The word “slavery” does not appear in the United States Constitution. The enslaved were referred to as “persons” who are “held to service.” Yet both slaveholders and abolitionists claimed the Constitution supported their conflicting positions. Slaveholders maintained the Constitution guaranteed their property rights and that slaves were property. Abolitionists turned to the Constitution and pointed to the words “persons” and “liberty” to argue their point of view that the enslaved were persons entitled to be free.
Abraham Lincoln despised slavery, but he was not an abolitionist according to civil war historian and author James Oakes. Lincoln “... never called for the immediate emancipation of the slaves... he never denounced slaveholders as sinners and never endorsed the civil or political equality of Blacks and whites... he never opened his home to fugitive slaves... He endorsed voluntary colonization of free Blacks [allowing slaves to move to Liberia, Africa]... He certainly spoke at colonization meetings... but never at an abolitionist meeting.”
In 1788, when the Constitution was adopted, slavery was legal in all 13 states. But there was talk about emancipation and soon several northeastern states banned slavery. In 1808, the federal government voted to put an end to the importation of slaves. That controversial prohibition led to the entrenchment of slavery where it existed and conflict over its status in newly settled territories. The complex problem of slavery finally landed at the feet of President Lincoln in 1861 when he declared the power to end slavery rested with individual states, but authorization for slavery in new territories lay with the federal government.
The President and the Republican Party adopted “a series of specific policies... designed to stop and then reverse the expansion of slavery.” Their chief strategy for gaining widespread support for ending slavery was stopping its expansion into new territories. Another tide-turning policy declared that escaped slaves who made it to Union lines were free.
At the inception of the Civil War, there were 18 free states and 15 slave states. Kansas, West Virginia, and Nevada joined the Union during the war, and in 1864 Arkansas abolished slavery. By the end of the war, there were 27 free and nine slave states, the necessary number to adopt the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery and extended civil rights to Blacks in all states. The Amendment was ratified on December 6, 1865. The path to abolition was indeed long and crooked.
In this carefully researched and rigorously argued book, Oakes gives a wise analysis of how the Constitution influenced the battle over slavery. He demonstrates the loose ends left by the framers of the founding charter so that it could be interpreted as pro slavery or pro abolitionist.
Many books have been written on Lincoln and abolition, but this is an especially insightful one. This rather short 257-page book helps the reader see the complete context of his political decisions to put slavery, in the words of Lincoln “on a course of ultimate extinction.”
About the Author: James Oakes is a Civil War historian and a two-time winner of the Lincoln Prize for his works on the politics of abolition. He teaches at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.