Thursday, September 07, 2017

Lincoln, Slavery, and Quotes Out of Context.

Social media is filled with memes - many showing quotes from famous people meant to support some favored view.

This post concerns the story of one such quote often - almost always used out of context to support a view it does not support. It provides an illustrative example of a need to know why the person said it and in what context.

My example is Abraham Lincoln's statement, "If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it." (August 22, 1862)

Apologists for the Confederacy use this to argue that Lincoln was not opposed to slavery - the same Lincoln who said, "What I do say is, that no man is good enough to govern another man, without that other's consent. I say this is the leading principle - the sheet anchor of American republicanism," (October 16, 1854) and "Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves; and, under a just God, can not long retain it." (April 6, 1858).

But, then, where a single quote removed from its context provides the apologists for the confederacy with cover, it gets trotted out.

What was the context?

Lincoln was planning to sign the Emancipation Proclamation that would end slavery in all states then in rebellion. He was looking for an opportunity to announce his intention - a Union victory. Even the Union commander Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan was not incompetent enough to prevent a Union victory at Antietam - but Lincoln had to wait until September for that. This was August, and Lincoln was still waiting.

The EP was a legal document, written to hold up in court. The Constitution gives the President no power to amend the constitution by executive proclamation. However, it does give the President power as the commander in chief of the armed forces. So, Lincoln intended to defend the EP in court as a war measure - as an act taken to reduce the ability of the Confederacy to fight the war.

Thus is why the EP only ends slavery in states in rebellion - and not all states.

It was because there was no reasonable way to apply the president’s war powers to states not in rebellion. Confederate apologists like to pretend that Lincoln had the blanket authority to end slavery when he wrote the EP. That he only ended slavery where the federal government had no authority, thus did not end slavery at all.

In fact, the EP freed 4 billion people. The Union still needed to reach those 4 billion people in order to free them – those who were, from January 1, 1863 onward – being illegally held in captivity. But that is exactly what Union soldiers were trying to accomplish.

Anyway, Lincoln needed this document to hold up in court – particularly, in the Supreme Court, where the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court was Roger Taney, the author of the Dread Scott decision that said that a southern slave owner can take his slaves with him anywhere in the United States.

Lincoln knew something that, it seems President Trump still has not figured out. A president’s public statements can be used to determine the intent of an executive order or proclamation. Trump’s Muslim Ban gets ruled to be unconstitutional based on his public statements that identify the ban as targeting a religion. A much smarter Lincoln did not want a Supreme Court to be looking at his statements to say that the Emancipation Proclamation was actually intended to end slavery.

Lincoln knew how important it was to say, publicly, “I am not aiming to end slavery.” If he declared that his intention was to end slavery, the Supreme Court would have ruled that the EP was an attempt to amend the Constitution via executive order, and struck it down. Instead, he needed to say publicly, “I am doing this to win the war.”

Which is what he said in the quote above, particularly when you include it in its full context.

As to the policy I "seem to be pursuing," as you say, I have not meant to leave any one in doubt. I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored the nearer the Union will be "the Union as it was." If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time save Slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy Slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy Slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, 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.

This puts a large hurdle in front of anybody who would attempt to argue that the Emancipation Proclamation must be thrown out because it was an attempt to amend the Constitution of the United States via an executive order.


Anonymous said...

"Apologists for the Confederacy use this to argue that Lincoln was not opposed to slavery"

In my experience, most people who post the Lincoln quote do so not to suggest Lincoln was fine with slavery, but rather in the context of a discussion over why the Civil War was fought. Their claim is that the North fought to hold the union together, not to end slavery. (This can be true even if many southern states seceded largely because they thought slavery would be made illegal.)

Alonzo Fyfe said...

You are correct that "the north fought to hold the union together" argument is consistent with "southern states succeeded because they thought that slavery would be made illegal".

However, making slavery illegal requires opposition to slavery. Or, at least, the strong belief on the part of the South that there were people trying to make slavery illegal implied that there was enough people with enough power opposed to slavery to put the institution at risk.

The hypothesis that the North only cared about holding the union together, and cared nothing about slavery, is inconsistent with the fact that the North could have kept the union together by making slavery legal everywhere. But their desire to keep the Union together did not seem to allow for this options.

"Opposition to slavery" has to be in there somewhere. And, more importantly, the leaders of the Confederacy had to strongly believe that there was genuine opposition to slavery, and not just a desire to preserve the Union.