The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery
By Eric Foner
Hardcover, 448 pages
W.W. Norton and Co.
List Price: $29.95
"I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel." There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of Abraham Lincoln's emphatic declaration, written in April 1864, three years into the American Civil War. But as with so much of his early life, the origins of his thoughts and feelings about slavery remain shrouded in mystery. Lincoln grew up in a world in which slavery was a living presence and where both deeply entrenched racism and various kinds of antislavery sentiment flourished. Until well into his life, he had only sporadic contact with black people, slave or free. In later years, he said almost nothing about his early encounters with slavery, slaves, and free African-Americans. Nonetheless, as he emerged in the 1830s as a prominent Illinois politician, the cumulative experiences of his early life led Lincoln to identify himself as an occasional critic of slavery. His early encounters with and responses to slavery were the starting point from which Lincoln's mature ideas and actions would later evolve.
Abraham Lincoln was born in 1809 in a one-room Kentucky log cabin. When he was seven, his family moved across the Ohio River to southwestern Indiana, where Lincoln spent the remainder of his childhood. In 1830, when Lincoln was twenty-one years old and about to strike out on his own, his father moved the family to central Illinois. Here Lincoln lived until he assumed the presidency in 1861.
At the time of Lincoln's birth and for most of the antebellum era, about one-fifth of Kentucky's population consisted of slaves. Outside a few counties, however, Kentucky slaveholders were primarily small farmers and urban dwellers, not plantation owners. Substantial parts of the state lay outside the full grip of slave society, "tolerating slavery, but not dominated by it." Kentucky formed part of the Border South, the northernmost belt of slave states that would play so crucial a role in the early years of the Civil War. Hardin County, where the Lincolns lived, lay south of the Ohio River in west-central Kentucky. In 1811 its population of around 7,500 included over 1,000 slaves, most of whom labored either on small farms or on the Ohio River. Kentucky at this time was an important crossroads of the domestic slave trade. The Lincolns' farm on Knob Creek lay not far from the road connecting Louisville and Nashville, along which settlers, peddlers, and groups of shackled slaves regularly passed.
As an offshoot of Virginia, Kentucky recognized slavery from the earliest days of white settlement. The state's first constitution, written in 1792, prohibited the legislature from enacting laws for emancipation without the consent of the owners and full monetary compensation. In 1799, when a convention met to draft a new constitution (the first one being widely regarded as insufficiently democratic), a spirited debate over slavery took place. The young Henry Clay, just starting out on a career that would make him one of the nation's most prominent statesmen (and Lincoln's political idol), published a moving appeal asking white Kentuckians, "enthusiasts as they are for liberty," to consider the fate of "fellow beings, deprived of all rights that make life desirable." He urged the convention to adopt a plan of gradual emancipation. Clay's plea failed, but antislavery delegates did succeed in putting into the constitution a clause barring the introduction of slaves into the state for sale, although this soon became a dead letter. On one point, however, white Kentuckians, including emancipationists, agreed: they did not desire a free black population. In 1808, the year before Lincoln's birth, the legislature prohibited the migration of free blacks into Kentucky. When Lincoln was a boy, the state's population of 410,000 included only 1,700 free persons of color, 28 of whom lived in Hardin County.
By the early nineteenth century, emancipationist sentiment had waned, but in some parts of Kentucky, including Hardin, disputes about slavery continued. The first place to look for early influences on Lincoln is his own family. Some of Lincoln's relatives owned slaves—his father's uncle, Isaac, had forty-three when he died in 1834. But Lincoln's parents exhibited an aversion to the institution. The South Fork Baptist Church to which they belonged divided over slavery around the time of Lincoln's birth; the antislavery group formed its own congregation, which his parents joined. However, as strict Calvinist predestinarians who believed that one's actions had no bearing on eventual salvation, which had already been determined by God, Lincoln's parents were not prone to become involved in reform movements that aimed at bettering conditions in this world.
In a brief autobiography written in 1860, Lincoln recounted that his father moved the family to Indiana "partly on account of slavery." His main reason, however, Lincoln quickly added, was "land titles." Land surveys in Kentucky were notoriously unreliable and landownership often precarious. To purchase land in Kentucky, according to a visitor in the 1790s, was to buy a lawsuit. During Lincoln's boyhood, his father Thomas Lincoln owned three farms but lost two of them because of faulty titles. In Indiana, however, thanks to the federal land ordinances of the 1780s, the national government surveyed land prior to settlement and then sold it through the General Land Office, providing secure titles. When the War of 1812 destroyed Indians' power in much of the Old Northwest, their land, appropriated by the United States, became available for sale. Thousands of settlers from the Border South, among them Lincoln's family, moved across the Ohio River to occupy farms. "Kentucky," the saying went, "took Indiana without firing a shot."
In Indiana and Illinois, where Lincoln lived from ages seven to fifty-one, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 had prohibited slavery. Throughout the pre–Civil War decades, intrepid slaves tried to make their way across the Ohio River in search of liberty. Nonetheless, the Ohio did not mark a hard and fast dividing line between North and South, slavery and freedom. For many years it was far easier for people and goods to travel between Kentucky and southern Indiana and Illinois than to the northern parts of these states. Slave-catchers, too, frequently crossed the river, searching for fugitives.
Before the War of 1812, the Old Northwest was a kind of borderland, a meeting-ground of Native Americans and various people of English, French, and American descent where geographical and cultural boundaries remained unstable. The defeat of the British and their ally Tecumseh, who had tried to organize pan-Indian resistance to American rule, erased any doubt over who would henceforth control the region. But a new borderland quickly emerged. When Lincoln lived there, the southern counties of Indiana and Illinois formed part of a large area that encompassed the lower parts of the free states and the northernmost slave states. This region retained much of the cultural flavor of the Upper South. Its food, speech, settlement patterns, architecture, family ties, and economic relations had much more in common with Kentucky and Tennessee than with the northern counties of their own states, soon to be settled by New Englanders. The large concentration of people of southern ancestry made Indiana and Illinois key battlegrounds in northern politics as the slavery controversy developed. Here, a distinctive politics of moderation developed. On the eve of the Civil War, a writer in far-off Maine described the southern Northwest as "a sort of belt or break-water between the extremes of the North and South."
In the decade before the Civil War, the population exploded in northern Illinois. But because they had been settled first, the southern counties long shaped the state's public life. Of the first seven governors, six had been born in a slave state. In 1848, more members of the Illinois legislature and constitutional convention hailed from Kentucky than from any other state. As late as 1858, during his campaign for the U.S. Senate, Lincoln made a point of affirming his geographical roots to voters in southern Illinois: "I was raised just a little east of here. I am a part of this people." By then, however, the southern counties had been eclipsed politically and economically by northern Illinois.
Many pioneer settlers in Indiana and Illinois, like the Lincoln family, carried with them an aversion to slavery. Richard Yates, the Kentucky-born Civil War governor of Illinois, spoke of his view of slavery in words much like Lincoln's: "The earliest impressions of my boyhood were that the institution of slavery was a grievous wrong." Peter Cartwright, a Methodist preacher and political leader whom Lincoln defeated for Congress in 1846, later wrote that he emigrated from Tennessee in 1824 to "get entirely clear of the evil of slavery." Such men viewed slavery less as a moral problem than as an institution that degraded white labor, created an unequal distribution of wealth and power, and made it impossible for nonslaveholding farmers to advance.
Since the eighteenth century, slavery had existed in the region. And despite the Northwest Ordinance, its death was long in coming. In Indiana, the territorial governor William Henry Harrison, the son of a Virginia planter, led an unsuccessful drive to have Congress suspend its ban on slavery, arguing that only in this way could the area's future economic growth be ensured. But antislavery settlers, organized as the Popular party and claiming to defend the interests of small farmers against "Virginia aristocrats," won control of the territorial legislature and foiled Harrison's plans. When Indiana drafted a constitution in 1816, the year the Lincoln family moved into the state, it prohibited slavery.
Even though slavery was theoretically illegal in Illinois under the Northwest Ordinance, Ninian Edwards, the territorial governor between 1809 and 1816 (whose son became Lincoln's brother-in-law), advertised for sale twenty-two slaves, along with "a full blooded horse" and "a very large English bull." The Illinois constitution of 1818 prohibited slaves from being "hereafter . . . introduced" but did not declare free those already living in the state. As late as 1840, the census counted 331 slaves in Illinois. Illinois allowed slaveowners to sign supposedly voluntary indentures with black laborers brought in from other states, effectively keeping them in bondage. For many years, newspapers carried notices for the buying and selling of these "servants."
In 1818, the Virginian Edward Coles brought his slaves to Illinois, freed them, and settled each family on 160 acres of land. Coles was elected governor of Illinois in 1822 and fought a determined battle against efforts to amend the state constitution to introduce slavery. After an electoral campaign in 1824, in which debate centered on the relative benefits of free and slave labor and charges that proslavery forces wished to substitute aristocracy for democracy, the voters of Illinois turned down a proposal for a new constitutional convention. Lincoln was not yet a resident of the state. But one thing that he concluded from this history was that direct political action against slavery, not simply an unfavorable soil or climate, had been necessary to keep the institution out of the Old Northwest.
Hostility to slavery did not preclude deep prejudices against blacks. The early settlers wanted Indiana and Illinois to be free of any black presence. John Woods, an English farmer who settled in Illinois, wrote in 1819 of his neighbors: "Though now living in a free state, they retain many of the prejudices they imbibed in infancy, and still hold negroes in the utmost contempt." Like Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois did everything they could to discourage the growth of a free black population. The constitutions under which they entered the Union offered liberal voting rights to whites but barred blacks from suffrage. Laws in both states prohibited blacks from marrying whites or testifying in court against them, and made it a crime to harbor a fugitive slave or servant or to bring black persons into the state with the intent of freeing them, as Governor Coles had done. The public schools excluded black children.
Before the Civil War, Illinois was notorious for its harsh Black Laws, "repugnant to our political institutions," said Governor Coles, who tried unsuccessfully to have the legislature modify them. One law declared that young apprentices must be taught reading, writing, and arithmetic "except when such apprentice is a negro or mulatto." Another required any black person who entered Illinois to post a $1,000 bond. "In consequence of these salutary arrangements," a periodical devoted to attracting investment and immigration to the state proudly declared, Illinois "has not become a retreat for runaway slaves, or free negroes." Later, the 1848 constitutional convention authorized a referendum on a provision empowering the legislature to bar all free black persons from entering the state. It received 70 percent of the vote, and five years later the lawmakers enacted a "Negro exclusion" law. Although the legislature eventually restricted the use of indentures, in the 1830s and 1840s it remained legal to bring blacks under the age of fifteen into Illinois as servants and then to sell them. "Illinois," declared the abolitionist weekly The Liberator in 1840, "is, to all intents and purposes, a slaveholding state."
The historical record contains very little information about Lincoln's early encounters with slavery or black persons. As a young child in Kentucky, he may have seen groups of chained slaves pass near his house on their way to the Lower South. He could not have had much direct contact with blacks in Indiana. In 1830, on the eve of the family's departure for Illinois, the census reported no slaves and only fourteen free blacks in Spencer County, where the Lincolns lived. When he settled in Sangamon County, Illinois, the population of around 12,000 included only thirty-eight blacks. When Lincoln moved to Springfield in 1837, the town's eighty-six blacks comprised less than 5 percent of its residents.
Lincoln's first real encounter with slavery — the heart of the institution, rather than its periphery — came on two journeys down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers in 1828 and 1831, when he helped transport farm goods for sale in New Orleans. Lincoln and his companions made the southbound voyage by flatboat and returned north by steamboat (although on the second occasion, Lincoln walked home from St. Louis). Their trip exemplified how the market revolution of the early nineteenth century was simultaneously consolidating the national economy and heightening the division between slave and free societies. In the North, the building of canals and the advent of steamboats and, later, railroads set in motion economic changes that created an integrated economy of commercial farms and growing urban and industrial centers. In the South, the market revolution, coupled with the military defeat and subsequent removal of the Native American population, made possible the westward expansion of the slave system and the rise of the great Cotton Kingdom of the Gulf states. Southern society reproduced itself as it moved westward, remaining slave-based and almost entirely agricultural, even as the North witnessed the emergence of a diversified, modernizing economy. Eventually, the clash between societies based on slave and free labor would come to dominate American life and shape the mature Lincoln's political career.
FromThis Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery by Eric Foner. Copyright 2010 by Eric Foner. Published with permission of W.W. Norton and Company.