A historian examines Abraham Lincoln’s trajectory toward the ending of slavery.
Crofts (History/Coll. of New Jersey; A Secession Crisis Enigma: William Henry Hulbert and “The Diary of a Public Man,” 2010, etc.) complicates the image of Lincoln as the Great Emancipator in this meticulously detailed history of American politics in the years leading up to the Civil War. He argues in particular against hagiographic portrayals in Steven Spielberg’s movie Lincoln, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, and Civil War histories by a host of other scholars. The responsible historian, Crofts writes, “should try to stand apart from both sides in the secession crisis tangle and explain how each misunderstood the other.” He does note several scholars who take this dispassionate view, making his own contribution a reprisal and augmentation rather than a groundbreaking discovery. Crofts underscores two questions that were central to the contention between North and South, Republican and Democrat: did the Constitution protect states’ right to hold slaves, without interference from the federal government? Could the federal government prohibit slavery in newly acquired territories? As the author recounts the positions of a large cast of participants, he notes repeatedly that many Republicans insisted on barring slaves from territories and opposed admitting new slave states but held “that slavery could never be touched by the federal government.” Lincoln reassured the South on that point. In the months after his election, Crofts writes, “the last thing on his mind was the long-run future of slavery in the United States or the many indignities and hardships suffered by American slaves.” Central to the author’s argument is Lincoln’s prewar 13th Amendment, “a constitutional guarantee that slavery should not be molested in any way directly or indirectly in the States.” Four years later, after his hopes of preventing secession failed, Lincoln saw the real 13th Amendment passed, ending slavery and elevating his reputation.
A thorough look at the dissension that tore the country apart.