After the war, former Confederates developed the so-called Lost Cause myth, denying that slavery was the cause of the conflict, arguments later further embellished by both some leftists and the neo-Confederate revisionists. But, from the book, it's clear just how central slavery was to the whole North-South conflict.
It was less due to moral/civil rights considerations. As the book makes clear, abolitionists were a minority hated as meddlesome extremists even in the North, and notions of white racial superiority were all-pervasive even among the abolitionists. Still, for most contemporaries in the North, there was a big difference between being inferior and being property, or even between considering someone a non-citizen (barred from voting or sitting on juries) and considering someone a property. This was enough to gain support for local abolition in most Northern states.
On the economic front, it's easy to identify a conflict between the Southern plantation owner class and the mostly Northern industrialist-merchant class. This was the conflict between the earlier Democratic and Whig parties, which battled it out over some clearly economic issues: tariffs for imports (favoured by manufacturers for protection in their start-up phase but opposed by cotton exporters for fear of foreign reprisals), infrastructure programmes and cheap land for immigrants. In all of these, paradoxically as viewed from our neo-liberal present, it was the capitalist Whigs who advocated big government spending, and the agrarian Democrats who were the free-market advocates. Meanwhile, the latter (nabbing the vote of poor farmers in both the North and the South) advocated universal suffrage for white males, to which the Whigs adapted by turning their meritocratic ideal into the advocacy of better public education.
But why couldn't the two elites live side-by-side, what made the head-on collision of opposed interests inevitable? It was the western expansion and settlement into the lands stolen from Native Americans and Mexico. Ignoring what goes on in other established states is one thing, but the legality of slavery in the new territories had a direct bearing on both the economic and moral/civil rights conflicts: who gets to expand West, will the balance of slave state dominated Senate and free state dominated House be upturned, and will the (parallel but contradictory) public notions on the direction of the country's development be shaken? Thus the slavery issue led to the break-up of both the Whigs and Democrats and the formation of the Republicans in the North.
An attempt by the slave-holder side to solve the conflict once and for all by relying on widespread white racism, namely the 1857 Supreme Court ruling in the Dred Scott v. Sandford case that declared blacks non-citizens, only heightened the stakes: the slave-owners' fear of losing "property" was now mirrored by Northern fears that their own anti-slavery laws will be abrogated as unconstitutional.
His late public embracement of complete abolition notwithstanding (more on this later), the recognition of the inevitable all-or-nothing nature of the conflict over slavery was also what moved Lincoln to re-enter politics in 1854. That year, slave-owners achieved a victory with the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which permitted slavery in the two new territories if the local (white) population approves it by referendum. Lincoln is quoted by a lawyer friend to have commented the news after a night of thinking thusly: "I tell you, Dickey, this nation cannot exist half-slave and half-free."
The trigger of Lincoln's focus on slavery from 1854 brings me to another revelation: the level of Northern delusions about the South.
Up until the 1850s, most of the majority of Northerners who resented abolitionists apparently thought that slavery in Southern states will eventually die a natural death just like it did in their home states. Even when that delusion unravelled due to the conflict over the West, there was a view (also espoused by Lincoln) that slavery can be put back on track to natural death if only it is quarantined in the South. (The book doesn't go into details on the Southern developments ignored in the North, but I list some: the rise of labour-intensive cotton plantations, the ensuing wave of family-disrupting slave trade into the Mississippi Basin [the Second Middle Passage], and the evolution of pro-slavery ideology which made slavery a God-given boon and duty that is best for both races [more in the seed comment].)
A different kind of ignorance about slavery was the widespread belief at the start of the war that Northern superiority in population and industry (coupled with the ability to enforce a naval blockade against exports) translates into overwhelming military superiority. This ignored that slaves would continue to till the fields (and thus run the war economy) while the white men were away fighting, and the South would also use slaves to dig trenches and run logistics.
Northern politicians bent on appeasement also failed to understand that, due to the Southern media's propaganda overdrive, their gestures never reached the Southern audience. Even when the South ratcheted up secessionist rhetoric and violence in the last years and months before the Civil War, apparently most people in the North mistook it for theatrics meant to extort more political concessions on the slavery issues.
As for that propaganda overdrive, Southern self-delusion was even worse. The neo-con tradition of making up one's own reality goes way back.
While newspapers were virulently partisan, defamatory and unreliable everywhere in 19th-century USA, in the South, even the most moderate Northern politicians were portrayed as mad abolitionists, complete with fabricated quotes, and then people believed their own propaganda. A bizarre episode was the split of the Democratic party over the nomination of a Northerner who advocated total appeasement of the South but his mad Southern comrades decided that even he is an abolitionist agent.
Worse, the Southern self-image, inspired by the romantic novels of knights and damsels so decried by Mark Twain, stood in no relationship with an actual demeanour of treating blacks worse than cattle, or making death threats against and murdering and lynching anti-slavery and pro-North whites, or aiding and abetting those who did. For example, when a Southern congressman walked up to the desk of an anti-slavery Senator and broke his skull with a cane, he was widely celebrated in the slave states as a brave hero.
In the 1850s, such examples of Southern arrogance and aggression helped to incite Northern anti-slavery sentiment and mainstream at least a part of the abolitionist agenda. Upon Lincoln's election, the South's self-deception about Lincoln (who in all likelihood [more later] still contemplated a peaceful and gradual abolition of slavery, was on a limited appeasement platform in the campaign, and largely kept mum on policy until inauguration) triggered the secession declarations. The reality-challenged but morale-sustaining propaganda claiming victory over cowardly Northerners in every battle was cited explicitly as motivation for the scorched-earth policies applied during Sherman's March to the Sea.
But, once secession started, why didn't the North let the South go, and let them meet the sad end then expected by Northerners (economic decline triggering emigration of poor whites followed by slave revolts)? There are several reasons, but I'll highlight those that were new to me.
One was a prominent whistle-blower. A month after Lincoln's election, the lame-duck Democratic administration of James Buchanan appointed a new Attorney General, prominent lawyer Edwin M. Stanton. Once he could read classified info, Stanton was convinced that there is a vast conspiracy in the army and the administration, which smuggled weapons South and diverted loyal troops from Washington, to enable the conquest of the capital by secessionist militia and the assassination of Lincoln upon inauguration. Buchanan wouldn't listen, so at the end of 1860 Stanton leaked the info to several Republicans who also informed Lincoln. From then on, any hostile move by the secessionists was viewed as a prelude to bigger action.
Meanwhile, apparently, Lincoln and key members of his cabinet thought that a successful secession wouldn't be the end of the story: the rest of the Union would continue to splinter, secession would only sharpen the competition for the West and thus ensure protracted war, European powers would interfere and play divide and rule, and new aristocracies would develop. At an even more fundamental level, this all would mean that the experiment in democratic rule and freedom would fail, as any democratic decision would be in danger of violent opposition from the side who lost the vote. So the armed confrontation, then delusionally expected to be short, was seen as something staving off much worse conflict.
A further issue not explicit in the book but apparent to me is simply the cultural mores of pride and manliness: secessionist rhetoric during the initial crisis of Fort Sumter (a federal sea fort first demanded and then conquered by secession pioneer South Carolina) was humiliating, and even conservative Republicans previously advocating appeasement wanted to show who's the man.
One reason for the armed conflict, the opposition to slavery, was totally de-emphasized by the Lincoln administration in its first year, to the extent of appeasement on the subject of laws on (not) returning fugitive slaves to their masters.
Ignoring that slavery was central in Confederate justifications for secession (also see seed comment), the absence of slavery in the Lincoln admin's first public justifications for the war and heavy criticism of the government from anti-slavery advocates is a boon for modern-day neo-Confederate quote-miners. However, it was more a case of tactics. Lincoln's administration tried to keep together a fragile new party that included conservatives and even owners of household slaves, and at the same time a rest-Union that at first included all the slaver states of the Upper South, above all the two that flanked the capital Washington (remember Stanton's conspiracy theory again). Northern emancipation campaigners still had less popular support than they believed. It's worth to note that, as impressive as electoral college maps may appear, in the popular vote, Lincoln beat the Northern Democrat candidates only 40% to 30% in 1860 and 55% to 45% (North only) in 1864, and both of these opponents had full-on appeasement platforms.
With the war already started, there were three options for bringing about slave emancipation:
- A focus on freeing (and possibly arming) slaves who escaped to the North or lived on land conquered from the South.
- A gradual government buy-out of slave-holders, coupled with an offer to freedmen for re-settlement in Africa or another tropical country (more on this later) – a policy that would have to start with the pro-Union slaver states. Advocates of this policy were concerned that any other option would eventually bring about a race war.
- Declaring all slaves in the South free, possibly with incitement to revolt, and then pressuring pro-Union slaver states. This was advocated by the most radical abolitionists.
While most committed anti-slavery Republicans advocated the first option at the start of the war, with his focus on getting a majority to make a policy viable, Lincoln appears to have favoured the second option from the mid-1850s. At least, after having waited for public opinion to ripen (Lincoln's own metaphor), that's what he first proposed in public at the end of 1861. Apparently, it was after the rejection of multiple initiatives by the remaining pro-Union slaver states (as well as by those not wanting to pay tax for this cause) and after military losses (and thus also a further ripening of public opinion) that Lincoln decided to switch to the third option. That is, the progress of the war only influenced the chosen method of emancipation.
To get public (and legal) acceptance for the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln chose to name reasons with a wider sway than moral arguments. He emphasized that he exhausted all other options. He also waited three months with the public announcement until a military victory (the Battle of Antietam), and used the time to stress that whatever he does he does to sustain the Union (fooling abolitionists and conservatives alike to believe that he was defending the lack of progress on emancipation). Lincoln also turned the North's recognition of the advantage slave labour provided to the Confederate logistics and war economy into an argument of military necessity, which in turn was the sufficient legal justification. By the time the Proclamation came into force on 1 January 1863, public opinion ripened enough that even ex-slave-holder Cabinet members and half of slaver state Maryland supported what was an abolitionist platform.
Emancipation was ultimately secured with the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. To ensure a wider acceptance, Lincoln chose to force it through the lame duck Congress with its Democratic blocking minority in early 1965, rather than have it approved by the newly elected one with its wider Republican majority (more later).
In formulating his anti-slavery policy, Lincoln made one glaring omission: not consulting black leaders.
The President first made up for that during the three months when he kept the Emancipation Proclamation under wraps. The main result was that he abandoned the unworkable idea of voluntary re-settlement: it finally got to him that blacks who were born and lived all their life in the country think of it as home and don't desire to move to some tropical region (what's more find the suggestion insulting), even if that means struggling against white racism that won't allow them the same rights and opportunities.
For me the most moving scene described in the book took place a year later: the first meeting between Lincoln and black activist Frederick Douglass, whom I must confess of never having heard of before. Douglass was born as a slave in the South. His life was changed by learning to read as a boy, eventually leading to his escape North and rise as a public figure. The book quotes several eloquent criticisms of Lincoln from the time of his apparent waffling on the slavery issue. But in August 1863, Lincoln shocked Douglass with a non-condescending friendliness he wasn't accustomed to even from white abolitionists, knowledge of his writings, total agreement on the issues he wanted to bring up, and even honesty about another case of timing (when issuing the Order of Retaliation in response to the South's refusal to grant blacks POW status, Lincoln waited until after the positive press echo of the first acts of bravery by Colored troops). At another meeting a year later, Douglass persuaded Lincoln to ride out the storm when he was publicly accused of scuppering a Confederate peace offer by demanding the acceptance of emancipation.
Meeting Douglass also disabused Lincoln of another prejudice behind the re-settlement idea, which wasn't based on nature but nurture: a belief that growing up as a slave with all the abuse and denial of education common in the South will leave people mentally deranged. (In contrast, Lincoln apparently never stopped viewing the slave-holder elite as honourable gentlemen, rather than as, say, twisted criminals fighting for their right to torture, rape and work to death people with impunity.)
To reinforce the point that Lincoln was aiming to get emancipation in a roundabout way from the start, one has to dive deeper into Lincoln's mind. This finally leads me to the main focus of the book, Lincoln's political style. Was he an idealist, or an opportunist? Was he a tool of special interests and behind-the-scenes puppet-masters, or a tyrant?
The book convincingly demonstrates that (1) Lincoln was a man with an over-riding ambition to leave a mark on history, who sought to achieve his chosen mission by (2) becoming a master manipulator of fellow politicians and by (3) guiding public opinion according to the principle we call Overton Window today.
All this appears to be rooted in prior failures. The explicit ambition to stay in people's memory solidified when he overcame a suicidal phase. Lincoln's signature policy during his first foray into politics was a major state infrastructure programme which fell victim to austerity and the accompanied turn of public opinion. His second foray into politics was cut short by the unpopularity he earned by challenging the rationale for the Mexican–American War (1846-1848).
The master manipulator (a true herder of cats) was particularly evident when Lincoln put together his cabinet. All of his appointments were big-shots with own ambition whom Lincoln chose to (a) fully represent the different forces in his fragile coalition and (b) still be the best and brightest for the individual posts. "Give no concessions" (meaning primarily, no promises for government jobs) was a recurring message to his minions. When the post-election lobbying for government jobs began, Lincoln got his desired outcome with elaborate tricks, including fait accompli and lies of omission. At one point, his two brightest rivals (William H. Seward, who'd become Secretary of State; and Salmon P. Chase, who'd become Secretary of the Treasury) both rejected their nominations, but Lincoln put both of them in situations where they had to retract, without extracting any concessions. (The one example in the book when he clearly offered perks for votes was in the drive to "turn" enough Democratic congressmen for the 13th Amendment to pass with the required two-thirds majority.)
What's also clear from the examples of Lincoln's control over his team is that he must have been fully aware from the start that they hold not merely different but incompatible views: everything he said or wrote to them was "situational". As for the Overton Window, there are explicit quotes from Lincoln about the need to know public opinion and the tactic to work towards the desired outcome by nudging public opinion in the right direction. (Combined with the lack of a diary or pour-your-heart-out letters to trusted relatives or friends, this also means that Lincoln's actual views remain something of an enigma.) As President, Lincoln made the point to his team several times that the final decision is his. Yet, due to his manoeuvring, in the first year or two, many thought he is waffling. The book quotes several cases when Cabinet members advocating some policy in vain groaned about the President's indecisiveness or weak-handedness when in fact by that time he already set in motion a more complex plan.
The book is less convincing in denying the influence of Secretary of State Seward, who became Lincoln's best friend and closest advisor due to similar views and tastes (more on this later). Although the evidence is convincing that Seward wasn't the power behind the throne many contemporaries believed him to be – he comes across as a talented yet carefree, ageing dandy without strong convictions rather than a crypto-conservative puppet-master –, his unrivalled access to Lincoln does mean influence, if only by reinforcing the boss in his views. The author herself comes near to acknowledging the last point when discussing some unworkable offers of reconciliation, on which Lincoln gave up after meeting unanimous opposition from the Cabinet in Seward's absence. (Then again, Seward averted war with Britain by swaying not just Lincoln but almost the entire Cabinet on the Trent Affair, and achieved a similar feat when he proposed to time the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation for after a military victory.)
In spite of being the master manipulator and gathering the best minds around him, Lincoln made some truly bad appointments.
The only one to out-fox the President-elect during the appointment game was Pennsylvania's sleazy Republican string-puller Simon Cameron. Lincoln could deny him his coveted Treasury post, but had to give him the War Department. However, that was a job beyond Cameron's capabilities (Chase at the helm of Treasury had to help out at the start of the war), and his cronies were implicated in corrupt military supply deals, so Lincoln had to engineer his replacement (bringing in Stanton the whistle-blower, who basically worked himself to death in the job). The book doesn't detail this, but the other man who wasn't on Lincoln's original list, Indiana Republican leader Caleb Smith (who got the Secretary of the Interior position) proved both unfit for the administrative job and a weak character. Smith, too, was re-placed mid-term.
Acknowledging his lack of expertise in military affairs, Lincoln at first allowed his generals free rein, to the extent of ignoring insults. But, based on the book's comparison of letter excerpts and actual facts, Lincoln's first own appointments for the commanding general position on both the eastern and western theatres of war (George B. McClellan resp. John C. Frémont) were useless acts and self-aggrandizing fools whose only talent lay in deflecting blame for their frequent failures. McClellan in particular (who was also anti-abolition and would become Lincoln's Democratic opponent in the 1864 elections) actively sabotaged the war effort, wasting the possibility of a much earlier victory. Lincoln tried to correct his mistake by educating himself on military strategy and keeping a watch out for capable officers to be at hand if and when needed as replacements.
The book sees a silver lining in Lincoln's ability to recognise, admit and correct errors, but IMHO it also transpires that his ability to see into and analyse people wasn't as perfect as implied by his domination of his team of rivals.
As for that team of rivals, there is one Cabinet member who is set up as the villain of the book: Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, the most radical Cabinet member on the slavery issue.
The author's opinion of Republican leaders seemed to be a function of their loyalty to Lincoln, and Chase places lowest on that scale for being the only one not dropping his own ambitions to become President (ultimately leading to his 1864 dismissal). The book never spared him of an unflattering remark regarding a cold and scheming nature, using the oh so unbiased comments of conservative colleagues, and double standards (tricks are "cunning" when Lincoln used them but deplorable when Chase did, connecting personal ambition with the advancement of a great cause is a sign of greatness for Lincoln but hypocritical in Chase's case).
While the author blames everything on Chase (in effect, Lincoln's failure to sufficiently nurture their personal relationship is blamed on Chase's failure to appreciate Lincoln's humour), to me it's clear that Lincoln's management of his alpha-male Cabinet was less than perfect (even if no one was around who would have done it better). Lincoln's closeness with Seward in particular was bound to make others feel left out of the loop. More importantly, there can be no question that on a number of policy choices – including blacks in the army, resettlement of ex-slaves, and firing General McClellan –, Chase was ahead of the curve relative to Lincoln. That is, the President could have educated himself and moved towards the right direction faster and with less detours had he paid more attention to Chase (and Chase wouldn't have felt that Lincoln is too infirm, a feeling the author wouldn't accept as sincere argument for his candidacy).
To Lincoln's credit, his principle of keeping a balance led him to replace Chase with another radical, also to replace Chase's conservative arch-enemy in the Cabinet (as part of a later political bargain), and make Chase the Chief Justice who'd take his oath during his second inauguration. As for Chase, the book acknowledges that he campaigned for Lincoln after both nomination failures and did his job while in office.
Chase also gets credit for a progressive agenda on economic and financial matters.
Another favourite argument of the Southern revisionists is to conclude from the corruption of the post-Lincoln era that the Republicans and Lincoln were mere tools of Northern capitalists all along. This is more than hypocritical in view of the introduction of progressive income tax, a VAT exemption for small business, as well as basic goods, all that with the explicit intent to favour labour. Of course, modern-day free-traders deplore all of that, and also the debt-making involved in the introduction of greenbacks.
The point of disagreement between Chase and Lincoln where I find the book's implication of the superiority of Lincoln's ideas least convincing was Reconstruction.
It is already a question how effective Lincoln's politics would have been in delivering the end of slavery had the South kept back from starting war during his presidency. But, regarding Reconstruction, the history of the KKK, Jim Crow, and the Lost Cause myth gives me strong doubts about whether treating the plantation owners (and thousands of young men sharing the views of John Wilkes Booth) as noble gentlemen re-joining the club would have had any chance of bringing about reconciliation and universal suffrage by the votes of Southern whites.
Finally, there is the inescapable modern relevance of this analysis of Lincoln's politics.
I think that even without the vilification of Chase (as well as some other Radicals), the appraisal of Lincoln's brand of centrism can be read (and, in US political circles, was read) as a confirmation of the politics of the Democratic Leadership Council and other triangulators. Indeed my copy carries this recommendation from current President Barrack Obama: "A wonderful book... a remarkable study in leadership". But that's quite self-serving and hypocritical.
I mean, show me a recent centre-left leader who used triangulation to advance a major revolutionary, progressive change as end result (rather than steadily eroding progressive agenda while implementing the Right's agenda with some token progressive reforms). Show me such a leader who made a serious effort at educating himself on the issues and moved further left as a consequence (rather than echoing elite received wisdom and think-tanker propaganda). Show me an example of using radicals in the own camp as a bulwark (rather than trying to push them from all positions of power).