Abraham Lincoln: Changing Views on Slavery

What can I say about Lincoln that hasn't already been said?

He's got an entire section at most book stores, so the chances of me coming to any great insight here are slim.

For the project, I read "Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power" having already read the other main modern Lincoln biography "Team of Rivals".

The difference between the two books was that this one focused on the evolution of Lincoln's thinking, philosophy and religious views that allowed him to lead the country through its most turbulent time ever whereas "Team of Rivals" focused much more between the interactions and conflicts between members of his cabinet and Lincolns quiet management of them.

Lincolns views on slavery changed over the course of his life and circumstances.

At an early age in Kentucky and Illinois, Lincoln didn't have too much direct interaction with slaves and spent his energy on self education and improvement, trying to find a way out of his hellish frontier existence. He did however get exposed to his parents' adamant anti slavery views.

As he grew older, he started to look at odd jobs to escape his frontier life. He was famously a rail splitter on the new railroads blanketing America and worked taking a load of cargo by ferry to New Orleans from Springfield. There, he witnessed a slave auction for the first time which left a lifelong impression. He now knew that he hated slavery.

He entered local politics back in Illinois and had no real official dealings on that level with slavery although it's believed that he felt it should be confined to the old south and never come north or west. He also believed as Monroe and almost all prior politicians that there should be some colony created in Africa where slaves could eventually return to, never being able to make a life for themselves in America due to hatred and oppression even if they are freed.

When he hit the national stage in Congress, his resolve was strengthened, again, witnessing the slave auctions and workers in D.C. He came out against the Mexican War not only because he saw it for what it was, an ugly land grab of another countries territory but most likely also because he knew that it was primarily southern slave owners that wanted to find new lands for their slaves to grow the profitable cotton crop.

After the war, he hesitated to declare the slaves free so the south would not have it's assumptions that the North was trying to impose its 'lifestyle' on them and to not be seen as a radical in a time of war, but eventually saw that he had no choice.

One of the most interesting questions in history is what would have happened if Lincoln had lived to oversee Union victory and the reconstruction.

Most reconstruction presidents other than Grant were downright hostile to blacks and did everything they could to undermine any real change of balance of power in the south.

The real Lincoln is so much more interesting than the marble statue version.


Lincoln: Latest in the Self-Made Men

Most of Lincoln's life is well known and he's widely regarded as being one of the best presidents and American citizens to ever live. While someone like Rutherford B. Hayes might have one or two biographies written about him that are from the 1920's, Lincoln has an entire section at most book stores.

Lincoln's early life is relatively well chronicled. He was born in poverty (the log cabin myth actually isn't a myth at all) and his father moved his family west to Illinois from Kentucky. There they tried for the most part unsuccessfully to scratch out a living with agriculture.

Lincoln hated farm life and knew he was destined for something greater. He taught himself to read and write and studied the law at night by candle after his days of working the fields. He left home as soon as he could with no intention of coming back. He became the 'rail splitter' working on the rapidly expanding rail roads exploding from the East coast.

He eventually found work in law and politics and the rest is history from there. But many people don't know that Lincoln's story of early hardship and success through hard work is hardly unique.

Washington was an amazing man but was hardly self made as he came from an aristocratic family. The same can be said for Jefferson, Madison and Monroe and all the Virginia presidents like Tyler. Other Presidents, like Polk, Taylor or Harrison came from well known or wealthy families.

Most of the other presidents up to the Civil War though came from little to nothing to take the highest position in this new land of opportunity. Jackson, Van Buren, Fillmore, Buchanan and Johnson who followed Lincoln were all men of modest family roots.

Jackson was raised by his mother who died when he was still young, led a troubled life but turned himself around and made a life for himself out west in Tennessee.

Van Buren counted Dutch as his first language and came from the small town of Kinderhook where his family made a modest living through farming.

Fillmore's father unsuccessfully tried to start a farm over and over again, never prospering. He escaped a life of poverty through education and rising up in the New York political machine.

Buchanan's family were poor settlers in a Pennsylvania trading post and he also escaped through the law as Lincoln did, starting his own successful practice and charging the high rates that would allow him to leave the practice to enter politics.

Johnson was an awful president, but a great business man. He was an apprentice who ran away from his Tailor he was studying under and started his own garment business far away in a new settlement in Tennessee. He grew the business to the point he was able to expand to buying and selling real estate and he succeeded in politics through his force of will and overcame his utter lack of education or even literacy.

That seems to be the quality that runs through almost all presidents from Jackson up to the Civil War. It must have seemed then like America truly was the land of opportunity with the path laid out before those who were simply able to work hard enough to earn what they wanted.


Right Before the Civil War: 1850's

During the late 1850's, the North and South were vastly different places.

In the North, immigrants were reshaping the landscape in large east coast cities and the midwest. There was more than twice the amount of miles of railroad laid in the north as the south and it was much easier for people and goods to move from state to state.

Cotton and tobacco were the dominate industries the South. With slave wages at no more than the cost of keeping a human being alive with basic food, water and shelter, the concentrated aristocracy in the south felt no need to join the industrial and transportation revolution in the north.

Slaves begat more slaves and plantation owners would pour the profits back into expanding their estates, which would produce more capital, which could buy more slaves. They primarily exported raw goods and imported luxury or finished goods from Great Britain since with the sparse tracks of railroad in the south, it was easier than buying the products domestically.

Eventually, all the good land in the old south was used up, and enterprising southerners bought up westward lands from the federal government and looked to expand their agricultural feudal system.

In the west, northerners and southerners would mingle, both seeking to dominate the territories they were settling. With the new 'religious enthusiasm' in the north as Lincoln called it, slavery became the great moral issue of the day in the north and west.

The westerners from the north brought a new urgency to the anti slave movement and the south felt threatened.

As the north entered into the industrial revolution, new paths to social mobility were open even for immigrants while class division and slave driven feudalism continued to dominate the south.

The south did have one large advantage it would use in the war though. It had most of the military colleges and by far the most experienced generals, as the military culture fit in much better with the south's aristocratic world view.

This is where the two sides stood before the war. The north and south had dramatically different economies, world views, and infrastructure and would fight to the death to preserve them. The western states would become battlegrounds both in the literal sense and for the hearts and minds of their inhabitants, with massive amounts of money and effort spent on recruitment and propaganda in all the border states by both sides in the war.

This is the world Lincoln stepped into in 1861, with 8 years of almost criminal neglect of the deteriorating situation by Buchanan and Pierce. As a border state president from Illinois, he would be on the front line of the hearts and minds war.