Manisha Sinha, the Draper Chair in American History at the University of Connecticut, is the author, most recently, of “The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition.”
The black intellectual and activist W.E.B. Du Bois identified the problem of the 20th century as the problem of “the color line.” Its roots lay in the conflict over slavery and black citizenship in the early American republic. Statesmen, abolitionists, slaveholders and the enslaved themselves participated in this debate, which eventually begat the Civil War and emancipation.
In this dual biography of Abraham Lincoln and John Quincy Adams, Fred Kaplan, who has previously written biographies of both men, compares Lincoln unfavorably with abolitionists on the great issues of the day. Unlike the abolitionists, Lincoln — in Kaplan’s telling — opposed emancipation and black rights through much of his life not because he was an anti-slavery moderate, as most historians have argued, but because he was an incorrigible racist and anti-abolitionist. Seeking to revise hagiographic views of Lincoln, whom he calls an “antislavery moralist,” Kaplan places Adams, whom he dubs an “antislavery activist,” with the abolitionists, even though Adams throughout his long political career never considered himself among their ranks.
The title of this book is a misnomer, as it is not a sustained look at the relationship between Lincoln and the abolitionists. Abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips and Frederick Douglass pop in and out of the book, but one gets no sense of the movement. Instead, Kaplan, a professor emeritus of English at Queens College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, deploys the views of abolitionists and Adams selectively, mainly to highlight Lincoln’s shortcomings and his allegedly unchanging conservatism on slavery and race. Unlike Douglass, Kaplan places Lincoln not at the head of a great anti-slavery movement but as a lifelong proponent of a lily-white America.
That Lincoln was not an abolitionist, even though he morally abhorred slavery, is not news to historians. Kaplan highlights Lincoln’s role as a lawyer for a slaveholder seeking to remand his slave, Jane Bryant, and her four children back to slavery; Bryant had lived in Illinois and married a free black man. The author is on less sure ground when he discusses Lincoln’s reaction to the murder of Elijah Lovejoy, the abolitionist editor killed while defending his printing press from a mob in 1837. Not only did Lincoln vote against anti-abolitionist resolutions in the Illinois legislature, he also penned a protest arguing that slavery was an “injustice and bad policy” but that abolition may increase rather than abate its evils. In a speech a year later, Lincoln condemned mobs that “throw printing presses into rivers” and “shoot editors.” Yet Kaplan with typical overstatement concludes that Lincoln saw slavery and abolition as equally evil. In fact, while Lincoln consistently condemned slavery as wrong, he came to appreciate the role abolitionists played in the coming of emancipation during the Civil War. But Kaplan lumps Lincoln in the same category as his co-counsel in the Bryant case, Usher Linder, the pro-slavery state attorney general who persecuted Lovejoy and made sure his murderers got off scot-free.
Adams fares better in Kaplan’s book. Like many of the Northern founders, including his father, Adams put the interests of the nation above his qualms over slavery early in his career. Kaplan is at his best in describing anti-slavery in New England and Southern slaveholding moderates as those “who opposed slavery in principle but happily profited from it.” By the 1830s, Adams was a fellow traveler of the abolitionist movement but not a member. Kaplan spends a lot of time writing about Adams’s reaction to the Missouri crisis and Lovejoy’s murder, but says surprisingly little about his virtually one-man opposition to the gag rule against abolitionist petitions in the House of Representatives and absolutely nothing about his defense of the Amistad slave rebels before the Supreme Court.
Kaplan’s understanding of the interracial abolitionist movement is outdated, quaint and erroneous, which undermines his attempt to set it up as a foil to Lincoln. He dismisses Lovejoy as a moral absolutist, misidentifies the American Anti Slavery Society as the American Abolition Society and claims that some abolitionists were colonizationists. Abolitionists rejected the program of the American Colonization Society, founded in 1817 to repatriate all free blacks back to Africa.
Kaplan praises Adams’s rejection of colonization in contrast to Lincoln’s long-standing support of it. Lincoln admired Henry Clay, the slaveholding Whig senator from Kentucky, a founding member and president of the American Colonization Society and author of the most important sectional compromises before the Civil War, as his beau ideal of a politician. In the crisis decade before the war, however, Lincoln began sounding a lot more like Adams than Clay. One can trace his evolution in the politics of anti-slavery from his reluctant support of the Fugitive Slave Law to his eloquent denunciation of the Dred Scott decision. Kaplan rarely engages with Lincoln’s words, which lay bare the dilemma of a moderate wrestling with his competing loyalties to the Union, the Constitution and anti-slavery. During the war, Lincoln would move from the non-extension of slavery to abolition, and from colonization to black citizenship, but Kaplan is not impressed by his capacity, as Garrison put it, to grow in office. He reproduces abolitionists’ denunciations of Lincoln for his slowness to act but rarely their praise of him when he adopted emancipation. Lincoln fulfilled Adams’s prediction of the destruction of slavery during a military conflict that would allow the president to evoke his war powers under the Constitution to abolish slavery. In this sense, Lincoln was a political heir to Adams.
Kaplan also does not note that abolitionists such as Owen Lovejoy, brother of the martyred Elijah, and Charles Sumner emerged as confidantes of the president, but he faults Lincoln for making the worst vice-presidential choice in U.S. history, Andrew Johnson, during his reelection bid in 1864. But neither Lincoln nor the abolitionists foresaw that he would be assassinated and that Johnson, the wartime governor of Union-occupied Tennessee known for his hatred of the slaveholding elite, would become president and issue wholesale pardons to them. (Tennessee, contrary to Kaplan’s claim, did secede from the Union.) And just when he should have left his narrative well alone, Kaplan indulges in a bit of counterfactual history, gratuitously predicting that if Lincoln had lived, he would not have prevented the overthrow of Reconstruction, Jim Crow or even the criminalization of blackness, because for him only white lives mattered. The black abolitionist H. Ford Douglas, who criticized Lincoln’s failure to support black citizenship before the war, knew better. The war he predicted would educate Lincoln on colonization. It would also lay the foundation for an interracial democracy that the nation still aspires to achieve.
By Fred Kaplan
Harper. 395 pp. $28.99