Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Just Finished Reading - Lincoln and the Abolitionists

A welcome addition to the ever-growing Concise Lincoln Library collection, published by Southern Illinois University Press, is noted abolitionist historian Stanley Harrold’s contribution, Lincoln and theAbolitionists.

In order to understand the relationship between Abraham Lincoln and the abolitionists, Harrold contends that it is important to understand their vastly different backgrounds. Lincoln, born in slaveholding Kentucky, raised in southern Indiana and frontier Illinois, was a product of the environment and the people he grew up with. Although often commenting on the basic immorality of slavery, largely as a violation of the revered Declaration of Independence, as a young man, and even deep into his political career, Lincoln felt slavery was a political conundrum that would be difficult to solve. And, as Harrold puts it so well, “being ‘antislavery’ was not the same thing as being an abolitionist.” (p. 6)

Harrold explains that once Lincoln embarked on his political career, it was those politics that kept him from moving into the abolitionist camp. Taking on a political life as a Whig and revering “The Great Compromiser” Henry Clay as his ideal politician left Lincoln with a pragmatic approach to what would be the future of slavery in the United States. The man who would be one day become known as “The Great Emancipator” knew that any success he was to have in politics—particularly in local and state politics—depended on meeting in agreement, at least on a certain level, with those who cast the votes. Lincoln often saw abolitionists as disrupting the Union and thus chose to maintain a rather conservative stance on the institution of slavery and race relations in Illinois and reject the more radically perceived abolitionist view of immediate and uncompensated emancipation. He knew doing so was instrumental to his success in climbing the political ladder.

The majority of Lincoln and the Abolitionists focuses on the Railsplitter’s rise to the presidency, and rightly so. As mentioned above, understating Lincoln’s background is prerequisite to understanding how he viewed abolitionists and approached their methods. However, the short treatment—always a challenge with a “concise history”—on the often fraught relationship between President Lincoln and abolitionist leaders like William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Horace Greeley, and Frederick Douglass leaves considerable room for further examination. Despite this fact, Harrold makes clear that abolitionist pressure influenced many of Lincoln’s decisions regarding slavery during his presidential terms.

Lincoln and the Abolitionists clearly achieves its goal in providing a short, thoroughly researched, yet highly-readable explanation of the sometimes rocky relationship between the two parties. Despite their differences in backgrounds, political ideology, and ultimate goals, both Lincoln and the Abolitionists, and thus their interactions, left a tremendous impact on the history of the United States that still resonates today. Harrold’s book makes that particular relationship dynamic ever so more understandable for both casual learners and well-versed historians. I recommend it.

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