William Freehling on Abraham Lincoln

Today I had the pleasure of listening to William Freehling present a talk on Abraham Lincoln at the Miller Center.  William Freehling is one of the most talented historians writing today.  He recently retired from teaching at the University of Kentucky and is now a permanent scholar-in-residence at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities here in Charlottesville.   I met Professor Freehling three years ago when he agreed to visit my Civil War class to discuss one of his articles with my students.  The students thoroughly enjoyed the experience.  I highly recommend that you not pass up an opportunity to hear him in person.  Freehling is the author of numerous books and articles, including his seminal study The Road to Disunion: Secessionists at Bay, 1776-1854 and more recently The South vs.The SouthWhat I enjoy most about his work is his emphasis on "many Souths."  All too often we generalize about the South and overlook salient distinctions that would help us better understand the evolution of slavery and the coming of the Civil War.  From the opening pages of The Road to Disunion:

My chief objection to previous accounts of the antebellum South, including my own is that portraits tend to flatten out the rich varieties of southern types.  The South is sometimes interpreted as this, sometimes as that.  But whatever the interpretation, the image is usually of a monolith, frozen in its thisness or thatness.  The southern world supposedly thawed only once, in the so-called Great Reaction of the 1830′s.  Then Thomas Jefferson’s South, which considered slavery a terminable curse, supposedly turned into John C. Calhoun’s South, which considered enslavement a perpetual blessing.  Thereafter, little supposedly changed, little varied, little remained undecided.  Gone from this timeless flatland is the American nineteenth century’s exuberant essence: growth, movement, profusion of pilgrims, a chaotic kaleidoscopic of regions, classes, religions, and ethnic groups.

Many of these themes emerged in Professor Freehling’s talk on Abraham Lincoln and the thirteenth amendment.  Freehling is close to completing the follow-up to Road To Disunion and should be released next March.  He is currently focusing on Lincoln’s presidency and is interested in the evolution of his leadership.  This talk concentrated on Lincoln’s transition from a president who relied on his persuasive skills to bring about emancipation to a position in 1863 which advocated a coercive end to slavery following the Emancipation Proclamation. Freehling framed Lincoln’s evolution around the idea of three thirteenth amendments.  The first thirteenth amendment that Lincoln backed was contained in his March 4, 1861 Inaugural Address:

I understand a proposed amendment to the Constitution–which amendment, however, I have not seen, has passed Congress, to the effect that the federal government, shall never interfere with the domestic institutions of the States, including that of persons held to service.  To avoid misconstruction of what I have said, I depart from my purpose not to speak of particular amendments, so far as to say that, holding such a provision to now be implied constitutional law, I have no objection to its being made express, and irrevocable.

Freehling asked the audience to thing about how Lincoln could have supported such a measure.  He answers his question by noting that Lincoln did not believe that he needed the federal government to end slavery.  In other words, Lincoln was convinced that he could persuade the states to voluntarily end slavery without using the arm of the government.  Why did he believe he was able to do this?  According to Freehling, Lincoln’s career as a lawyer and his oratorical abilities suggested to him that it was possible to convince the relevant constituencies to voluntarily emancipate their slaves.  This fit into Lincoln’s broader world view in reference to slavery and its abolition.  Lincoln always hoped that slavery would end, but he doubted that the issue could be forced on the states. 

Freehling emphasized the importance of colonization in Lincoln’s thinking on this issue.  It should be mentioned that colonization was an incredibly popular idea among many groups.  Lincoln did not believe that it was possible to emancipate slaves without colonization.  According to Freehling, colonization was not impractical and it was financially feasible.  Most importantly, Lincoln believed that he could convince black leaders of the necessity of colonization.  This conviction led, according to Freehling, to the nadir of Lincoln’s presidency when he invited black leaders to the White House to discuss colonization as a condition of emancipation.  Lincoln’s reaction to the refusal of black leaders to agree was to describe them as selfish for wanting to stay. 

Lincoln’s problem throughout this time was his inability to convince white southerners to voluntarily emancipate their slaves.  And of course this had much to do with the course of the war in mid- to late 1862.  During this time Lincoln prevented forced emancipation by his generals and resisted Secretary of War Stanton’s proposal to arm black fugitives.  A pivotal moment, according to Freehling, occurred on September 22, 1862 when Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which finally authorized the recruitment of blacks as manual laborers. 

The second Thirteenth Amendment was proposed in Lincoln’s Annual Message of December 1, 1862. With the proclamation set to go into effect in one month Lincoln supported a constitutional amendment that would authorize the issuance of bonds to those who agreed to free and colonize their slaves.  In discussing the process Lincoln assured worried Northerners who were concerned that the newly freed slaves would make their way north:

"Their old masters will give them wages at least until new laborers can be procured; and the freed men, in turn, will gladly give their labor for the wages, till new homes can be found for them, in congenial climes, and with people of their own blood and race. . . . The plan is proposed as permanent constitutional law.

Of course, nobody was persuaded though Lincoln was "scared to death" that the measure would alienate the Border states. 

The new year also brought a "new Lincoln."  From this point on Lincoln had no doubt that the abolition of slavery would be achieved through coercive means.  Lincoln never again wavered on this point and never again mentioned colonization.  According to Freehling, his persuasive skills were now leveled at Frederick Douglass and other black leaders to encourage slaves to continue to leave the South and join Union ranks.  This led directly to the Thirteenth Amendment of 1865.

Freehling concluded by reflecting on Lincoln’s presidential growth as a barometer for presidential greatness over the past 50 years.  There are two categories by which to measure presidential greatness and they include the ability to grow and correct mistakes and continue to move towards a more inclusive position.  Lincoln did both, according to Freehling. 

The Q&A was particularly interesting as both Michael Holt and William Lee Miller were in the audience.  I was invited to join all three in addition to a few more members of the history department from the University of Virginia for lunch and an opportunity to continue the discussion.  I had a wonderful time.  Best of all, Professor Freehling left me with a great deal to think about. 

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4 thoughts on “William Freehling on Abraham Lincoln

  1. elementaryhistoryteacher

    What a wonderful time you must have had! The highlight of my day came when I had to seperate our fourth graders and house the boys in my room to discuss why it is improper to pee-pee in public on the recess field. Today was the second time in two weeks that a group of boys decided to be “boys” and air their manhood in public. It’s a wonder we didn’t make the 5 o’clock news.

    Reply
  2. elektratig

    Kevin,

    I’m very jealous! Secessionists at Bay is indeed an eye-opening book — although Professor Freehling’s writing style drove me to distraction. After reading it, I ran out and grabbed everything else of his I could find. I’m delighted to see from your report that Volume II is scheduled for publication next year. I’ll be one of the first on line when it’s released.

    As for the good professor’s thesis as to the reasons behind Lincoln’s willingness to endorse the original proposed Thirteenth Amendment, well, I guess I’ll have to wait to see the evidence. It’s certainly true that Lincoln seems to have clung almost desperately to the idea of colonization, but I did not have the impression that he thought that southerners could be persuaded (by him or anyone else) to abandon slavery in the short term — that eventual result lay somewhere in the distant, misty future.

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  3. Kevin Levin

    I am definitely no Lincoln scholar, but isn’t his continued pressure on the Border states through the summer of 1862 to agree to abolition through compensation evidence of his belief that they could be persuaded? His persistence clearly alienates some members of his cabinet and other Republicans.

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  4. elektratig

    Kevin,

    I don’t pretend to be an expert on this issue, and I should have been more precise. I was really addressing the “pre-War” period at and around the time of his first inauguration. I do believe that you are correct that after the War got rolling and up to the end of 1862 he was hoping to get the border states (but not the states that had joined the Confederacy) to voluntarily agree to emancipation.

    FYI, I’ve posted your news (referring back to your entry) about the anticipated publication date of Professor Freehling’s Volume II next year at Civil War Talk, since a number of people have read Volume I and are awaiting the conclusion.

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