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The Politics of Emancipation

The Emancipation Proclamation strikes us now as not only necessary but one of the most inevitable acts in American history. In his new book, Lincoln's Dilemma: Blair, Sumner, and the Republican Struggle over Racism and Equality in the Civil War Era, historian Paul Escott shows that emancipation was no foregone conclusion and was a balancing act among many interests. In other words, it was politics. Professor Escott agreed to answer a few questions about this pivotal chapter in American history.

Q: There are various options for a historian who wants to look at the evolution of Lincoln’s thought and policies regarding slavery. You chose to approach it through Lincoln’s relationships with men like Charles Sumner and Montgomery Blair. What is it about this approach that provides a particularly good window for the modern reader on this process?

Escott: The Republican Party before the Civil War was both a brand-new organization and an amalgam of very different elements.  Former Democrats like Montgomery Blair and his influential family were anti-slavery but also anti-black and pro-states’ rights.  They insisted that black people should be removed from the United States; any emancipation had to be accompanied by colonization.  Former Whigs were usually more positive toward reform and equal rights, and some Republicans, like Charles Sumner, were ardent abolitionists.  When I discovered how close Abraham Lincoln was to both Montgomery Blair and Charles Sumner, I realized that his relationship with them would allow me to analyze more clearly the evolution of his thought and policies on both emancipation and equality.  The story of his connections with them illustrates the struggle within the Republican Party over racism and equality.

Q: Our history is full of men who were extremely powerful and influential but no longer widely known because they were never actually presidents. There are only a handful of non-presidents in American politics whose names are familiar to most people. Hamilton and Franklin come to mind; maybe Henry Clay would sneak in. It seems strange that Franklin Pierce, say, should be more remembered than Montgomery Blair, who was an absolute dynamo of 19th-century American politics. Can presidency, or the lack of it, be an arbitrary criterion for passage into the popular canon?

Escott: Yes, using the presidency as the criterion for importance can be arbitrary and misleading. We remember Franklin Pierce, when we remember him at all, for mistakes made during his administration.  Montgomery Blair, on the other hand, played a major role in the establishment of the Republican Party and had a powerful influence on President Lincoln’s policies toward slavery from the beginning of the war until well into 1864.  Blair wrote an impressive brief for Dred Scott’s freedom in that celebrated case, influenced Republican politics in both Missouri and Maryland, and was a potent voice in the Cabinet.  He worked hand-in-glove with Abraham Lincoln in all of the President’s initiatives for gradual emancipation and colonization.  When one considers that his father was also a trusted adviser to the President and that his brother was a powerful congressman and general in Sherman’s army, the influence of the Blairs on our history was much greater than that of Franklin Pierce.

Q: One of the things your book explains is that racism was very real even in the North and that some opponents of slavery in Lincoln’s party were motivated by racist sentiments rather than a belief in racial equality. Blair, for example, wished to do away not only with slavery but the presence of African Americans altogether—to send them back to Africa. Lincoln is widely perceived as a crusader for equality, but was he at all sympathetic to these racist sentiments? Did his own feelings evolve throughout his presidency?

Escott: Lincoln’s feelings did evolve throughout his life and his presidency, and he became far more empathetic toward African Americans than were the Blairs.  But initially he came to the issue of race from a mindset similar to that of the Blairs.  He had many close ties, both personal and familial, to Kentucky and to the very mild anti-slavery sentiment there that was willing to consider gradual emancipation.  As a practical politician he never forgot or underestimated the depth of racist sentiment in the North as well as the South.  Another reason that he was never a bold advocate for complete racial equality was that he saw preserving the Union, and bringing white southerners back into it, as his primary responsibility. By following Lincoln’s relationship with the Blairs and with Charles Sumner, I am able to trace the evolution of his ideas and policies on emancipation, colonization, and the status of African Americans.

Paul Escott's Lincoln's Dilemma: Blair, Sumner, and the Republican Struggle over Racism and Equality in the Civil War Era is available now.

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