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Courage of convictions

John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and the demise of slavery

Illustration by John Jay Cabuay

Courage of convictions

You may not have celebrated John Brown’s birthday on May 9, but The Zealot and the Emancipator, by University of Texas history professor H.W. Brands, is well worth reading. Here are edited highlights of our recent interview.

Who impresses your students more: Zealot John Brown (1800-1859) or Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)? They can’t get enough of John Brown.

Why? Young people are more inclined to see issues in black and white. Pragmatic politicians like Lincoln made compromises to accommodate other people’s beliefs. Lincoln insisted on adhering to the Constitution.

Ex-slave Frederick Douglass came around to thinking Lincoln did as much as he could do within the constraints he faced. It takes some work to get my students to that point. Maybe they come to understand that Lincoln had a more subtle appreciation of the issues than John Brown did, even though they still like that certainty in John Brown.

When you’ve taught a class of retirees, could they not get enough of Abraham Lincoln? That’s right. The older students have a greater appreciation of the complexities of life. With the younger students, I suggest that one day they’ll be 67 years old, and perhaps then they’ll find it easier to appreciate those complexities.

Lincoln’s “beau ideal” of a statesman was Henry Clay. Why? Clay was the model of how you pulled together people with very different views and managed to help the Republican model move forward. He recognized that the genius of American republicanism was that you don’t have to solve all the big issues at one blow— you take a whack at them now and another whack and eventually you get past them.

Lincoln during his one term in Congress in the 1840s proposed the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia. What traction did he get? He had no seniority, no clout, so nothing happened. But he recognized that a big stumbling block in the minds of slaveholders was, “I spent a lot of money on this labor force, and you’re going to make that go away.” Lincoln then and early in the Civil War proposed that the federal government pay slaveholders for their slaves. That precedent worked when the British eliminated slavery. To Lincoln, it made perfect pragmatic sense—the cost of war was far greater than the cost of instantly buying all the slaves.

Pragmatic politicians like Lincoln made compromises to accommodate other people’s beliefs. Lincoln insisted on adhering to the Constitution.

Lincoln spoke of slavery not as a Southern problem but an American problem. Why did it matter that some people in the North believed, “You Southerners are evil. We’re righteous”? Part of the problem was opposition on the part of abolitionists to the idea of compensating the slave owners for their loss in property. They said if anybody was to be compensated it should be the slaves for their labor.

What about the question of where ex-slaves would go, since many whites did not want freed blacks to live next door? Lincoln as president brought a gathering of African American ministers to the White House and said, I’d really like it if you could get behind colonization, the back-to-Africa idea. That scheme never took off because the African Americans were more American than they were African.

The Supreme Court’s decision in the Dred Scott v. Sandford case, which led to war, puzzles me. Chief Justice Roger Taney pushed for it, but earlier in his career he opposed slavery. Taney concluded that the executive and legislative branches had not succeeded in dealing with the question of slavery, so now the judiciary could take a whack at it.

Was Dred Scott the worst decision by the Supreme Court to that point? Far from settling the slavery question, Dred Scott blew it up. It caused Northerners, including Abraham Lincoln, to think that if slavery can’t be barred from the federal territories, the same logic that Taney employed would say that slaveholders can take their property into Northern states as well, so slavery will be re-imposed on New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. This was the great alarm that prompted Abraham Lincoln to give the “House Divided” speech, saying that this republic won’t and can’t be half slave and half free—it must become all one or all the other.

Some critics say Lincoln was more concerned with how slavery corrupted whites than how it harmed blacks. With Lincoln you always have to make allowances for his audience. He knew black people weren’t voting, so whenever he gave a speech he pitched it to the self-­interest of his audience. When Lincoln was speaking to white people, he was more likely to emphasize the corruption of American democracy than the well-­being of black people. Lincoln was an extremely skillful politician. He certainly sympathized with the sufferings of the slaves, but he didn’t think that, by itself, would get past the opposition of white slaveholders.

The U.S. avoided war with the Soviet Union by adopting a “containment” theory: Don’t let communism expand, and eventually it will wither. Lincoln had his containment theory: No slavery in new states. Could it have worked, or was a civil war inevitable? I like the containment analogy, because by the 1850s what made slavery profitable in a place like Virginia was the hope of expansion of slavery in places like Texas and maybe beyond. The cultivation of plantation crops was a money loser in Virginia by this time. What made slavery profitable in places like Virginia was the growing market for slaves. If slavery could no longer expand, eventually the market for slaves in places like Texas, Arkansas, and Mississippi would become saturated, the value of slaves in Virginia would fall, and people would say, Slavery is just not worth it.

Some slaveholders had a sensitive conscience? A few like John Calhoun notoriously said slavery was a positive good, but a whole lot of people in the South knew that was not so. They saw slavery as a necessary evil. In 1800, slavery was practiced pretty much everywhere on earth. In 1900 slavery existed almost nowhere. Even in the West Indies, even in Brazil, slavery had ended. So something was going on in the world between 1800 and 1900—changing views of how people should be considered—but only in the United States during this time period was a major war required to end slavery. So it does seem America could have come up with a way of ending slavery without this huge war.

How much did the war accomplish? It ended slavery, but 20 years later the same whites who had been running the South before the war were back in charge. The ending of slavery didn’t overturn the social system in the South. When slavery ended as part of the Civil War, for at least a century there was resentment. People who make decisions on their own take ownership in a way that they don’t if the decision is imposed upon them.

It seems that some slave owners and leading Southern politicians demanded that the North not only tolerate slavery but praise it. Many Christians now tolerate LGBT culture but resent that they’re supposed to praise it. Is that a valid analogy? There’s something to that. I also think that while slavery was the precipitating issue, a hard core in the South—known as “fire-eaters”—was essentially looking for a reason to leave. If the point was to preserve slavery, the South did it really badly, and anybody could have seen this. Henry Clay predicted that if the South left the Union, even if the Northern states let them go, slaves would start pouring in from South to North. Southerners would say, You have to help us bring back the slaves. The North would reply, Hey, we’re not doing that. Forget it. The South would be obliged to declare war on the North.

If William Seward had attained the GOP nomination and been elected president, would he have let the South go? If someone else was president, things might have gone very differently. Some abolitionists, like William Lloyd Garrison, had argued that the North should secede from the South, and that way the North would no longer be responsible for slavery in the South. That wouldn’t have done the slaves any good, but at least it would have eased the consciences of the abolitionists. People like Lincoln feared the United States would become like the disunited states in Mexico and countries in Central America, always at war with each other.

So Lincoln and others essentially thought that if you didn’t go to war now, you’ll go to war later—which makes the Civil War, like World War I supposedly was, a war to end wars? That was exactly a common strain of thinking among Lincoln and others in the North. They also feared the British would meddle, playing off one America against the other. To go back to your Cold War analogy, this is what ­Richard Nixon tried to do in playing the Chinese off against the Soviets.

Given Henry David Thoreau’s general pacifism, I was surprised to learn he was such a fan of John Brown. It didn’t surprise me that much, because I haven’t esteemed Thoreau since I found out that while he wrote Walden he was going home to his mom for lunch. A lot of abolitionists realized they were just talkers. Like many intellectuals, they swooned over people who did more than talk. John Brown had the courage of their convictions, and they were in on it vicariously.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is the former editor in chief of WORLD, having retired in January 2022, and former dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.



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