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Lincoln's Dilemma

Lincoln's Dilemma: Blair, Sumner, and the Republican Struggle over Racism and Equality in the Civil War Era

Paul D. Escott
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Lincoln's Dilemma
    Book Description:

    The Civil War forced America finally to confront the contradiction between its founding values and human slavery. At the center of this historic confrontation was Abraham Lincoln. By the time this Illinois politician had risen to the office of president, the dilemma of slavery had expanded to the question of all African Americans' future. In this fascinating new book Paul Escott considers the evolution of the president's thoughts on race in relation to three other, powerful--and often conflicting--voices.

    Lincoln's fellow Republicans Charles Sumner and Montgomery Blair played crucial roles in the shaping of their party. While both Sumner and Blair were opposed to slavery, their motivations reflected profoundly different approaches to the issue. Blair's antislavery stance stemmed from a racist dedication to remove African Americans from the country altogether. Sumner, in contrast, opposed slavery as a crusader for racial equality and a passionate abolitionist. Lincoln maintained close personal relationships with both men as he wrestled with the slavery question. In addition to these antislavery voices, Escott also weaves into his narrative the other extreme, of which Lincoln was politically aware: the virulent racism and hierarchical values that motivated not only the Confederates but surprisingly many Northerners and which were embodied by the president's eventual assassin, John Wilkes Booth.

    Sumner, Blair, and violent racists like Booth each represent forces with which Lincoln had to contend as he presided over a brutal civil war and faced the issues of slavery and equality lying at its root. Other books and films have provided glimpses of the atmosphere in which the president created his Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln's Dilemma evokes more fully and brings to life the men Lincoln worked with, and against, as he moved racial equality forward.

    A Nation Divided: Studies in the Civil War Era

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-3620-8
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Introduction: TWO SPEECHES
    (pp. 1-6)

    Rejoicing at last! Washington was alight with celebration. A “general illumination” turned dark streets bright and gave the capital a festive air. Candles burned in every window, gaslights flared, and fireworks lit up the sky. “City Hall sat dressed in gas jets, with as many as sixty candles apiece in some of its windows; while from the square, the radiating streets seemed to stretch in unbroken vistas of flame.”¹ Victory had finally banished the pall of death and defeat. After four discouraging, painful years, April 1865 brought success as one historic victory followed another.

    The rebel capital, Richmond, fell on...

  5. 1 Prejudice and Human Sympathy
    (pp. 7-13)

    Conflict over slavery and “the properstatusof the negro” caused the disruption of the Union. In the prewar decade, events related to race had unsettled the prejudice that dominated the nation. Many Northerners in the 1850s developed more sympathy for the slave without discarding their prejudice against black people.

    Everywhere in the United States the deck was stacked against African Americans. Racism was part of life—the social norm in a white man’s country. Prejudice was in the air that people breathed. Few questioned it, and those few who did were ostracized. But an evolution was taking place in...

  6. 2 Founding the Republican Party
    (pp. 14-25)

    The political party that grew from these concerns over slavery was the Republican Party. In turn, it nourished and carried forward the public’s anti-slavery feelings. But the party was an amalgam of strangely different elements. It contained men from different political backgrounds, and it combined anti-slavery convictions and antiblack prejudices.

    “He was more nearly the founder of the Republican Party than any other one man.” So declared Alexander K. McClure, the well-connected Pennsylvania journalist and politician, in regard to Francis Preston Blair. This grand old man of Washington politics, father of Postmaster General Montgomery Blair and Congressman and General Frank...

  7. 3 Attitudes toward Slavery and Race
    (pp. 26-37)

    Thomas Jefferson embodied the problem. In the Declaration of Independence his stirring words captured the nation’s ideals of freedom and human equality. In other writings he expressed a deep social pessimism and racist views.

    Jefferson was convinced that slavery had to end, but he could not imagine a democracy embracing black and white. “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.” The former president wrote this in 1821. But then he added: “Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government.”¹


  8. 4 Lincoln’s Attitudes on Slavery and Race
    (pp. 38-50)

    “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel.”¹ Abraham Lincoln would make this statement during his presidency. As a description of his entire life, it may well have been true. In Kentucky, where he was born, his parents belonged to a fundamentalist Baptist sect that was opposed to slavery. The young Lincoln would have heard antislavery views in church, and as a boy he amused his friends by repeating and mimicking the preachers’ sermons.²

    But he also grew up in racist Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois. As a young...

  9. 5 Warning Whites about Slavery: ANTISLAVERY VERSUS RACISM
    (pp. 51-60)

    As the campaign of 1858 approached, Abraham Lincoln faced an array of challenges. Suddenly, and surprisingly, influential Republicans were praising Illinois’s Democratic senator, Stephen Douglas. Some even considered supporting Lincoln’s main antagonist. If Lincoln could beat back that threat to his future, he then would face a formidable task in running against Senator Douglas. The Little Giant was a skilled and experienced debater, able to thrust and parry with the best politicos. And Douglas was sure to use racism against Lincoln. Every time Lincoln might denounce slavery, Douglas could raise fears of black equality. Lincoln’s antislavery, he could say, threatened...

  10. 6 Violence
    (pp. 61-70)

    Violence, fueled by passions over race and slavery, invaded American politics during the 1850s. It changed society and left its mark on most of the principals of this story. “When faced with its dilemma over slavery, American society . . . responded with violence.”¹

    The nation had too many proslavery extremists like John Wilkes Booth. Violence ran like a bright thread through his life. Attracted to the style of the slaveholding aristocracy, he made hot-tempered pretension part of his social identity. When he was only sixteen he had attacked a tenant who rented some of the family’s land and then...

  11. 7 Ambition, Triumph, and Crisis
    (pp. 71-82)

    The stature Lincoln gained through his debates with Douglas changed him. It stimulated that ambition which his law partner, Billy Herndon, said was “a little engine that knew no rest.” Now his political career, which had once seemed over, might reach new heights.

    But to climb higher, Lincoln would have to deal with problems both practical and fundamental. The practical problems were themselves daunting. The Republican Party was a mixture of differing elements, only partially cohered. The turbulent events of 1859 and 1860 posed unexpected challenges even for the most seasoned politicians, and the political arena was rife with maneuvering...

  12. 8 Secession
    (pp. 83-92)

    There was little time for celebration. Surely Lincoln and the “little short woman” who was interested in his success shared some quiet moments of wonder. After all, they had reached the highest goal of their dreams. But there was no opportunity to relax. Friends, allies, and office seekers demanded attention. The cabinet had to be selected, various appointments made, and an inaugural address written. On top of the many customary and important duties, a greater question imposed itself. What would the president-elect do to save the Union?

    It was immediately clear that the Republican victory heightened the danger of secession....

  13. 9 Making War and Alliances
    (pp. 93-102)

    “The first thing that was handed to me when I came from the inauguration,” said Abraham Lincoln, “was the letter from Maj. Anderson [in Fort Sumter] saying that their provisions would be exhausted before an expedition could be sent to their relief.” The new president told Senator Orville Browning, “Of all the trials I have had since I came here, none begin to compare with those I had between the inauguration and the fall of Fort Sumter. They were so great that could I have anticipated them, I would not have believed it possible to survive them.”¹

    Lincoln’s first weeks...

  14. 10 Shocking Defeat, Alternate Paths
    (pp. 103-115)

    The Union’s crisis soon deepened. The Battle of Bull Run occurred in July, and it was a shocking defeat that sobered the North. Officeholders and ordinary citizens began to glimpse the difficulty of the task ahead. Preparing for war was one thing; suffering a humiliating defeat, something quite different. When Lincoln moved to put the North on a war footing, public opinion had rallied. But Northerners recoiled in dismay when their raw, untrained army was routed at Bull Run. Immediately, thoughts turned to new measures, and lawmakers and citizens began to discard some conventional ways of thinking.

    After Bull Run,...

  15. 11 Obstacles
    (pp. 116-125)

    The choice of Cameron’s replacement as secretary of war was “a surprise, not only to the country but to every member of the Administration except the Secretary of State.” The appointment of Edwin M. Stanton as secretary of war would end up surprising Abraham Lincoln as well. The president was trying “to conciliate and draw in as much of the Democratic element as possible,” and Seward had recommended this Democratic attorney who had once treated Lincoln rudely. “Fond of power and of its exercise,” Stanton was someone who “took pleasure in being ungracious and rough towards those who were under...

  16. 12 Suffering
    (pp. 126-134)

    “What shall I do?” cried Lincoln. “The people are impatient; Chase has no money and he tells me he can raise no more; the General of the Army has typhoid fever. The bottom is out of the tub.”¹ It was the military situation that caused the people’s impatience at the beginning of 1862. But at this point Lincoln was troubled merely by lack of progress, rather than by defeats and death on a vast scale. Much worse was soon to come.

    The tides of war beat roughly against Lincoln and an overconfident Northern public. They brought grief and mental anguish...

  17. 13 Military Necessity and a Covenant with God
    (pp. 135-145)

    Now, in the latter half of 1862, events and feelings were converging for Abraham Lincoln. As commander in chief he had to find a way to make progress on the battlefield. As a man of antislavery principles, his personal desire was for freedom. The nation’s crisis was swiftly changing attitudes, as Republicans and many ordinary citizens increasingly believed that, to win the war, the government must strike a blow at slavery. Lincoln had lagged far behind these shifts in opinion. But he now decided to act. In his characteristic manner, however, he acted in a complex way, moving forward on...

  18. 14 Traitors or Brothers?
    (pp. 146-155)

    “Reconstruction . . . should now be employing the best meditations of the statesmen of the country.”¹ Salmon Chase, the cabinet’s Radical, made this statement to John Hay in July 1863. In doing so, he identified a subject that would unleash vigorous conflict over values and policies.

    Before that month discussion of Reconstruction would have seemed premature and impractical. But finally the dark clouds over the Union’s military fortunes had begun to lift. Important victories at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and Vicksburg, Mississippi, came within a day of each other at the beginning of the month. A relieved President Lincoln “beam[ed] with...

  19. 15 Reconstruction or Restoration?
    (pp. 156-165)

    Lincoln’s views on Reconstruction would be crucial to the nation’s future. Yet the president seemed reluctant to be very specific. “My policy is to have no policy.” Abraham Lincoln used these words on numerous occasions, describing his approach to the difficult decisions he had to make. His statement irritated Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase, who called it an “idiotic notion.”¹ Chase was not the only one. Lincoln’s claim that he had no policy made no sense to many people; to others it seemed frankly irresponsible.

    Lincoln may simply have enjoyed keeping his plans from some questioners, but in another...

  20. 16 Violence and Racism
    (pp. 166-176)

    Heat and humidity are oppressive in Washington, D.C., during the summer months. To gain some relief from the sultry weather, President Lincoln began staying in an isolated cottage at the Soldiers’ Home three miles outside town. One night in 1864 he was riding his horse, alone, through the dark toward the Soldiers’ Home. Without warning, a shot rang out. A rifle bullet whizzed by at close range, startling Lincoln’s horse. The animal bounded forward so rapidly that Lincoln lost his hat. The next day, to minimize the incident, Lincoln told his story to Ward Lamon as a great joke—that...

  21. 17 Political Dangers, Ambiguous Policies
    (pp. 177-190)

    Late in August 1864 a depressed but realistic Abraham Lincoln sat down at his desk. Taking up his pen, he wrote a private memorandum, not to be published. “This morning, as for some days past,” the president admitted, “it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected.” In that event, Lincoln told himself, “my duty” would be “to so co-operate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration.” Saving the Union afterward, he believed, would be impossible, because pressure on a Democratic president would lead to an armistice and Confederate independence....

  22. 18 They Can Have Peace
    (pp. 191-202)

    As Lincoln was preparing his address to Congress, John Wilkes Booth was penning a justification of his plans for revenge. The president’s “To Whom It May Concern” letter in July, which listed “the abandonment of slavery” as a condition for peace, had enraged Booth. Unmoved by Lincoln’s later backtracking, he now appropriated “To Whom It May Concern” as his own title and began, “Right or wrong, God judge me, not man.”

    Booth hated all of Lincoln’s policies, but race was his central obsession. “This country was formed for thewhitenot for the black man,” he wrote. Slavery was “one...

  23. 19 With Malice toward None; with Charity for All
    (pp. 203-210)

    Inauguration day, March 4, 1865, dawned rainy and windy. The city was “quite full of people,” and General Henry Halleck, fearing “mischief,” urged precautions and the closing of the Navy Yard. Well-dressed spectators waded through Washington’s unpaved streets, ankle-deep in mud, and dark clouds rolled across the sky. The day’s ceremonies also began on a dark note, since Vice President Andrew Johnson was drunk. In the Senate chamber where he was sworn in, Johnson “made a rambling and strange harangue, which was listened to with pain and mortification” by the cabinet and Republican notables. As this preliminary ceremony concluded, Lincoln...

  24. 20 Assassination
    (pp. 211-216)

    As Lincoln spoke, one person in the crowd outside the White House listened with anxious attention. By now John Wilkes Booth was obsessed with the idea that he had a “sacred duty” to help the South. Regretting that he had “promised mother I would keep out” of the Confederate army, he had started “to deem myself a coward and to despise my own existence.” For months he had virtually suspended his acting career; his last performance had been on March 18. He was drinking heavily, “putting away brandy by the quart.” After the fall of Richmond he talked “recklessly of...

  25. 21 Unfinished Business
    (pp. 217-222)

    The war years had been immensely stressful for Abraham Lincoln. Had he lived, the years of Reconstruction might well have been worse. It cannot be said that a man as intelligent and experienced as Lincoln was naive. But as Reconstruction began, he was unrealistically positive. He approached its intractable problems with a desire that the nation might rise above its troubled past and atone for war’s suffering and destruction. Ready to forgive and be generous himself, he tried to inspire the same feelings in others. His call for “malice toward none” and “charity for all” revealed a hopefulness and idealism...

  26. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 223-224)
  27. Notes
    (pp. 225-248)
  28. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 249-256)
  29. Index
    (pp. 257-268)
  30. Back Matter
    (pp. 269-270)