Was Abraham Lincoln an Actor or Reactor?

I give fairly regular quizzes in my classes.  In my Civil War course I tend to give students a question that integrates their reading for the week.  I am interested in both whether they’ve retained the relevant content and the extent to which they can evaluate it.  Last week we concentrated on the events that led to Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in July 1862.  We discussed the First and Second Confiscation Acts, the actions of Generals Butler and Hunter, pressure from Radical Republicans, the movements of fugitive slaves, the end of slavery in Washington D.C. and the territories and, of course, the flow of events on the battlefield by mid-summer 1862.  It is very important to me that my students get beyond the “Great Emancipator” view of Lincoln.  Students should understand the complexity of events that led to emancipation and they should be asked to evaluate Lincoln’s place in this overall process.  I agree that the “Who Freed the Slaves Debate” has been played out, but that should not prevent us from continuing to reevaluate Lincoln’s importance in this important process.  With that in mind I decided to ask my students to respond to the following question:

To what extent was Abraham Lincoln and an actor or a reactor in the chain of events that led to his issuance of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in the summer of 1862?  Your answer should include references to relevant individuals, events, and concepts.

Want to take the quiz?  Go ahead and I will even give you a grade. 🙂

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14 comments… add one
  • Dick Stanley Oct 19, 2010 @ 8:32

    I imagine his great sense of humor aided him in deciding when it was appropriate to act and when he ought to react. He seemed to have an instinctive feel for the audience and what would win him the most applause, and I don’t mean that in a critical way. All politicians are showmen. He was one of the best.

    • Margaret D. Blough Oct 19, 2010 @ 15:28

      Dick-Timing is critical in getting things done. I once read that the late Justice Brennan declared that he was not interested in becoming a great dissenter. He was, to the chagrin and annoyance of more conservative justices and even Chief Justices, very skilled at bring other justices on board his position in order to have what he considered to be the correct decision legally to prevail.

  • Margaret D. Blough Oct 18, 2010 @ 20:40

    Kevin-I don’t think anyone can improve on the analysis of Frederick Douglass in his “Oration in Memory of Abraham Lincoln” delivered on April 14, 1876 the Unveiling of The Freedmen’s Monument in Memory of Abraham Lincoln in DC (http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?document=39) particularly this passage:

    >.I have said that President Lincoln was a white man, and shared the prejudices common to his countrymen towards the colored race. Looking back to his times and to the condition of his country, we are compelled to admit that this unfriendly feeling on his part may be safely set down as one element of his wonderful success in organizing the loyal American people for the tremendous conflict before them, and bringing them safely through that conflict. 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. <<

    I would note that part of President Lincoln's objections to Fremont's actions were, aside from the fact that he had not yet abandoned hope that the loyal slave states might still voluntarily implement emancipation with support from the federal government, the issue of not wanting to give the appearance of endorsing the idea that military commanders, without civilian supervision or control, could implement such an major step unilaterally.

    Lincoln hated slavery. He made that clear in personal correspondence in the 1850s including in his correspondence to his best friend Joshua Speed, who owned slaves. Nevertheless, although he rejected the idea promoted by Southerners that the Constitution affirmatively endorsed slavery, he felt it was undeniable that the Constitution tolerated slavery where it existed at the time the Constitution was ratified and that no president and/or Congress had the power during peacetime under the Constitution to interfere with slavery in the states where it existed. However, he vehemently disagreed with the majority in Dred Scott and firmly believed that the federal government could act to restrict or even bar slavery in the territories & DC & any other federally controlled/owned property. The war and the war powers argument gave him the lever he needed to move constitutionally against the Peculiar Institution in the states still in rebellion.

    Fundamentally, I believe Lincoln was a leader but while leadership requires getting ahead of the mass of people, it also requires that the leader not get so far ahead of the people as to lose contact with them. He certainly didn't operate in a vacuum. Events and the actions of others definitely influenced him, but he was far from passive. He made it clear when he introduced the draft EP to his Cabinet that one thing that was not up for discussion is whether the EP would be issued, and he chose not to wait until the 1862-63 Congressional and gubernatorial elections were over.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 19, 2010 @ 1:02

      My students read and do a thorough analysis of this particular speech. Thanks for including it.

    • M. Fox Dec 17, 2011 @ 11:44

      Margaret gets an A.

  • Peter Oct 18, 2010 @ 16:21

    I think the most accurate answer would be that the states emancipated the slaves with the ratification of the 13th Amendment.

    • Margaret D. Blough Oct 18, 2010 @ 20:15

      Peter-There was a 13th Amendment for the states to ratify because Lincoln pushed it from early 1864 and made a major push to get it through the lame duck session of Congress in December 1864. The EP was based on the doctrine of presidential war powers; Lincoln feared that without a Constitutional amendment ending slavery, the Supreme Court could ultimately decide that the authority for the EP ended with the end of the war, throwing the status of former slaves into uncertainty. The consitutional amendment course of action was eventually also needed for a federal income tax in peacetime. Lincoln also made acceptance of abolition a non-negotiable condition for peace at the Hampton Roads Conference in 1865 along with the rebel states abandoning their claims of independence & resuming their proper role in the Union as well as the disbanding of Confederate military forces and the end of resistance.

  • mcvouty Oct 18, 2010 @ 13:36

    It’s a good question, because he reacted quite a bit. He reacted to Fremont, Hunter and Butler when they jumped the gun on freeing/recruiting slaves; he reacted to Cameron when he asked that portions of the Secretary of War’s Annual Report be revised; and he reacted to Seward when it was suggested that he wait for a victory to issue the Proclamation.

    However, to know if these were merely reactions, you’d have to get inside the head of Lincoln and understand how long-sighted he was being about emancipation. I believe that it was only when the military benefits began to outweigh the political benefits that he determined to go forward with emancipation. If he truly felt there was a possibility that Confederate or border states would accept his proposals of gradual emancipation, he would have held out longer.

    In summary, it appears that he was largely a reactor, but that may be simply the result of circumstance. In weighing the pros and cons of issuing the Proclamation, he had almost complete control, and by swiftly dealing with the events that were beyond him he made sure he was to be the final word, thus tipping the scales in favor of him being more of an actor than a reactor.

  • Brooks D. Simpson Oct 18, 2010 @ 8:41

    It’s all Lincoln. After all, he appointed McClellan to head the army that failed to take Richmond, which helped fuel the call for escalation. Then he put McClellan back in command again, so that McClellan would give him just enough of a victory at Antietam to issue the Emancipation Proclamation without crushing Lee and ending the war. Finally, he removed McClellan just as the election results came in. Timing, timing, timing.

  • Reggie Hamilton Oct 18, 2010 @ 6:15

    Hey Kevin,

    I don’t have any backup information to even garnish an incomplete and I know that I have a long rant of disinformation. I hope that you’ll read this and tell me what is false and I’ll get excited and start studying the period of the greatest war that this country has ever faced to date.

    I do feel that the issue of freeing the slaves was to procure bodies to fight on the front lines as opposed to helping them to freedom. Surely this issue had come up in 1814 with the british abolishment of international slave trade. I mean really, why wait for 100 million to suffer forced incest, rape, murder and other atrocities before gaining a conscience?

    I believe that slavery was not the issue with the U.S., but the commodities and the exports the lay in the south. The north had cranberries and sturgeon and I’m sort of feeling that caviar won’t sustain a budding economic world power.

    Lincoln=Actor Negroes + 40 acres and a mule = No Goal

    Maybe Mr. Lincoln was reactor but having not been there, I can’t say that his political agenda wasn’t shrouded in secrecy to get his understanding of the constitution to include negroes beyond their 3/5 of a man. If so, why did women’s suffrage take so long? Were women not held in the highest esteem? Couldn’t a negro be lawfully lynched for gazing, whistling at or accidentally touching a white woman? It can be argued that all slavery was a result of the slave owner not wanting his woman to toil in the fields and be clean and pretty for his arrival after a long day of cracking the whip. Lynch was brilliant when posting his doctrine on how to create a slave.

    On the other side of this, emancipation allowed for negroes to pay taxes with their right to vote, earn sharecropper’s wages and enjoy deplorable living conditions and still have no real say… as in taxation without representation. It turned out to be a win/win for the south for a while. It was tough for the northern negro as well. The beatings, burnings by the irish during the 1862-63 lottery when blacks were paid $200 to fight in place of some blue blood new englander while the irish were forced to go to war for they lacked the finances. As immigrants, the irish had no real stake in the emancipation. This is a group that was once stuck as indentured servants while negroes were paid for the same labor and treated better.

    It’s interesting that two men (Abraham Lincoln and the tenacious Harry S. Truman) that were failures at business (one being mentally unstable-Lincoln) presided over the greatest wars our nation has faced.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 18, 2010 @ 8:09

      Nice to hear from you, Reggie. Who says professional bass players can’t branch out now and again. 🙂 You make a number of relevant points, all of which ought to be explored further with a reliable source. There is no doubt that Lincoln intended his proclamation to assist the Union war effort, both in terms of disrupting the Confederate war effort and the inclusion of escaped slaves and freed blacks in the Union army. The best piece of advice is to find a solid history of Lincoln and the period. I highly recommend Eric Foner’s new study of Lincoln and slavery. It’s a solid piece of research and it is written for a broad audience: http://www.amazon.com/Fiery-Trial-Abraham-Lincoln-American/dp/0393066185/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1287419929&sr=8-2 Let me know what you think. Thanks again for the comment.

  • James F. Epperson Oct 18, 2010 @ 3:07

    I’m not going to write enough to count for an answer, but I am going to say he was both—he reacted to many things, but he also took steps on his own.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 18, 2010 @ 3:11

      “He was both” — Taking the easy way out, I see. 🙂

      • Jonathan Dresner Oct 18, 2010 @ 4:16

        Not if you can prove it. I’m like you, Kevin: I insist that my students take a position and defend it, but I tell them that “a little of both” is acceptable if it’s backed up and argued properly.

        I haven’t looked at it very closely, but it seems to me that Lincoln was someone whose ideas were just far enough out of the mainstream that his natural reactions to events often seem like original actions.

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