Seeing the Round Corners

January 8, 2018


   The New Year brings hope for leaving 2017 and its political upheaval behind. Heads up, Colorado’s 2018 General Assembly opens on January 10th which means coverage begins over on the “Eye on the Legislature” page of this website. Should be a really “interesting” year with the mid-term elections and the sexual harassment issue that began shortly after the 2017 session adjourned.

Today’s column will present somewhat of an “evaluation” of Abraham Lincoln’s legacy, factor’s leading up to it and also raises these questions:

  • Why is Abraham Lincoln on Rushmore?
  • Should his image be removed/covered up in some way? and
  • If Lincoln was so driven to abolish slavery as history and present-day idolizers have come to portray him, why were early speeches and correspondence nearly void of mentioning slavery and the Emancipation Proclamation written after he became President?

   Gutzon Borglum is credited with being the primary creator of Mount Rushmore, and stated it was Lincoln’s “firm conviction that slavery must be abolished.” Lincoln’s own words in his correspondence to Horace Greeley unequivocally rebutted Borglum’s claim:

  • “. . . my paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slaves, 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.” (Point-of-information: Note Lincoln’s words “freeing some and leaving other alone . . .” are clarified in the excerpt from the Emancipation Proclamation appearing later in this column.)

   As stated earlier in this series, recent decades have made slavery into a far greater issue than it was when Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation, even crediting slavery as the sole purpose of the Civil War. That was not true and was rebutted by Lincoln’s own correspondence and reality existing in those days.

Clarification of what is stated in the Emancipation Proclamation included earlier in this series warrants repeating:

“The Emancipation Proclamation applied to the “States and parts of States wherein the people thereof respectively, are this day, in rebellion against the United States, the following, to wit:”

  • Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana (except the Parishes of St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Jefferson, St. John, St. Charles, St. James, Ascension, Assumption, Terrebonne, Lafourche, St. Mary, St. Martin, and Orleans, (including the City of New Orleans, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia, (except the forty-eight counties designated as West Virginia, and also the counties of Berkley, Accomac, Northhampton, Elizabeth City, York, Princess Ann, and Norfolk, including the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth), and which excepted parts, are for the present, left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.
  • ‘ . . . that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are and henceforth shall be free . . .  .’”

   That the Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to all states is critical to understanding the various tactics Lincoln was attempting during this time. There were numerous issues at play throughout this time period. Lincoln was ever aware and demonstrated in various actions about the danger of letting the slavery issue get in the federal courts for fear of an unfavorable judgment and how the courts could decide the issue because the “Constitution, after all, left the issue of slavery to the states.” (writer’s emphasis)

Author Allen C. Guelzo writes in Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation:  The End of Slavery in America in an attempt to make a case that it was Lincoln’s “goal of emancipation from the day he first took the presidential oath,” but without support for such except his suppositions, whereas historical scholars rely on Lincoln’s actual speeches and correspondence.

Guelzo further claims that it was Lincoln’s “plans to pursue a policy of legislated, gradual, compensated emancipation from the very outset of his presidency.” The strategy of “shrinking slavery” via state legislatures changing their statutes relating to slavery remained key to Lincoln’s efforts, according to Guelzo.

Lincoln maintained his belief that the founding fathers envisioned an eventual road to extinction of slavery and that he could prevail upon state legislatures to “accept gradual, compensated emancipation.”

The outbreak of the Civil War did force Lincoln to face the derailment of his idea of persuading legislatures in “loyal states” that compensated emancipation could be used to “end the rebellion, restore the Union and begin the end of slavery.” Collapse of the Confederacy was also needed for this to be the result which did not occur as Lincoln had hoped: 

  • The border states rejected Lincoln’s proposals and ideas for compensated emancipation; and
  •  the military effort to take Richmond was driven back just at the time capturing came close.

   These two events forced Lincoln to realize something stronger was necessary if there “was to be a successful conclusion to the war.” Lincoln’s answer was the Emancipation Proclamation.

The Emancipation Proclamation came with consequences, telling perhaps of Lincoln’s lack of experience but more likely, his determination to “keep the emancipation out of the courts,” that if the federal judiciary got hold of it, the court would become the guarantor of slavery.

Lincoln had a reverence for constitutional process, but no explanation could be found for why he did not “use his war powers to declare a national emergency and suspend the election in 1862.”

In Guelzo’s opinion, Lincoln’s failure to use his war powers to suspend the 1862 elections was political suicide. Suffering disastrous setbacks in Pennsylvania, Indiana, Ohio, New York and New Jersey, Republicans saw a 16 percent decline in votes from 1860. Voters were merciless in having such an emotional issue put before them during an un-won conflict. Lincoln’s preference for compensated emancipation was seen as desirable over a number of potentially dire consequences: 

  • treatment of fugitive slaves under federal control as contraband of war;
  • confiscation;
  • emancipation as part of martial law;
  • after a successful war to subdue the rebellion, a slave holder whose property had been seized under martial law could sue successfully in federal court; 
  • after war emergency, federal court dockets would fill up with appeals attacking [martial law emancipation] proclamation as unconstitutional or denied that specific cases really fell within the definitions of the proclamation;
  • applying confiscation and contraband as understood in international law gave the Confederacy belligerent status;
  • Confederacy belligerent status was at odds with Lincoln’s insistence that the states of the Confederacy could never leave the Union; and
  • if war was a domestic rebellion which Lincoln insisted on, then confiscation of slave contrabands violated the constitutional prohibition against attainder.

   Next week, more on the legacy of Abraham Lincoln.

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