Abraham Lincoln was not an abolitionist. Instead, as noted Civil War historian James Oakes believes, Lincoln’s evolving views on racial equality were based on an antislavery view of the Constitution. According to such a view, the text of the Constitution refers to people who were enslaved as “persons” and never as property, making it (with the exception of two carefully defined rights of enslavers) an antislavery document. By the time he was inaugurated, Lincoln had gone on record to support the major principles of such an interpretation, and now Oakes explores this subject in his compelling and detailed The Crooked Path to Abolition: Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery Constitution.
Oakes demonstrates that the goal of all antislavery politics through the Civil War was to use federal power to prevent new territories from becoming slave states and allow existing slave states to do away with slavery on their own. Slavery was abolished, Oakes shows, because the Civil War radically accelerated the decadeslong shift in power between slave and free states. Lincoln’s object in emancipating enslaved people, as important as that act was, was not an end in itself as much as a means to pressure the states to abolish slavery individually.
Lincoln spoke eloquently of a society in which everyone had a “fair chance in the race of life,” but on several occasions he made disturbing public comments that raised questions about his views on racial equality. In 1858, he specified four areas in which he did not advocate equality: voting, serving on juries, holding elective office and intermarrying between Black and white people. All of those areas were regulated by the states during this age of “constitutionalism,” during which major issues were debated in constitutional terms.
This relatively short book is richly rewarding and helps us see the full context of political decisions that put slavery, as Lincoln said, on “a course of ultimate extinction.”