Debating DiLorenzo: Peaceful Abolition?

In Debating DiLorenzo, let’s first look at what he says about peaceable abolition and the Union as a voluntary association.

DILORENZO: And, I guess, one of the things that really bothered me when I started looking into this was when I found out that all of the other countries of the world that ended slavery in the 19th century did it peacefully, and that included New England and Ohio and Pennsylvania and Indiana, the northern United States. And as an economist, I started thinking, well why was this not an alternative for America? Why was it only in America where there was a war attached to the ending of slavery? And that’s why the subtitle of my first book, ”The Real Lincoln” is – includes the words ”An Unnecessary War.” I think it could have been possible for us to do what England and Spain and France and Denmark and other countries did, end slavery peacefully.

So what was the purpose? And I’ve concluded that the purpose of the invasion of the southern states was what Lincoln said it was, was to destroy the secession movement and he called it, ”saving the Union.” But all of the death that was attached to that is the thing that sort of haunts me that, you know, was it really necessary for some 650 million – 650,000 Americans to have died. And, you know, if you standardize that to today’s population, which is 10 times higher than it was in 1860 you’re talking the equivalent of five or six million people dying, you know, standardizing a much larger society than we have today, and so that is what really hit me hard of why that – all of that death was necessary just to save the union. And on top of that, I argue that the union wasn’t saved because the union was voluntary. The union of the founders was voluntary, and it was no longer voluntary after 1865.

Crossroads Comments:  Lincoln’s efforts to secure the peaceful abolition of slavery through a gradual, compensated emancipation with the option for freed blacks to relocate outside the United States were rebuffed by Confederates and most southern white unionists.  Thus, the offer was made, and it was rejected.  If Lincoln was the tyrant DiLorenzo makes him out to be, why did not the sixteenth president simply impose his solution on the nation?

If one is to ask whether it was necessary for so many Americans to have died to end slavery, one might with at least equal justice ask a similar question of Confederate leadership, who contributed to that death toll in order to preserve the enslavement of fellow human beings.  Moreover, to attribute the costs of a war that no one could have foreseen in 1861 to the actions of a single individual while ignoring the presence of other actors seems to me to be problematic.  One could with more than equal justice claim that Jefferson Davis was willing to sacrifice hundred of thousands of lives to preserve slavery.  Yet, as we shall see, DiLorenzo denies white southerners agency and refuses to hold them responsible for their own behavior, in effect reducing them to helpless children.  Nor does he appear to care about the continued suffering of slaves or their prolonged enslavement had the Confederacy survived.

If the Civil War was an unnecessary war, and abolition could have come peacefully, DiLorenzo would have to explain why white southerners rejected abolition and fought to protect slavery.  He offers no evidence that white southerners would have accepted a peaceful end to slavery.  In his efforts to focus on Lincoln, in fact, DiLorenzo denies any agency to white southerners, and refuses to hold them responsible for their own actions, two steps which demean white southerners.  Nor does he outline a possible approach that would have led to the peaceful end of slavery in the United States.

While the states may have voluntarily entered the Union, it was a matter for debate as to whether they could voluntarily leave it.  While even Lincoln recognized a right of rebellion, Americans divided over a right of secession.  The difference between the two concepts is important.  Secession claims that leaving the Union is well within the rules, and those accepting the rules accept the legitimacy of secession.  The right of revolution rejects the rules, and leaves resistance/coercion as a viable response.  All we learn from the last sentence is that DiLorenzo and Lincoln disagree over the right of secession.  Moreover, allowing secession would not have led to the destruction of slavery: it would have perpetuated it.  Thus DiLorenzo’s expressions concerning abolition ring hollow.  He offers no explanation as to how secession would have led to abolition.

Stay tuned for more as you start thinking about lunch …

41 thoughts on “Debating DiLorenzo: Peaceful Abolition?

  1. Marc Ferguson February 27, 2011 / 6:43 am

    Another point, connected with your observation that DiLorenzo offers no evidence that Southerners would have accepted a peaceful end to slavery in the U.S., is that he is misleading when he asks, “Why was it only in America where there was a war attached to the ending of slavery?” This is another one of those talking points that ignores the reality of emancipation in the Americas. Stephanie McCurry, in _Confederate Reckoning_, writes: “There is an important pattern in the history of slave emancipation in the Western Hemisphere, one of considerable significance for the Confederate States of America; and that is the intimate association of war, slave enlistment, and emancipation. From the American War of Independence to the last surrender of slavery in Brazil in the aftermath of the Paraguayan American Wars of Independence, the U.S. Civil War, the Ten-Years War in Cuba – slaves fought for and won their freedom in the context of war. It was in the context of war that slave men became the objects of state interest and the focus of intense competition between warring states for political loyalty and military service.”

    DiLorenzo’s claim about emancipation that “all of the other countries of the world that ended slavery in the 19th century did it peacefully,” misrepresents the actual history of slave emancipation, but it is a popular talking point with the folks in the anti-Lincoln crowd.

    • Al Mackey February 27, 2011 / 10:02 am

      Great points, Marc, and I’ll bet we can find references to Haiti’s rebellion in DiLorenzo’s writing, yet he claims that nowhere other than the US was slavery ended with violence.

  2. Ric Ben-Safed February 27, 2011 / 7:11 am

    One thing I have noticed about DiLorenzo is that he seems to skip over the idea of why the Republic, as constituted before 1860, didn’t resolve the issue of Slavery voluntarily. Of course it could have been unresolvable because it was already an established institution of the state as a republic. The church institution wasn’t as established in the law as slavery was in the slave owning states. I dare say that institutions are not easily changed as they are also a part of the culture.

  3. James F. Epperson February 27, 2011 / 9:05 am

    Excellent start, Brooks. I’ve always thought this was a massive strawman in DiLo’s presentation, because of the obvious lack of consideration he gives to Southern/Confederate agency. If the refuse to give slavery up, and are willing to start a war/revolution to keep it, how is Lincoln to blame for any of that? The fact that he has his history wrong with regard to other emancipations is not the least bit surprising.

  4. Al Mackey February 27, 2011 / 9:40 am

    This is part of DiLorenzo’s inconsistency. On the one hand, he will argue that Lincoln cared nothing about the slaves, and on the other hand he will claim that Lincoln invaded the South to impose abolition on them, with none of his assertions being true. As you point out, he attributes no agency to the Confederates who, after all, were the ones who fired on Fort Sumter in the first place.

  5. Arleigh Birchler February 27, 2011 / 9:52 am

    I don’t think I would care to say which side was right, or wrong. The question to me comes down to: “Is war every justifiable?” I can think of a lot of scenarios where the use of military force might be much better than trying to avoid it. The old idea of “peace through strength.” Even then, however, it is a regrettable thing to have been forced into.

    The question then was the same as it is now: “Could slavery in the United States be ended without a war?” This comes after the question: “Would it be possible to have a system of slavery without brutality and humiliation?” I do not know the answer to the first question. The second question is moot since the evil of slavery is not in the brutality or the humiliation. It is in the core concept.

    Whatever the answer might be, I believe that the United States would be a much better place if we could have ended slavery without a war. And I believe that the immense toll in death and suffering contributed greatly to the hardships endured by the ex-slaves and their descendants in the decades since the war.

    • Brooks D. Simpson February 27, 2011 / 2:15 pm

      To me, DiLorenzo tries to evade the simple question of “how?” Was there any real prospect that in 1860 white southerners, especially in the Deep South, would have agreed to a plan to end slavery? No. That’s not to say that Lincoln might not have pondered different plans in the absence of secession and war. Those proposals might have taken root in parts of the upper South. However, by the time Lincoln becomes president, secession, not slavery, is the top agenda item for the federal government.

      The problem for DiLorenzo is that he simply doesn’t believe white southerners played a role in bringing the country to a crisis over slavery and the coming of a war. The South doesn’t figure in his account, which is why claims that he’s really on the side of the abolitionists fail to make sense. There’s something wildly ahistorical about his narrative.

      • Arleigh Birchler February 28, 2011 / 11:41 am

        A few years ago I thought about reading something by DiLorenzo, but never got around to it. I did read your book about Grant, and thought it was excellent. Right now I am trying to keep my focus on Carolina native plants. I need to leave the politics to the next generation. It is their turn.

  6. Bob Pollock February 27, 2011 / 10:29 am

    Thanks for this blog, I appreciate you sharing your knowledge this way.
    Regarding this post, you do make some excellent points. My two cents:
    It seems to me that DiLorenzo starts with one question here, then quickly switches gears. He asks why a war was fought to end slavery, then dismisses slavery because other countries supposedly ended slavery without resorting to war, and therefore the war was fought to save the Union.
    First, negotiations over slavery had been going on for decades, with numerous political compromises along the way. It was not Northerners, Republicans, or Lincoln who decided to end those negotiations within the established system and resort to revolution, it was Southern slave-holders. So DiLorenzo has the shoe on the wrong foot if he is blaming Lincoln for starting a war to end slavery. But, then he says the war was actually fought to save the Union. (Now there’s a revelation!) He then questions whether saving the Union was worth the cost. It is easy to look back in hindsight and ask this question, but in 1861 who knew what what the cost would be? Certainly not Lincoln. Furthermore, DiLorenzo seems to have little understanding of why the Union was so important in the minds of Northerners and many Southerners. The Union was representative democracy; it was popular government; it was the very freedom that DiLorenzo claims to champion. The Confederacy, on the other hand was the “Slave Power”; a return of Old World aristocracy, a curtailing of individual freedom. DiLorenzo may not see it that way, but that is how they saw it in 1861, and that is what matters.

  7. Bob Huddleston February 27, 2011 / 12:45 pm

    DiLorenzo, like neo-Confederates, conveniently attaches the blame for starting the War on the Yankees in general and Lincoln in particular. It was not Lincoln who fired the first shot, it was the Rebels under Jefferson Davis’ orders. Shouldn’t they be blaming the Confederates? Oh, I see: if was not the firing on Fort Sumter that started the War, it was “the invasion of the Southern states” that caused all the bloodshed.
    “The firing on that fort will inaugurate a civil war greater than any the world yet seen and I do not feel competent to advise you. Mr. President, at this time it is suicide, murder, and will lose us every friend at the North. You will wantonly strike a hornet’s nest which extends from mountain to ocean, and legions now quiet will swarm out and sting us to death. It is unnecessary; it puts us in the wrong; it is fatal.”
    Robert Toombs, April 11, 1861

    • Brad Anderson March 16, 2011 / 8:41 pm

      ” It was not Lincoln who fired the first shot,”

      But he did commit the first acts of war– and unless one is completely illiterate, they’ll realize that the two are not necessarily equal.
      Likewise, sovereign states have the right, obligation and duty to defend their territorial sovereignty against hostile invasion and conquest by ruthless invaders and marauding imperialists like Lincoln.

      Lincoln committed acts of war against the seceded states, by

      1) denying the right of these states to legally secede (a lie), and threatening them with armed invasion, force and bloodshed if they tried on March 4, 1861; followed by

      2) armed invasion of their territory for this purpose on April 9, in fulfillment of this threat.

      These are acts of war against any sovereign state.

      The Southern states, meanwhile, did not respond with force until April 12- and only did so on their own territory, in order to remove declared hostiles from it, and defend themselves against such threatened violaence by Lincoln. They also did not ivade Union territory, while all Union military presence in the South was engaged in acts of war against the South in order to conquer them under false pretense of national authority.

      Finally, Lincoln was wrong to claim that the Union held nationoal authority over the states, since this was never established as he claimed; rather, Lincoln followed Jackson in re-inventing history as he pleased– and then acting accordingly. The states originally declared themselves as independent sovereignties, but Lincoln contradicted reality quite freely at will, claiming that the simple fact of their united effort, necessarily resulted in a national union– while they expressly stated their intention to form thirteen free, sovereign and independent states, Lincoln clearly believed that he knew better than the Founders what they themselves meant.
      A simple perusal of Lincoln’s various “legal proofs” of Union authority over the states, proves him something between a liar and a lunatic– as well as a bit of both; and his followers, not surprisingly, curiously espouse and evince shades of similarity therewith.
      No matter how the Lincoln-cultists squirm and twist the facts, however, they can’t deny the rational conclusion that the South was right, by any modern reading of international law and rules of engagement.

  8. Scott Manning February 27, 2011 / 1:00 pm

    We should also consider the war in connection with Lincoln’s attitude toward slavery. During his debates with Douglas, he clearly thought it was an evil, but he publically stated that he saw it ending peacefully in “God’s good time.” Whenever that was, he could not specify, but theorized it could take more than a hundred years. Before then, he even sympathized with slave owners, as he admitted, “if all earthly power were given me, I should not know what to do.”

    Yes, Lincoln did oppose the expansion of slavery, but that opposition grew into a desire to eradicate it entirely. As the war continued, he changed from an attitude of allowing slavery to continue to colonizing to emancipation and finally, suffrage for veterans and literate blacks. This dramatic evolution could not have happened outside of a war. Freeing the slaves was not a priority in 1861, but it evolved into a priority when it became clear that slavery was the cause of the war. As Frederick Douglass said in February 1861, “Any union which can possibly be patched up while slavery exists, must either completely demoralize the whole nation, or remain a heartless form, disguising, under the smiles of friendship, a vital, active and ever-increasing hate, sure to explode in violence.” It took a war to make America realize that.

  9. Mark February 27, 2011 / 2:16 pm

    Someone said they done CARE to say which is right or WRONG?

    What on earth? Do you have ANY clue what was going on? Do you have ANY clue that the South promised — then delivered — violence when their Ulatimatums were not met? Do you know that the South only attacked AFTER their Ultimatums to spread slavery were not obeyed?

    So Lincoln should have obeyed their ultimatums? He did not, he could not, without violence. The South had made demands that the NORTH use force to spread slavery. DId you know that, or not?

    Go read the Southern Ultimatums, get some historical facts, and given by Southern newspapers at the time. The essense of the Ultimatums – spread slavery for us, by force, into Kansas, or face war.

    Southern editors bragged— BRAGGED- after the war that they had warned the North over and over that they would wage WAR if Lincoln was elected. And when Lincoln was elected — they waited till they issued Ultimatums that the US spread slavery, and then they attacked.

    So you don’t want to say who was right or wrong? How brave of you! How noble! If Lincoln had obeyed their demands, he would have had to use force and violence. The First ultimatum by the South — according to Southern newspapers reporting on it — was that Kansas must accept and respect slavery. But Kansas had just voted 98% to 2% to keep slavery out forever. Do you think Lincoln should obey them, and force Kansas to have slavery – -to accept and respect it?

    I’m not afraid to say who was right. And who was wrong. Lincoln was right. The slavers were wrong.

    • Brad Anderson March 16, 2011 / 8:15 pm

      This absurd notion that “secession means war” is based revisionist history of the lowest order, since a simple perusal of secession-papers shows absolutely NO declaration of war among them. On the contrary, the southen states simply exercised their fundamental right to defend themselves against federal invasion– as Madison expressly stated was the purpose of state militias. Unfortunately, however, historical literacy was not the strong suit among northern states, and they therefore accepted the Lincoln-Jackson administations’ charlatanism that “secession is treason.”

      As such, war was forced upon the Southern states by the federal government and their northern lackey-states; this was likewise aided by federal censorship, including the illegal suspension of habeas corpus via Lincoln’s unilaterally usurping the power of all federal branches during the congressional absence– to which the Lincoln-cultists claim “emergency” granting a carte-blanche under the American Constiktution– ala Hitler under the Weimar constitution.
      In any event, the federal invasion was no more legal than Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, which Hussein likewise claimed was a “civil war;” however again, a simple perusal of history reveals that each state remained sovereign, free and independent regardless of “perpetual union” both before the Constitution and afterward.
      Unfortunately again, historical literacy is no more prevalent among current kool-aid drinkers than those during the bellum-period… and bad info makes for bad ideas.

      However cretinism aside, hsitorical facts dictate that Lincoln, like Jackson, was a power-mad dictator who invaded sovereign states under pretense of national authority– and, in finest tradition of Machiavellian revisionism, used military victory to re-write history and suppress the truth…. and the Lincoln cult-followers couldn’t be more convinced of that dogma, facts notwithstanding.

  10. Katherine February 28, 2011 / 12:27 pm

    There’s several reasons why American needed a war to end slavery, and many other nations ended it peacefully or with substantially less bloodshed. The British and French planters were fairly dependent upon the mother country; they were better off accepting abolition than trying to defy it and thus inviting attack by both the British and slaves. The Confederacy had far more manpower; not, it transpired, enough to both keep slaves under control and fight the North, but enough to make doing so to seem feasible to the Confederate government. Secondly, the South was unlike most other slave societies in that it was able to sustain a growing slave population. Conditions for slaves in other areas, like the West Indies and Brazil, were much worse, to the point where they died so quickly that slavery couldn’t be sustained without the slave trade. (Not that the South treated slaves at all well, but the sugar plantations predominant in the Caribbean and Brazil were far worse than southern tobacco and cotton plantations.) Once the British Navy put effort into suppressing the slave trade, it was hard for much of South America and the Caribbean to sustain slavery; it was abolished in Brazil shortly after the British cut off the supply of smuggled slaves by claiming the right to take the British Navy into Brazilian waters to board or destroy slaving ships.

    There’s no possible way the South would have accepted even gradual abolition of slavery, or even refusal to expand slavery – that’s why they seceded in the first place.

  11. Brad Anderson March 16, 2011 / 8:01 pm

    This is the problem with debating Lincoln-cultists– i.e. they will slap down everything regardless of merit, based on their kool-aid fed predispositions.
    The fact is that Lincoln’s offers of “compensation” were based on far less than just compensation for the slaves in question, which therefore violated the 5th Amendment regarding the taking of private property without just compensation; likewise, the northern emancipations were based on econo0mic liquidation of non-productive assets, not the rosy humanitarian-angle claimed by revisionist hypocrites. In fact, many southern slaves were purchased from these northern “liquidation sales,” since slaves were only permitted to be freed by state, not by individual volition.

    Furthermore, secession would have ended slavery, by all able-bodied slaves on border-states escaping faster than East Germans when the Berlin Wall came down; this would leave only the infirm slaves who were burdens on their owners, which would force these owners to demand abolition-laws– at which point the states would then re-join the Union for economic reasons.

    In any event, the war was never waged over slavery– rather, this is a moral strawman for the federally-ordered murder of 250,000 state-citizens, for absolutely no valid legal reason– as proven by the fact that no one was ever convicted of any crime, treason or otherwise; rather, the federal government simply wanted the South’s money, and the South preferred a parting of the ways to that proposition. Likewise, the clear federal infringement of southern constitutional rights in the territories, was simply a northern tool to Gerrymander those regions in order to ensure congressional hegemony via new states– and thereby pass such unconscionable tax-laws such as the Morrill Tariff act and other various pork-bills.
    Anyone who believes this absurd “war for liberation” angle– which, again, was a clear violation of the 5th Amendment in itself– has simply had a few too many sips of that spiked Kool-aid from the Lincoln-cult trough.

  12. tim June 14, 2011 / 8:43 pm

    how are you debating Di Lorenzo when he is not here to defend his position

    • Brooks D. Simpson June 14, 2011 / 9:14 pm

      Well, tim, Professor DiLorenzo’s debated many historians in print, but not face-to-face, but you haven’t asked this question of him, have you? I note you don’t disagree with anything presented in my observations. He’s always welcome to defend his position and explain his distortions of the record. Maybe you can extend the invitation, since you seem so concerned. Otherwise, it would seem to me you aren’t really so worried after all.

        • Brooks D. Simpson January 4, 2012 / 10:54 am

          Let’s recall the quote:

          “Professor DiLorenzo’s debated many historians in print, but not face-to-face …”
          Harry Jaffa’s a political philosopher.

          Once again you’ve handled evidence poorly in an effort to mislead. But at least this time you tried to handle it.

          • BorderRuffian January 4, 2012 / 2:30 pm

            “Harry Jaffa’s a political philosopher.”


            These days it’s hard to tell one from the other.

  13. Arleigh Birchler June 14, 2011 / 9:25 pm


    “Someone said they done CARE to say which is right or WRONG?”

    That is not what I said. I said:

    “I don’t think I would care to say which side was right, or wrong.”

    I believe there is a world of difference between the two statements.

  14. Ray O'Hara June 15, 2011 / 4:07 am

    DiLorenzo starts with a false premise.That the United States started a war to end slavery.
    He’s heard that that is wrong before, he’ll hear it’s wrong again and he’ll continue to ignore it.

    States “voluntarily” joining the Union. What other option did they have?. It was become a state in the Union or stay a territory there was no other option.

    in fact territories are part of the Union. Statehood is just a status change of an area already part of the USA.
    Territories don’t become states and then choose to join or not. they become a state only upon being accepted as a state of the Union. If statehood is rejected by Congress the territory doesn’t become a state. so to say states “join” the Union is the wrong way to look at it.

  15. Frederick January 3, 2012 / 12:41 pm

    All of this debate over what DiLorenzo has said hasn’t really gotten to the core issue that should be discussed. So, let’s look at what Lincoln himself said on this issue. First, it should be noted that Lincoln provided a very strong defense of the institution of slavery in his first inaugural address.

    Abraham Lincoln:
    I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so…..

    No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall in consequence of any law or regulation therein be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due……

    It should also be noted that Roger B Taney, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court during Lincoln’s tenure as president, also supported slavery with his ruling on the Dred Scott case.

    Likewise, Lincoln supported the Corwin amendment which would allow the South to keep slaves on the condition that they would remain within the Union. If the South’s goal was the preservation of slavery, why would they insist upon secession when they had a possibility to preserve slavery by an amendment to the Constitution? The logical answer is that slavery was not the key issue behind secession.

    Additionally, Lincoln is explicitly clear in his first inaugural address that the South did not have the authority to secede from the Union.

    If one examines the primary sources, one is likely to conclude that the war was fought to preserve the Union, not to free the slaves. Lastly, as we are approaching Robert E. Lee’s birthday, it should be noted that he did not own slaves and was himself against the institution of slavery. Why then would he fight for the South? Well, because he was first a Virginian. The war was about the preservation of federal sovereignty vs. state sovereignty. Lincoln’s own words are clear enough on this to settle any debate.

    • Brooks D. Simpson January 3, 2012 / 1:30 pm

      Thank you for offering insight into what some people think. Others might disagree with both your findings of fact and your interpretation. They would include Lincoln and the secessionists themselves. You might want to do a little reading on Lee and slavery.

      • Corey Meyer January 3, 2012 / 2:39 pm

        Why is it so difficult for Southern Heritage Advocates to see and understand the difference in the stated goals of North and South? The North to preserve the Union. The South to preserve slavery. And, just because the North did not fight initially to end slavery that somehow the war was not about slavery.

        • BorderRuffian January 3, 2012 / 6:05 pm

          Corey Meyer-
          “Why is it so difficult for Southern Heritage Advocates to see and understand the difference in the stated goals of North and South? The North to preserve the Union. The South to preserve slavery. And, just because the North did not fight initially to end slavery that somehow the war was not about slavery.”


          Why did the North want to preserve the Union?
          Why did they want to deny the South its independence?

      • Frederick January 4, 2012 / 10:18 pm

        I appreciate your thoughts. It seems to me the record on Lee is quite contradictory. Some claim Lee did not oppose slavery. Some are adamant that Lee did not own slaves and that he did in fact make comments against slavery.
        Robert E. Lee as early as 1856 made this statement: “There are few, I believe, in this enlightened age, who will not acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil.”
        The evidence cited in favor of the claim that Lee opposed slavery included his direct statements and his actions before and during the war, including Lee’s support of the work by his wife and her mother to liberate slaves and fund their move to Liberia, the success of his wife and daughter in setting up an illegal school for slaves on the Arlington plantation, the freeing of Custis’ slaves in 1862, and his insistence in 1864–65 that the Confederacy enroll slaves in Lee’s Army, with manumission offered as an eventual reward for outstanding service.

        As far as my interpretation, I think Lincoln makes a very strong defense of slavery himself. His first inaugural address seems explicitly clear to me.

        I may be missing information on Lee. I’ll continue to research, as I do admit that I have only scarcely begun my research in this area.

    • Andy Hall January 3, 2012 / 3:47 pm

      “Lastly, as we are approaching Robert E. Lee’s birthday, it should be noted that he did not own slaves and was himself against the institution of slavery.”

      That’s flat-out wrong. Robert E. Lee personally owned slaves, in his own right, for much of his adult life. He first inherited slaves from his mother’s estate about the time he graduated from West Point, and brought slaves with him on his first assignments in the army. Lee owned slaves at least as late as 1847 (Freeman) or 1852 (Pryor), although the records are fragmentary and his ownership of slaves may have extended longer than that. He was personally attended by slaves — his or others — right through the end of the war.

      Lee’s most detailed discussion of his own views of slavery appear in a December 1856 letter to his wife, transcribed in Freeman. He makes it clear that he found the “peculiar institution” unpleasant to deal with on a personal level, but he also saw it as part of God’s larger plan that had to be carried out. “The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically,” he wrote. “The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.” He left it all in God’s hands, and shows no inclination to challenge the practice. Rather, in that same document he reserves his real disdain for abolitionist forces, who “if he means well to the slave, he must not Create angry feelings in the Master.”

      Lee was not a monster, or “evil,” but neither was he opposed to the institution of chattel bondage in any way that made a difference. He never spoke against it publicly, let alone acted against it. He was, in fact, entirely representative in his views on slavery of the class of patrician Virginians from which he sprang.

      • Andy Hall January 5, 2012 / 6:13 am

        Robert E. Lee as early as 1856 made this statement: “There are few, I believe, in this enlightened age, who will not acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil.”

        Taken entirely out of content of the longer passage, which is a justification of slavery as God’s will, some that must be carried out by both blacks and whites, that is explicitly beneficial to the former. That short, misleading quote is tossed around to disassociate Lee with slavery, when he was as bound up in it as all his peers. The only thing he speak against in that long passage is the work of abolitionists, who (in his view) are making things worse for slaves, not better. Go read Freeman.

        The evidence cited in favor of the claim that Lee opposed slavery included his direct statements. . . the success of his wife and daughter in setting up an illegal school for slaves on the Arlington plantation.

        You can argue that this shows the Custis family’s — not Lee’s concern for the well-being of their slaves, and their humanity toward them, but it’s not really evidence of their opposition to the practice.

        . . . the freeing of Custis’ slaves in 1862

        He was bound to by the terms of his father-in-law’s will; it was not an original act on his own initiative. For those slaves of the G. W. P. Custis estate who remained at Arlington, it was moot, anyway; they’d been effectively emancipated when the U.S. Army seized the place in 1861.

        and his insistence in 1864–65 that the Confederacy enroll slaves in Lee’s Army, with manumission offered as an eventual reward for outstanding service.

        Again, not challenging the basic morality or rightness of the institution itself, but offering eventual freedom as an incentive. Even that was a step the Confederacy would not go, as late as March 1865, because the final legislation authorizing the enlistment of slaves explicitly said there would be no change in their enslaved status.


        • Frederick January 5, 2012 / 11:48 pm

          Thanks for sharing some of those passages from Freeman. Perhaps Lee and Lincoln were not that far apart on their views of slavery after all. At best it seems as if Freeman makes the case that Lee was simply ordinary in his views of slavery at the time. Though we should be very careful to not look at those views with 21st century eyes. However, I have yet to see any evidence that Lee was fighting to preserve slavery.

          Getting back to my original point about Lincoln, he most certainly supported the institution of slavery which is very clear from his first inaugural address. Though it should not be surprising considering the prevailing attitude at the time regarding black people. The South could have easily accepted the constitutional amendment passed by the House and remained a part of the Union if slavery was the only issue. The South persisted in their desire to secede despite Lincoln’s promise to not interfere with slavery and with the additional constitutional protection which Lincoln promised would be express and irrevocable.

          To persist in the belief that the war against secession was actually a war over slavery is short sighted and overlooks important sources from the historical record.

          • Andy Hall January 6, 2012 / 11:53 am

            “Getting back to my original point about Lincoln, he most certainly supported the institution of slavery which is very clear from his first inaugural address.”

            No, he was not personally supportive of the institution of slavery, ever. And his avowed goal (along with his party’s) was to stop its expansion into new territories. That was a widely popular position in the North. What he made clear over and over was that, as president, he had no intention of interfering with it where it already existed. But that’s not being “supportive” of the practice at all.

            Lee, by contrast, didn’t particularly like dealing with the day-to-day practice of slaveholding generally, but he never seriously questioned the practice and, according to his 1856 letter, believed it to be both God’s will and beneficial to those enslaved.

            Lincoln’s views on slavery and race were complex, and shifted a lot over time. I would recommend Eric Foner’s recent Pulitzer-winning history, The Fiery Trial.

          • Frederick January 6, 2012 / 9:58 pm


            Thanks for your reply. I am familiar with Foner’s book. My source comes from Lincoln himself. Read his first inaugural address carefully. It is hard to misinterpret his words. He was against secession. He supported the constitutional amendment that would be express and irrevocable to allow the South to keep slavery. He also explains his views contrasted with those of his party. While this view may not be popular today, Lincoln was at least clear enough to remove any doubt of his stance in regards to the crisis that faced this nation at the beginning of his presidency. If one is truly looking at a cause for the war against secession, one must look at it from the beginning. In looking at this war from this vantage point, one does not only consider Lincoln in his own words, but also the South’s rejection of the promise of keeping slavery by enshrining it in the Constitution.

            Besides, if Lincoln’s views did change, why did the Emancipation only free slaves in territory that was not under Union control? If one considers it a war tactic, it makes sense. If one is to take Foner’s position, that Lincoln intended to see to the immediate, uncompensated abolition of slavery and recognition of blacks as American citizens, his Emancipation Proclamation makes no sense.

            Ultimately, Lincoln said it best himself. Thank goodness he was so clear on his views regarding slavery and secession.

          • Brooks D. Simpson January 6, 2012 / 11:26 pm

            Although Frederick says it is hard to misinterpret Lincoln’s words, it appears he’s managed to do just that. The Corwin Amendment did not make abolition impossible: it simply confirmed Lincoln’s own belief that in times of peace the federal government could not unilaterally abolish it. It could, however, restrict of prohibit the expansion of slavery, setting the peculiar institution on the road to ultimate extinction … and many of slavery’s defenders, as well as Lincoln, believed that would be the long-term impact of containing slavery within its present location. In short, Frederick’s claim rest on a rather flawed understanding of the Corwin Amendment.

            Lincoln explained rather clearly why he did not include most areas under Union control in the Emancipation Proclamation …. because there he believed the doctrine of military necessity did not prevail. Since Frederick has read Foner, he should reread it to see what Foner has to say about this. Indeed, given what Frederick claims is Foner’s position, one is forced to conclude that either he has not read the book or did not understand it.

          • Frederick January 7, 2012 / 7:50 am


            Thanks for your reply. I disagree with your assertion that I have misinterpreted Lincoln’s words or the Corwin amendment. I have been consistent in my assertion that the amendment would allow the South to keep slavery “where it already existed,” which is precisely what Lincoln stated. You have incorrectly and unfairly assumed I have said otherwise. I have refrained from reposting Lincoln’s entire address, but I assume people here can read it.

            Finally, If Lincoln felt he had the authority to emancipate the slaves, a general statement of emancipation could just as easily have been written and would have been consistent with the idea that Lincoln’s desire was to unilaterally free the slaves. However, as Gideon Welles, Lincoln’s Secretary of the Navy, recalled, the President called emancipation “a military necessity, absolutely essential to the preservation of the Union.

            As I said in my last post, the emancipation was a military strategy. And as I have said from the beginning, the war was far more about preservation of the Union. It seems to say otherwise ignores Lincoln in his own words and actions.

          • Brooks D. Simpson January 7, 2012 / 8:07 am

            We’ll have to agree to disagree. I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about the Corwin Amendment, and you can use the search capacities to find my comments on that and other subjects. Lincoln made it clear that he opposed slavery,and he set forth why he acted as he did.

      • Margaret Blough January 7, 2012 / 12:56 am

        Andy-Lee hearkened back to an earlier time, before Calhoun and his followers trumpeted slavery as a positive good, when the defense of slavery wasas a necessary evil (emphasis on necessary).with, as you note, an entirely passive view towards the time (hopefully not in the time of the speaker or his family ) that God would indicate HIS will to end it. Lee gets a few minor points for not trying to overturn GWP Custis’s will’s provisions regarding the emancipation of his slaves. Southern judges were notoriously sympathetic to the pleas of heirs who objected to the deceased’s proposed depletion of the estate he or she left by the emancipation of slaves.

        As you note, Lee was neither a monster nor “evil” and was certainly no opponent of slavery, save a minor amount of wishful thinking. He showed no signs of wanting him or his family to voluntarily relinquish any of the life style that Lee marrying the sole heiress to GWP Custis gave him. He was simply a member of a very specific class of people, the first families of Virginia.who faithfully adhered to the values and viewpoints of that class.

  16. Jefferson January 6, 2012 / 12:46 pm

    Lincoln did not support slavery,anymore then Reagan and Bush supported abortion.He only acknowledged it was constitutional and legal.To ignore the many statements from Confederate sources that slavery was the cause of secession and to believe that after taking the monumental step of withdrawing from the Union, the rebels would trust any promises of the “Black Republicans” and return, is sort sighted.

  17. Clifford Michael July 26, 2013 / 8:58 am

    ” Lincoln’s efforts to secure the peaceful abolition of slavery through a gradual, compensated emancipation with the option for freed blacks to relocate outside the United States were rebuffed by Confederates and most southern white unionists. Thus, the offer was made, and it was rejected. ”

    I don’t think this is true. In his first inaugural address, Lincoln clearly stated that he had no design, that the Constitution had no design, to interfere with slavery. He in fact clearly remarked that he favored an amendment to the Constitution in which slavery would be perpetual and irrevocable.

    • Brooks D. Simpson July 26, 2013 / 11:05 am

      I think you have to read forward from that address to events between 1862 and 1865. Surely you know that Lincoln really pushed for this program throughout most of 1862, and surely you know what happened. So, whether or not you think it’s true, it’s true, and the record clearly confirms that.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s