except by the exclusion of slavery.”
Read those words again. Not only was this provision in the Republican platform a pledge to prevent the spread of slavery, but the statement is blatantly “white supremacist” in its intent and sentiment by reserving these territories “for the white Caucasian race.”
The constant mantra that the American Civil War was waged to end slavery continues not because of historical evidence, but because that contention fits the narrative proponents have pushed since the 1960s: the compassionate Northerners wanted to end slavery, but evil Southerners fought a war to keep their slaves.
On Aug. 22, 1862, Lincoln wrote these words to Horace Greeley, founder and editor of the New York Tribune, about Lincoln’s intentions regarding slavery:
“My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”
In the end, if you read the Emancipation Proclamation carefully, you will discover that instead of freeing the slaves, as most people claim, Lincoln chose the path of “freeing some and leaving others alone.” The decree was issued on Sept. 22, 1862, but went into effect on Jan. 1, 1863. A key part of the proclamation read:
“That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.”
Only those slaves in states or parts of states in rebellion against the U.S. government were proclaimed free. All slaves in states and parts of states still within the Union or under Union control were left in bondage until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery in December of 1865.
The great effect of the American Civil War was the demise of chattel slavery, but ending slavery was not the cause of the war.
History is always more complex than most people think. Following a simplistic narrative is much easier than actually investigating historical reality.
Do not be fooled. The primary documents are available. Read them.
Mike Parker is a columnist for The Neuse News. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.