The Crooked Path to Abolition: Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery Constitution

The Crooked Path to Abolition: Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery Constitution

by James Oakes


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An award-winning scholar uncovers the guiding principles of Lincoln’s antislavery strategies.

The long and turning path to the abolition of American slavery has often been attributed to the equivocations and inconsistencies of antislavery leaders, including Lincoln himself. But James Oakes’s brilliant history of Lincoln’s antislavery strategies reveals a striking consistency and commitment extending over many years. The linchpin of antislavery for Lincoln was the Constitution of the United States.

Lincoln adopted the antislavery view that the Constitution made freedom the rule in the United States, slavery the exception. Where federal power prevailed, so did freedom. Where state power prevailed, that state determined the status of slavery, and the federal government could not interfere. It would take state action to achieve the final abolition of American slavery. With this understanding, Lincoln and his antislavery allies used every tool available to undermine the institution. Wherever the Constitution empowered direct federal action—in the western territories, in the District of Columbia, over the slave trade—they intervened. As a congressman in 1849 Lincoln sponsored a bill to abolish slavery in Washington, DC. He reentered politics in 1854 to oppose what he considered the unconstitutional opening of the territories to slavery by the Kansas–Nebraska Act. He attempted to persuade states to abolish slavery by supporting gradual abolition with compensation for slaveholders and the colonization of free Blacks abroad.

President Lincoln took full advantage of the antislavery options opened by the Civil War. Enslaved people who escaped to Union lines were declared free. The Emancipation Proclamation, a military order of the president, undermined slavery across the South. It led to abolition by six slave states, which then joined the coalition to affect what Lincoln called the "King’s cure": state ratification of the constitutional amendment that in 1865 finally abolished slavery.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly


Historian Oakes (The Scorpion’s Sting) offers a crisp and well-argued examination of the politics and constitutional theories behind President Lincoln’s stance on slavery. He contends that abolitionists’ reading of the Constitution as an antislavery document led to the creation in the 1820s and ’30s of the “Antislavery Project,” “a series of specific policies... designed to stop and then reverse the expansion of slavery” that Lincoln and the Republican Party adopted in the 1850s. Meanwhile, proslavery advocates pointed to the fugitive slave and three-fifths clauses in the Constitution and argued that the founding fathers intended to extend rights to white men only. Oakes details Lincoln’s belief that the key to gaining widespread support for ending slavery was cutting off its expansion into new territories, and persuasively argues that though Lincoln defended Black citizenship after the Supreme Court denied it in the 1857 Dred Scott ruling, he failed to think deeply about racial discrimination. After signing the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, Lincoln focused his energies on the passage of the 13th Amendment to establish a constitutional prohibition against slavery. This intelligent and deeply researched study adds much to the scholarly debate about how and why slavery was abolished. (Jan.)

David S. Reynolds

"Brilliant…A landmark contribution."

Michael Burlingame

"No other scholar has shed more light on Lincoln’s way of dealing with slavery."

James M. McPherson

"With crisp and lucid prose, Oakes provides a map that guides the reader through the zigs and zags of the path to freedom."

Sean Wilentz

"With this superb book, Oakes opens the way for a thorough retelling of the nation’s history from the American Revolution to the Civil War."

Amy Dru Stanley

"On Lincoln, on the Civil War, on slavery’s downfall, on constitutional change—this is an indispensable book."

Sidney Blumenthal

"A diamond of historical scholarship, with deep research and understanding shining brilliantly in every facet."

Manisha Sinha

"Cogently argued, by one of our foremost historians of emancipation."

Don Herzog

"I read this remarkable book with pleasure and admiration. Oakes writes like a dream."

Garry Wills

"Eleanor Roosevelt used to say, ‘If you must compromise, compromise up.’ The champion compromiser up was Lincoln, as Oakes proves, avoiding the simple views of him as just opportunist or just emancipator. He knew where he was going, even when he had to obscure the goal."

Library Journal

★ 12/01/2020

Radical abolitionists, such as William Lloyd Garrison, decried the U.S. Constitution as a, "pact with the devil," for its support of slavery. But the Constitution does not clearly address the issue of slavery. Award-winning Civil War historian Oakes (Graduate Center, CUNY; The Scorpion's Sting) shows how the Constitutional compromises forged by the Founding Fathers led to much ambiguity and dissension. Beginning in the 1820s, an "Antislavery Project" arose with the goal of stopping and then reversing slavery's expansion. Abolitionists rightfully pointed out that the text embodied the principle of human equality, referred to persons and not slaves, and never referred to a right to human property. Oakes proceeds to argue that Abraham Lincoln's understanding of the Constitution, rather than racism, explains Lincoln's sometimes slow and cautious movement on abolitionism. Once the war began, the movement of enslaved people to Union lines and decisions made by Union commanders in the field drove the push toward emancipation and abolition. Oakes's well researched narrative offers a vivid and insightful contribution to the literature on the abolition of slavery and Lincoln's role. VERDICT This book will appeal to readers interested in the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, and constitutional history.—Chad E. Statler, Westlake Porter P.L., Westlake, OH

Kirkus Reviews

★ 2020-09-19
A superb analysis of how the Constitution influenced the battle over slavery.

Although the Constitution is widely considered a sacred document, legal scholars disagree on what the various clauses mean, and activists denounce it as flawed by shameful racist compromises. Oakes agrees that the Founding Fathers did indeed compromise. However, he demonstrates that the end result was so sloppy that, before the Civil War, slavery supporters could claim that it protected their institution, and abolitionists had no doubt that it didn’t. For example, the Fifth Amendment states that no person may be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process. The Constitution refers to slaves as “persons,” but only abolitionists believed it. “Nowhere,” writes the author, “does the Constitution state that Congress cannot ‘interfere’ with slavery or abolition in a state, yet it was widely agreed that it could not.” The Constitution never mentions a right of “property in man” despite the assertion by Chief Justice Robert Taney in the 1857 Dred Scott decision that it does. Thus, the heated debate over slavery referred to principles absent from the text. Depending on one’s view, there existed a pro-slavery Constitution and an anti-slavery Constitution. Despite a lifelong dislike of slavery, Lincoln gets low marks from activists for his statements on racial equality, but he was a practical politician who needed to appeal to a Republican Party that contained members who were “thoroughgoing racial egalitarians.” “Others were unabashed racists in a way that Lincoln never was,” writes Oakes, who parses a complex topic with an impressive combination of deep insight and concision. Pressured during the famous 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas, who claimed that Lincoln was “an advocate for racial ‘amalgamation,’ ” he backpedaled. Other scholars fault him for keeping abolitionists at arm’s length and look down their noses at the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed few slaves. However, Oakes persuasively shows how, from the moment Lincoln assumed office, he made it clear by both rhetoric and action that slavery was doomed.

Many books discuss Lincoln and abolition, but this is among the best.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781324005858
Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 01/12/2021
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 1,231
Product dimensions: 8.20(w) x 5.60(h) x 1.00(d)

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