Lincoln's Changing View of Slavery

CW Buff

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#81
This a letter from Lincoln to his life long friend Joshua Speed, a slave owner, in regards to Lincoln's opposition to the extension of slavery in which he mentions a steam boat trip from Louisville to St Louis they both took together and the profound effect that shackled slaves aboard the boat had on him.

Springfield, Aug: 24, 1855

Dear Speed:

You know what a poor correspondent I am. Ever since I received your very agreeable letter of the 22nd. of May I have been intending to write you in answer to it. You suggest that in political action now, you and I would differ. I suppose we would; not quite as much, however, as you may think. You know I dislike slavery; and you fully admit the abstract wrong of it. So far there is no cause of difference. But you say that sooner than yield your legal right to the slave---especially at the bidding of those who are not themselves interested, you would see the Union dissolved. I am not aware that any one is bidding you to yield that right; very certainly I am not. I leave that matter entirely to yourself. I also acknowledge your rights and my obligations, under the constitution, in regard to your slaves. I confess I hate to see the poor creatures hunted down, and caught, and carried back to their stripes, and unrewarded toils; but I bite my lip and keep quiet. In 1841 you and I had together a tedious low-water trip, on a Steam Boat from Louisville to St. Louis. You may remember, as I well do, that from Louisville to the mouth of the Ohio there were, on board, ten or a dozen slaves, shackled together with irons. That sight was a continual torment to me; and I see something like it every time I touch the Ohio, or any other slave-border. It is hardly fair for you to assume, that I have no interest in a thing which has, and continually exercises, the power of making me miserable. You ought rather to appreciate how much the great body of the Northern people do crucify their feelings, in order to maintain their loyalty to the constitution and the Union.

I do oppose the extension of slavery, because my judgment and feelings so prompt me; and I am under no obligation to the contrary. If for this you and I must differ, differ we must. You say if you were President, you would send an army and hang the leaders of the Missouri outrages upon the Kansas elections; still, if Kansas fairly votes herself a slave state, she must be admitted, or the Union must be dissolved. But how if she votes herself a slave state unfairly---that is, by the very means for which you say you would hang men? Must she still be admitted, or the Union be dissolved? That will be the phase of the question when it first becomes a practical one. In your assumption that there may be a fair decision of the slavery question in Kansas, I plainly see you and I would differ about the Nebraska-law. I look upon that enactment not as a law, but as violence from the beginning.
It was conceived in violence, passed in violence, is maintained in violence, and is being executed in violence. I say it was conceived in violence, because the destruction of the Missouri Compromise, under the circumstances, was nothing less than violence. It was passed in violence, because it could not have passed at all but for the votes of many members, in violent disregard of the known will of their constituents. It is maintained in violence because the elections since, clearly demand it's repeal, and this demand is openly disregarded. You say men ought to be hung for the way they are executing that law; and I say the way it is being executed is quite as good as any of its antecedents. It is being executed in the precise way which was intended from the first; else why does no Nebraska
man express astonishment or condemnation? Poor Reeder is the only public man who has been silly enough to believe that any thing like fairness was ever intended; and he has been bravely undeceived.

That Kansas will form a Slave constitution, and, with it, will ask to be admitted into the Union, I take to be an already settled question; and so settled by the very means you so pointedly condemn. By every principle of law, ever held by any court, North or South, every negro taken to Kansas is free; yet in utter disregard of this---in the spirit of violence merely---that beautiful Legislature gravely passes a law to hang men who shall venture to inform a negro of his legal rights. This is the substance, and real object of the law. If, like Haman, they should hang upon the gallows of their own building, I shall not be among the mourners for their fate.

In my humble sphere, I shall advocate the restoration of the Missouri Compromise, so long as Kansas remains a territory; and when, by all these foul means, it seeks to come into the Union as a Slave-state, I shall oppose it. I am very loth, in any case, to withhold my assent to the enjoyment of property acquired, or located, in good faith; but I do not admit that good faith, in taking a negro to Kansas, to be held in slavery, is a possibility with any man. Any man who has sense enough to be the controller of his own property, has too much sense to misunderstand the outrageous character of this whole Nebraska business. But I digress. In my opposition to the admission of Kansas I shall have some company; but we may be beaten. If we are, I shall not, on that account, attempt to dissolve the Union. On the contrary, if we succeed, there will be enough of us to take care of the Union. I think it probable, however, we shall be beaten. Standing as a unit among yourselves, you can, directly, and indirectly, bribe enough of our men to carry the day---as you could on an open proposition to establish monarchy. Get hold of some man in the North, whose position and ability is such, that he can make the support of your measure---whatever it may be---a democratic party necessity, and the thing is done. Appropos of this, let me tell you an anecdote. Douglas introduced the Nebraska bill in January. In February afterwards, there was a call session of the Illinois Legislature. Of the one hundred members composing the two branches of that body, about seventy were democrats. These latter held a caucus, in which the Nebraska bill was talked of, if not formally discussed. It was thereby discovered that just three, and no more, were in favor of the measure. In a day or two Douglas' orders came on to have resolutions passed approving the bill; and they were passed by large majorities!!! The truth of this is vouched for by a bolting democratic member. The masses too, democratic as well as whig, were even, nearer unanamous against it; but as soon as the party necessity of supporting it, became apparent, the way the democracy began to see the wisdom and justice of it, was perfectly astonishing.

You say if Kansas fairly votes herself a free state, as a christian you will rather rejoice at it. All decent slave-holders talk that way; and I do not doubt their candor. But they never vote that way. Although in a private letter, or conversation, you will express your preference that Kansas shall be free, you would vote for no man for Congress who would say the same thing publicly. No such man could be elected from any district in any slave-state. You think Stringfellow & Co ought to be hung; and yet, at the next presidential election you will vote for the exact type and representative of Stringfellow. The slave-breeders and slave-traders, are a small, odious and detested class, among you; and yet in politics, they dictate the course of all of you, and are as completely your masters, as you are the masters of your own negroes.

You enquire where I now stand. That is a disputed point. I think I am a whig; but others say there are no whigs, and that I am an abolitionist. When I was at Washington I voted for the Wilmot Proviso as good as forty times, and I never heard of any one attempting to unwhig me for that. I now do no more than oppose the extension of slavery.

I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that "all men are created equal.'' We now practically read it "all men are created equal, except negroes.'' When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read "all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.'' When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty---to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy.

Mary will probably pass a day or two in Louisville in October. My kindest regards to Mrs. Speed. On the leading subject of this letter, I have more of her sympathy than I have of yours.
And yet let [me] say I am Your friend forever
A. LINCOLN---
Thank you for this. Part of the second to last paragraph sounds familiar, but I definitely never heard of the rest. I think it shows his opposition to expansion was driven from that (and perhaps other) views of slavery in action. I find it hard to understand how some do not comprehend how racists (the majority of Northerners at the time) could oppose slavery for moral reasons. It's a matter of degrees, and social moral standards advance by degrees, often small and slow.

BTW, Time is currently running a special History [Channel] magazine issue on Lincoln. I decided to plop down the $14 (its devoid of ads), and I'm glad I did. I felt it contained many lesser known facts, some of it new to me, rather than focusing on mostly the old well-known favorites.
 

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unionblue

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#82
Thank you for this. Part of the second to last paragraph sounds familiar, but I definitely never heard of the rest. I think it shows his opposition to expansion was driven from that (and perhaps other) views of slavery in action. I find it hard to understand how some do not comprehend how racists (the majority of Northerners at the time) could oppose slavery for moral reasons. It's a matter of degrees, and social moral standards advance by degrees, often small and slow.

BTW, Time is currently running a special History [Channel] magazine issue on Lincoln. I decided to plop down the $14 (its devoid of ads), and I'm glad I did. I felt it contained many lesser known facts, some of it new to me, rather than focusing on mostly the old well-known favorites.
I saw the same magazine.

I hope that you will post some of those lesser known facts for me and the forum.

I would sincerely appreciate it.
 

CW Buff

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#83
I saw the same magazine.

I hope that you will post some of those lesser known facts for me and the forum.

I would sincerely appreciate it.
They dealt mainly with Lincoln's early years. Not sure how much I should or should not post about a copyright work, but one story I especially liked was that Lincoln's first experience with the law and courts was pretty early in life, and as a defendant. At about 18 y.o., he built a scow and developed a little business shuttling passengers and their luggage out to the river boats. A guy with exclusive rights to ferry people across the river sued him for infringement. Lincoln defended himself via the fact he was not ferrying anyone ACROSS the river, and won. Reminds me of that story of Charlie Wilson driving people to the polls and telling them about how the incumbent ran over his dog, the incumbent lost, and Wilson fell in love with politics right there.

Other items include how he similarly, though perhaps less dramatically, gravitated toward politics early, how he began as a Whig but held widespread bipartisan support from the people, two pre-Mary Todd engagements (one of which I was aware of, and the other sounds rather bizarre), he and Douglas entering the state legislature at a young age (Abe was only 4 yrs older and preceded Douglas by one 2-yr term), and a lost Lincoln speech (1856 state Rep convention).

Have a good holiday UB.

Paul
 

unionblue

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#84
They dealt mainly with Lincoln's early years. Not sure how much I should or should not post about a copyright work, but one story I especially liked was that Lincoln's first experience with the law and courts was pretty early in life, and as a defendant. At about 18 y.o., he built a scow and developed a little business shuttling passengers and their luggage out to the river boats. A guy with exclusive rights to ferry people across the river sued him for infringement. Lincoln defended himself via the fact he was not ferrying anyone ACROSS the river, and won. Reminds me of that story of Charlie Wilson driving people to the polls and telling them about how the incumbent ran over his dog, the incumbent lost, and Wilson fell in love with politics right there.

Other items include how he similarly, though perhaps less dramatically, gravitated toward politics early, how he began as a Whig but held widespread bipartisan support from the people, two pre-Mary Todd engagements (one of which I was aware of, and the other sounds rather bizarre), he and Douglas entering the state legislature at a young age (Abe was only 4 yrs older and preceded Douglas by one 2-yr term), and a lost Lincoln speech (1856 state Rep convention).

Have a good holiday UB.

Paul
Paul,

Thanks for the ferry story, it was one I had never heard before.

You have a great holiday too AND BE SAFE!

Sincerely,
Unionblue
 
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#85
Lincoln said the nation could not long endure half slave and half free, that it would have to become all one or all the other; and I don't think he was suggesting that the northern states accept slavery.

His immediate purpose in 1861 was simply to preserve the Union, and I think he spoke honestly when he said he would free some, all, or none of the slaves in order to accomplish that; but I doubt he envisioned slavery persisting indefinitely thereafter.
I'd agree, war wasn't worth his platform. What good is ending slavery if you potentially lose the US? His goal was to end it without a war. He said many times that since slavery was Constitutionally protected where it existed (as proven in Dred Scott case), he wouldn't waste his time there, but rather stop it's expansion and hopefully force it to die that way.

But that statement himself I think was more wordplay on his part. The war already was ongoing.. Didn't matter at that point, it was just words to make people feel better that didn't want to be fighting a war about slavery. That letter was to Horace Greeley, and he wrote it with the Emancipation Proclamation sitting in his desk. Greeley himself said those words were more about Lincoln preparing the US for his EP than an answer on slavery to his question. He said they were words meant to soften that blow of what he was about to do.

I also wonder how many others of Lincolns view's were him changing vs. him saying what people needed to hear to get him to get what he wanted.

Take with his re-election. Runs the entire time saying he isn't going to fight for equal rights. Makes sense, when his opponents accused him of that, it was a HUGE attack. Would be like accusing your opponent of wanting to completely disable our military today. Most Americans didn't want that. But what does he say in his first major speech AFTER he's won those votes? That he's going to fight for equal rights and start with fighting for Black Suffrage. 180 right off the bat.

I think it was Frederick Douglass who earlier in Lincoln's life said he was moving too slowly or not doing enough, and later after his death said while it appeared that way, he was doing what he had to do to make that cause. IE Lincoln could have ran on ending slavery instead of stopping it's expansion. And he would have been a bigger abolitionist in name, but never won enough votes to actually get in office and truly win the fight to end slavery.


So yes I do think his views did change, but I wonder how much it was change vs. saying what was needed to get what he wanted. It's interesting, I don't think anyone is believed more on their campaign promises than Lincoln for some reason., when he seems one of the least likely to fulfill them.
 

wbull1

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#86
The "problems" with quoting Lincoln about anything are that 1) he was a masterful pol who often responded in a way that led his questioner to assume Lincoln agreed with the questioner and 2) he constantly updated and changed his beliefs as his experience and reflection expanded.
 
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#87
The "problems" with quoting Lincoln about anything are that 1) he was a masterful pol who often responded in a way that led his questioner to assume Lincoln agreed with the questioner and 2) he constantly updated and changed his beliefs as his experience and reflection expanded.
And the second is a very good thing. The first is a powerful thing that can be good or bad. But it definitely took a master politician to walk into what he had to walk into there as soon as he took office.
 

wbull1

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#88
Doris Kearns Goodwin describes Lincoln as a political genius. Bruce Chadwick's Lincoln for President gives a great account of how he and his supporters played chess while other, more famous Republican nominees in the 1860 Republican Presidential Convention played checkers. Anyone who tries to take his statements at face value without considering who they were addressed to and how they fit into an evolving strategy, is simply underestimating the man.
 

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