You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Making of an Antislavery President

Fred Kaplan's new book asks why it took Abraham Lincoln so long to embrace emancipation.

Joyce Naltchayan / Getty Images

On September 18, 1858, Abraham Lincoln avowed that “I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races.” Lincoln wanted nothing to do with the abolitionists. At that moment, Lincoln was running for the Illinois senate seat, against the proslavery Democrat Stephen Douglas, but he ran on almost the identical platform in his successful bid for president two years later. Douglas tried to smear Lincoln as an abolitionist on account of his well-documented opposition to slavery. Lincoln, a Republican, made a modest antislavery proposal central to his platform: He would respect each state’s constitutional right to maintain slavery where it already existed, but he would oppose slavery’s expansion into federally-controlled western territories. 

Harper, 416 pp., $28.99

Though Lincoln is remembered as the Great Emancipator, it is easy to forget that he won the presidency on a platform that not only opposed immediate emancipation, but also endorsed white supremacy. In deference to slaveholders, he pledged to uphold the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which forced the federal government to help slaveholders retrieve escaped slaves. He even promised anxious white northerners that he would oppose giving free blacks equal rights: “I am not nor ever have been,” he said in his 1858 speech, “in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor qualifying them for office, nor to intermarry with white people.” Recovering Lincoln’s racial politics, as well as his “excruciatingly slow” embrace of immediate emancipation—the abolitionist agenda he spent a life-time avoiding—is the central aim of Fred Kaplan’s Lincoln and the Abolitionists: John Quincy Adams, Slavery, and the Civil War. Kaplan, an accomplished biographer of Lincoln and John Quincy Adams, covers well-worn territory. But he argues that it is particularly relevant now because of the deep racial prejudices that divide us still.

“We do ourselves a disservice when we self-servingly massage the record,” Kaplan writes. Lincoln did not solve the nation’s race problem: “He left us with it.” That Lincoln’s most remarkable achievement, the emancipation of four million enslaved Americans, was made possible only by circumstances beyond his control, and entailed an accommodation of the nation’s racism, is not meant as an attack on Lincoln. Rather, Kaplan argues, if we “see Lincoln plain” we are able to see our present more clearly too.

Kaplan has a vital argument to make but has chosen an odd way to make it. Rather than pit Lincoln against the antislavery activists who pressured him to slowly change his views, he makes John Quincy Adams into Lincoln’s chief abolitionist foil. To be an abolitionist meant, at base, to demand the immediate end of slavery, regardless of its constitutional protections, and to fight for free black equality; by contrast, many northerners simply held antislavery views—meaning that they were morally opposed to slavery, but were willing to tolerate the South’s right to maintain slavery within its borders, and would try only to limit its expansion westward. They were also ambivalent about, if not downright opposed to, free black equality.

Kaplan calls antislavery politicians like Lincoln “antislavery moralists,” and sees their public pronouncements against slavery as tantamount to “making oneself feel good without accepting the moral obligation to act.” In contrast, he uses the term “antislavery activist” to describe abolitionists. The problem is less Kaplan’s depiction of Lincoln than his view of Adams. Both were antislavery politicians, but he considers Adams an “antislavery activist” as well—something that, by Kaplan’s own definition, does not hold. 

In certain ways, Adams makes for an apt comparison. As Kaplan explains, decades before Lincoln became an antislavery president, Adams was making an antislavery agenda central to his political career. In the mid-1830s, Adams, a Massachusetts congressman, began to attract abolitionists’ attention for his strident attacks on the Gag Rule, the 1836 congressional rule that prevented abolitionist petitions from being read on the House floor. Five years later, he agreed to help abolitionists defend the fifty-three enslaved Africans who rebelled aboard the Amistad. Adams successfully argued their case before the Supreme Court, and was increasingly remembered as a staunch abolitionist ally. In November 1860, Wendell Phillips, a white abolitionist and fellow Harvard graduate, praised Adams’s memory. The “last ten years of John Quincy Adams were the frankest of his life,” Phillips said: “He poured out before the people the treason and indignation which formerly he had only written in his diary.”

Phillips set Adams in direct contrast with Lincoln, who was “not an abolitionist, hardly an antislavery man at all.” These kinds of comparisons carry much of the weight of Kaplan’s argument because, in fact, the political careers of Lincoln and Adams barely overlapped. Adams was nearly four decades older than Lincoln, his career winding down just as Lincoln’s was starting up. They served in the House together for only one term—from 1846 to 1848—Adams’s last, and Lincoln’s first. To Kaplan’s credit, he notes how much their voting records overlapped. “Both voted the same way in every instance in which slavery was an issue,” he writes. And on the core issues, they fundamentally agreed: The Constitution constrained the federal government’s ability to end slavery in states where it already existed, but Congress could abolish slavery in lands it controlled—the western territories and Washington, D.C. In addition, both supported abolitionists’ right to petition.

Kaplan, however, is eager to emphasize smaller differences: Lincoln, he tells us, argued that any bill abolishing slavery in the capital required the consent of its white residents. By contrast, “Adams made no conditions: the evil needed to be eradicated.” But not mentioned is that fact that Lincoln, not Adams, wrote one of the earlier bills proposing to abolish slavery in the nation’s capital, in 1849. Adams never tried.  

One of Kaplan’s larger conclusions about the two is that Adams was by far more prescient: He realized long before Lincoln did that slavery was the core issue dividing the nation, and that only a war would end it. It is a fair point, but not a particularly illuminating one. He quotes Adams’s diary entry from 1820, shortly after the Missouri Compromise, which created a line west to the Pacific, north of which slavery was prohibited and south of which it could expand. “If the Union must be dissolved, slavery is precisely the question upon which it ought to break,” Adams privately mused.

Given that the Missouri debates dominated Congress’ attention for nearly two years, however, Adams’s remarks are not particularly surprising, nor unique. Thomas Jefferson realized something similar, famously writing at the time: “This momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union.” Many politicians understood that the Missouri Compromise was not the end of slavery’s intrusion into national politics, only the beginning. And while it is true that Lincoln’s thoughts at the time are unknown, it is also true that he was eleven years old.

But the central problem is this: Adams’s political positions on slavery and race were far more similar to Lincoln’s than they were different. Kaplan often ascribes Lincoln’s cautiousness to his political ambitions: Lincoln “no doubt detested slavery,” he argues, “but practical politics, especially elections, took precedence.” The question is why he does not apply the same standard to Adams. After all, when Adams’s political career lay ahead of him, he was just as cautious in his antislavery politics. In the last decade of his life, Adams was indeed an outspoken antislavery politician, but he was in his seventies, his best political days behind him.

Between 1817 and 1825, while serving as secretary of state to President James Monroe, a Virginian slaveholder, Adams consistently prioritized union over slavery, just like Lincoln. And like Lincoln, he did so because he wanted to be president. When Monroe asked for Adams’s advice on the Missouri issue, he said that while slavery ran counter to the spirit of the Declaration of Independence, “this is not the time, nor was this the proper occasion, for contesting it.” When Adams finally became president, in 1825, he refused to help Britain enforce the Atlantic slave trade ban; he even tried to arrange a convention to help southern slaveholders get back their escaped slaves from Canada.

Where full black equality is concerned, Kaplan provides little evidence to suggest that Adams, unlike Lincoln, could accept a “multiracial America.” Adams may have thought plans to send African Americans to live in colonies outside of the United States impractical, in contrast to Lincoln, who became an outspoken colonizationist in the 1850s. But that is hardly enough to justify depicting Adams as believing in African Americans’ “civic equality.” Kaplan puts a generous gloss on an essay Adams wrote on Shakespeare’s Othello, in 1835, in which he states: “The moral of the tragedy is that the marrying of black and white blood is a violation of the law of Nature.” Kaplan tries the thread the needle: Adams may have wanted to keep racial bloodlines separate, he argues, but he still believed that they should live equally under the same laws. By that logic, Adams is best described as a segregationist, not, as Kaplan suggests, a believer in racial equality.

When Kaplan focuses only on Lincoln, his general interpretation is sound. Up until the war years, little in Lincoln’s career would suggest that he would be the one to emancipate the nation’s enslaved women and men. When he ran for president in 1860, his approach to slavery was “safe and conservative.” Up until 1862, Lincoln only argued for slavery’s non-extension westward. If slavery were ever to end—something he promised never to force upon the South—he believed slave-owners should be compensated. Moreover, he embraced voluntary black colonization, something that was heresy to abolitionists. 

Kaplan carefully explains Lincoln’s conservative antislavery agenda by placing him within his political context. Except for the small band of abolitionists, no one would vote for a candidate who advocated immediate emancipation. Lincoln understood that most northerners preferred maintaining the union over enforcing their “antislavery moralism.” Kaplan also makes a strong case that Lincoln, despite his shrewd political skills, was naïve to think that the Deep South, where slavery’s supporters were strongest, would accept anything less than the total renunciation of an antislavery agenda. When the South seceded shortly after Lincoln’s election, Kaplan rightly emphasizes, he did not fight the war to abolish slavery but to save the Union.

So how did Lincoln end up the Great Emancipator?  Kaplan correctly argues that, for Lincoln, the Emancipation Proclamation, issued on January 1, 1863, was a “military necessity.” The Union forces were losing badly, and by attacking the heart of the Confederacy’s wartime economy—slavery—Lincoln could force them into submission. Yet Kaplan misses the radical nature of Lincoln’s act. His eagerness to highlight Lincoln’s failure to embrace racial equality forces him to downplay the Emancipation Proclamation’s true significance. The proclamation said nothing about black citizenship; Kaplan is right about that. But it also meant that nearly all abolitionists finally embraced Lincoln’s war effort too: No longer a war to save the Union alone, it was now a war to end slavery. 

Kaplan tries to argue that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation should have gone further. Apart from enshrining black citizenship, he argues that Lincoln could have also freed all the nation’s slaves; instead, he chose only to free slaves in the rebellious states, not the slaves in the border states that stayed out of the war. Had Lincoln interpreted the Constitution’s “war powers” clause more broadly—the clause that allowed the president to enact martial law, and impose emancipation during wartime—he could have argued that the border states were part of the larger “theater of war,” Kaplan writes, giving him the constitutional authority to end slavery everywhere. 

But that greatly underestimates the importance of keeping the border states out of the war. If Lincoln angered them, as surely emancipating their slaves would have, they very well might have joined the Confederacy; Lincoln would have risked losing the war, and with it, the opportunity to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. Instead, he chose to leave ten percent of the nation’s enslaved population in bondage—the percentage of slaves in the border states—while freeing ninety percent of the rest. It was a temporary bargain, but one that even abolitionists accepted. In fact, while it never disillusioned abolitionists of Lincoln’s failures in regard to race, all of them realized that, when it came to slavery, Lincoln was now their man. Even Frederick Douglass, hardly blind to Lincoln’s limitations, called him in 1865: “emphatically, the black man’s President: the first to show any respect for their rights as men.”

Kaplan has found an important subject for a book, but he has misidentified the abolitionists. Had he focused more on genuine antislavery activists and less on politicians, he might have arrived at a different conclusion. As he rightly emphasizes, the visionaries were not politicians like Lincoln. But they were not politicians like Adams, either. The visionaries—the ones who saw a multiracial future—were activists like Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, Frances Ellen Watkins and William Lloyd Garrison. They were runaway slaves. They were women, men, black, white, rich, poor. They understood that politics involved compromises. But they also understood what an accomplishment emancipation was. And they were under no illusions that a long fight for racial equality lay ahead.