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Response to Review of Lincoln and the Politics of Slavery: The Other Thirteenth Amendment and the Struggle to Save the Union

Philip Magness has unique qualifications to review my book.  He knows a great deal about the would-be thirteenth amendment to the Constitution in early 1861, and he generously shared with me his own thoughts on the subject and some nuggets from his research.  His book, Colonization After Emancipation: Lincoln and the Movement for Black Resettlement (co-authored with Sebastian N. Page), marks him as an astute analyst of the complex process by which a slaveholding nation tried escape its self-imposed shackles.  It is gratifying indeed to learn that Magness finds my book persuasive.

The evidence is plain that several key Republicans in Congress attempted to deflect the mad momentum of secession by offering the white South explicit constitutional barriers against any assault on slavery in the states where it already existed.  Working behind the scenes, the incoming Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, deftly aided the pro-amendment conciliators. 

Many historians find themselves flummoxed by the seeming incongruity of possible proslavery concessions on the very eve of a war that would lead to emancipation.  Modern sensibilities dictate that we see the war as a war for freedom from the very start.  But Gary Gallagher’s provocative book, The Union War, reminds us that Union always was the paramount war aim, with emancipation only gradually taking hold as a subsidiary war aim, a means to an end.  And in early 1861 before the shooting started, many still hoped to resolve the political impasse peacefully.

Magness and I cannot accept the idea that the pre-1861 Lincoln was ‘a secret emancipationist radical’.  We reject the flimsy case that he mulled ‘crafty designs for abolition by warfare or decree’.  Magness correctly notes, instead, Lincoln’s ‘multi-decade commitment to a more moderate form of antislavery gradualism’. 

The war changed everything, and it moved Lincoln toward emancipation.  He recognized, along with growing numbers of white Northerners, that slavery was the taproot of the rebellion.  A war originally waged to restore ‘the old Union as it was’ thereby became a war to create a new Union in which slavery had no place.