North wavered on slavery
Doubt being cast on accepted belief that issue drove Lincoln, Union
By CAROLE E. SCOTT
The National Park Service was recently induced to add at its Civil War battlefield sites information about the role slavery played in causing the South to leave the Union and go to war with the North.
Is it going to follow a balanced policy and describe many Northerners’ willingness to let slavery continue to exist in the South?
Although he did not approve of slavery, President Lincoln considered blacks inferior to whites. Whites and blacks, he believed, could not coexist in equality. His pre-war solution to this problem was to return them to Africa.
In his first inaugural address, Lincoln assured the nation that he neither wished to nor had the power to abolish slavery.
Furthermore, in 1861 the U.S. Congress passed a never-ratified Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that Lincoln supported that read as follows: "No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any state, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said state."
In an 1862 letter to New York newspaper editor Horace Greeley, Lincoln wrote: "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union."
Lincoln revoked Union Gen. John C. Fremont’s 1861 emancipation of Missouri’s slaves, and Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation did not free any slaves because it applied only to that part of the Confederacy still under Confederate control. Slave states still in the Union were exempted, as was Washington.
Many historians believe that he hoped that this proclamation would prevent the slavery-hating English from entering the war on the side of the South. He may also have hoped that it would lead to a slave insurrection in the South like the one that had taken place in Haiti, where, despite the fact that its white men were not off fighting a war, many whites were slaughtered.
According to some foreign observers, Lincoln’s motivation for preserving the Union was financial. English writer Charles Dickens said, "The Northern onslaught upon slavery was no more than a piece of specious humbug designed to conceal its desire for economic control of the Southern states."
Just as eliminating slavery may not have been the North’s prime motivation, the fact that late in the war, Confederate soldiers successfully petitioned their Congress and president to allow the enlistment in the army of slaves who would be promised their freedom suggests that preserving slavery may not have been the most important reason for the Southern states fighting for their independence.
Carole E. Scott is a professor emeritus of business administration at the State University of West Georgia.
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