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by William K. Klingaman

Pub Date: March 19th, 2001
ISBN: 0-670-86754-3
Publisher: Viking

Neither biography nor history of the Civil War, this is an account of Lincoln’s tactics between the 1860 election and his announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862.

Historian Klingaman (The First Century, 1990) points out that the abolitionists, although heroes to us, were looked upon by most of their contemporaries as a noisy minority, irresponsible and perhaps crazy. Lincoln disapproved of them, knowing that most Northerners opposed slavery but usually despised Negroes nevertheless. The conflicts leading to the Civil War, in the author’s view, had less to do with abolition than with the spread of slavery to the West, where (alarmists feared) slave labor would depress wages and monopolize the cheap land. During his presidential campaign, Lincoln took pains to assure the South that he had no interest in abolition, and even after secession he believed the departed states would return if he could convince them that slavery would be legally protected. He was also obsessed with keeping the slaveholding Border States (Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri, and Delaware) from seceding. Unfortunately for Lincoln, however, the Republican leaders of the new Congress were enthusiastic abolitionists. The author draws a fascinating portrait of Lincoln’s political maneuvering during his first two years in office: on one side he fended off civic, congressional, and even cabinet pressure for immediate abolition; on the other, he faced growing antiwar sentiment, encouraged by the North’s persistent defeats. When the time seemed ripe, he issued the proclamation: a turgid, legalistic document announcing abolition as a strictly military measure (it abolished slavery only in rebel-held territory). Its reception was mostly bad: abolitionists considered it a feeble gesture, and there was widespread anger in the Midwest and Border States that the war was now “for the Negroes” instead of for the Union. Republicans did badly in the 1862 elections. Yet, as time passed, most anti-Negro Northerners accepted emancipation as a harsh but necessary measure to strike at the South, and Lincoln’s faith that the proclamation’s practicality and absence of moral fervor offered the only chance of success was eventually vindicated.

A fine account of a brilliant piece of political strategy.