Friday, April 20, 2012

Confederate "Heritage" Month 2012, April 20: Lincoln on slavery

Some quotes from Lincoln are always good in a Civil War series of posts.

Apologists for the Confederacy have since 1865 put themselves through verbal and mental contortions to argue that slavery was not the cause of the Civil War. One piece of sophistry on which they rely is the fact that emancipation was not the official aim of the Union from the start of the war.

But that is a minor effort compared to the ones required to deny the many clear, explicit enthusiastic statements from the Confederacy that slavery was at the core of their cause.

Lincoln was an abolitionist, though prior to the Civil War and even some ways into it, he favored impractical schemes like colonization of African-Americans to Africa or some other location outside the US. He also favored compensated emancipation, though Southern slaveowners had vanishingly little interest in such a proposal.

Still, Lincoln was certainly clear that slavery was the central cause of the war. Addressing a black delegation in Washington on 08/14/1862 - addressing them on the issues of colonization - he said "without the institution of slavery ... the war could not have an existence."

A year later, a small eternity had passed in the war. Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, making emancipation an explicit issue in the conflict. In military terms of the time, the Emancipation Proclamation changed the Union strategy from one of conventional war to revolutionary war, revolutionary because it aimed not just at subduing the enemy but at overthrowing the social system of slavery on which the Confederate economy was based.

On 08/26/1863, he wrote a letter addressed to James Conkling intended to be read at a Union political meeting in Springfield, Illinois. He addressed criticisms he had received over the emancipation policy:

But to be plain. You are dissatisfied with me about the Negro. Quite likely there is a difference of opinion between you and myself upon that subject. I certainly wish that all men could be free, while I suppose you do not. Yet, I have neither adopted nor proposed any measure which is not consistent with even your view, provided you are for the Union. I suggested compensated emancipation, to which you replied you wished not to be taxed to buy Negroes. But I had not asked you to be taxed to buy Negroes, except in such way as to save you from greater taxation to save the Union exclusively by other means.

You dislike the Emancipation Proclamation, and perhaps would have it retracted. You say it is unconstitutional. I think differently. I think the Constitution invests its Commander-in-Chief with the law of war in time of war. The most that can be said - if so much - is that slaves are property. Is there - has there ever been - any question that by the law of war, property, both of enemies and friends, may be taken when needed? And is it not needed whenever taking it helps us, or hurts the enemy? Armies, the world over, destroy enemies' property when they cannot use it; and even destroy their own to keep it from the enemy. Civilized belligerents do all in their power to help themselves or hurt the enemy, except a few things regarded as barbarous or cruel. Among the exceptions are the massacre of vanquished foes and non-combatants, male and female.

But the proclamation, as law, either is valid or is not valid. If it is not valid, it needs no retraction. If it is valid, it cannot be retracted any more than the dead can be brought to life. Some of you profess to think its retraction would operate favorably for the Union. Why better after the retraction than before the issue? There was more than a year and a half of trial to suppress the rebellion before the proclamation issued; the last one hundred days of which passed under an explicit notice that it was coming, unless averted by those in revolt returning to their allegiance. The war has certainly progressed as favorably for us since the issue of the proclamation as before.

I know, as fully as one can know the opinions of others, that some of the commanders of our armies in the field, who have given us our most important successes, believe the emancipation policy and the use of the colored troops constitute the heaviest blow yet dealt to the rebellion, and that at least one of these important successes could not have been achieved when it was but for the aid of black soldiers. Among the commanders holding these views are some who have never had any affinity with what is called Abolitionism, or with Republican party politics, but who hold them purely as military opinions. I submit these opinions as being entitled to some weight against the objections often urged that emancipation and arming the blacks are unwise as military measures, and were not adopted as such in good faith.

You say you will not fight to free Negroes. Some of them seem willing to fight for you; but no matter. Fight you, then, exclusively, to save the Union. I issued the proclamation on purpose to aid you in saving the Union. Whenever you shall have conquered all resistance to the Union, if I shall urge you to continue fighting, it will be an apt time then for you to declare you will not fight to free Negroes.

I thought that in your struggle for the Union, to whatever extent the Negroes should cease helping the enemy, to that extent it weakened the enemy in his resistance to you. Do you think differently? I thought that whatever Negroes can be got to do as soldiers, leaves just so much less for white soldiers to do in saving the Union. Does it appear otherwise to you? But Negroes, like other people, act upon motives. Why should they do anything for us if we will do nothing for them? If they stake their lives for us they must be prompted by the strongest motive, even the promise of freedom. And the promise, being made, must be kept. [my emphasis]
The text of the Lincoln letter is from The Life and Writings of Abraham Lincoln (1940), Philip Van Doren Stern, ed.

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