Abraham Lincoln was totally against slavery

United States

Prof. Dr. Christof Mauch

To person

Christof Mauch is Professor of American Cultural History and Director of the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society at LMU Munich, as well as Honorary Professor at Renmin University in Beijing. Mauch is editor and author or co-author of more than 50 books, including "The 101 Most Important Questions: American History", 2nd ed. 2016; "History of the USA, 7th Edition" 2020 and "The Presidents of the USA: 46 historical portraits from George Washington to Joe Biden" 2nd ed. 2021.

The military conflict between the northern and southern states from 1861 to 1865 was the great test of the young republic. The focus was on the dispute over the abolition of slavery. Recently, debates about racism and reparation payments have shaped the memory of the civil war.

Afro-Americans recover fallen Union troops after the "Battle of the Wilderness" in Virginia, 1864. (& copy picture-alliance, akg-images | akg-images)

More than any other event, the Civil War has challenged the unity of the American nation. No war in US history has claimed more American lives - the death toll is estimated at over 600,000 soldiers and several hundred thousand civilians. Before the war broke out, the northern states and the southern states of the USA faced each other irreconcilably on two issues: The first concerned slavery, which with all its political, (state) legal and economic consequences was undoubtedly the main cause of the civil war. How could the equality requirement of the Declaration of Independence be reconciled with the lack of freedom of millions of Black Americans? The majority in the north pleaded for the liberation of slaves, the south feared that the abolition of the peculiar institution would destroy the basis of the southern plantation economy. The second point of conflict concerned the unity of the nation. A majority in the north considered national cohesion permanent and indissoluble. The South, on the other hand, partly took the view that the USA could be seen as a loose, possibly revocable association of sovereign states. In retrospect, it seems logical that the conflict fought out in the civil war led to both the abolition of slavery and the constitutional unity of the nation. But in 1861 the situation was completely different. History - for example in the event of a military victory in the southern states - could have taken a completely different turn and led to the division of the USA.

"Bleeding Kansas" and the Dred Scott Case

The civil war didn't break out overnight. As early as 1856, five years before the start of the war, opponents of slavery (the so-called abolitionists) and advocates of slavery had waged a kind of proxy war in the dispute over Kansas, which soon earned the territory the inglorious nickname "Bleeding Kansas". 700 militant advocates of slavery took action against the abolitionist stronghold of Lawrence. They destroyed newspaper publishers, looted shops and burned entire streets. In revenge, the religious fanatic John Brown committed a massacre of innocent slave owners. His slogan: "Fight fire with fire!" The two events sparked a guerrilla war, which killed almost 200 people.
Dred and Harriet Scott in the year of the Supreme Court judgment, 1857. The couple sued for their freedom from 1846 onwards. (& copy picture-alliance, Mary Evans Picture Library)

The following year it poured Supreme Court with one verdict for slavery, even more fuel in the fire. The US Supreme Court took the case of the Virginia-born slave Dred Scott, who had meanwhile lived in the slave-free state of Illinois and therefore wanted to sue for freedom for himself and his family, as an opportunity to make a fundamental decision on slavery. In the grounds of the verdict, the Chief Justice rejected Dred Scott's complaint: Free Afro-Americans are also not citizens, but "beings of a lower order" who have no rights. President James Buchanan, who interfered in the legal decision on the side of the slave owners, had cherished the illusory hope that such a decision would pacify the internal situation. The opposite was the case. The opponents of the slave system were less willing than ever to accept the southern state sympathies of the Supreme Court.

Secession and outbreak of war

Portrait of the 16th US President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, around 1863. (& copy picture-alliance, akg-images | akg-images)
Immediately after the Republican Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860 - Lincoln had taken a moderately critical position on the slave issue and was therefore the most likely to have a majority - the radical advocates of slavery, the so-called advocates, took action Fire Eaters, to action and pushed for the secession of the southern states from the north. Between December 1860 and February 1861, seven states (South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas) separated from the Union of the United States, declared themselves sovereign, and formed a new republic, the Confederate States of America. Former Senator and Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, who came from a wealthy planter family, was elected President. Lincoln saw it as subversive action. A military conflict broke out in April 1861 when Jefferson Davis denied the US President supplies to Fort Sumter in South Carolina, had the fort shelled and finally forced to surrender. This marked the beginning of the "war between the states" for the south; in the north, on the other hand, they spoke of the "war of rebellion".

"Total War" and Liberation of Slaves

At the beginning of the war, both sides expected a quick victory. The Union planned to march through to Richmond, Virginia. The Confederates, on the other hand, hoped for military assistance from the English; they speculated that Britain could not do without the southern states' cotton production. But both calculations didn't work out. Instead of a short war, there was a long, brutal struggle. The civil war became the forerunner of the "total wars" of the 20th century: Military terror campaigns, trench warfare, censorship, aerial reconnaissance (from a hot air balloon) and the establishment of a modern war machine, economy and infrastructure became the signature of the Civil War. The high losses of human life, which were due to the firepower of the artillery and the accuracy of the rifles, also gave rise for the first time to the introduction of compulsory military service, against which there was considerable resistance in the north.

Union Army soldiers near Atlanta, 1864. The Georgia campaign under William Tecumseh Sherman is considered an early example of "total war". (& copy picture-alliance, Glasshouse Images | Circa Images)

The south not only had an excellent officer corps, but also had the advantage of fighting on its own territory; in addition, several rivers running from west to east provided natural defensive barriers. In contrast, the advantages of the northerners were immense. Northern General William Tecumseh Sherman was not entirely wrong when, shortly before the war began, on December 24, 1860, in a conversation with Professor David Boyd of Louisiana Seminary, he stated that in history "there has never been a nation of farmers" against one "Nation of Mechanics" was victorious: "You are doomed to lose the war!" In addition, many more people lived in the north than in the south: 22 million were compared to nine million in the south. Various agricultural foods were grown in the north, while in the south the planter aristocracy had specialized in cotton. Raw materials and processing industries were also found almost exclusively in the north. This also had a modern railway and telegraph system. The south, on the other hand, was far behind technologically.

Despite such superiority, Lincoln was able to secure victory mainly by succeeding in pulling the border states (Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, Missouri and Arkansas) to the north side. If these had gone to war on the southern side, the military and economic equilibrium would have changed significantly. Slavery was also of particular importance. The advocacy of slavery cost the southern states the military support of the English. In addition, no other war goal welded the northern population so closely together as the ideological struggle to free the slaves, who from 1863 were considered free ("emancipated") if they were in the rebel-controlled areas. They were allowed to fight in the Union Army with it. The great goal of the liberation of slaves, which Lincoln had not yet had in mind at the beginning of the war, was intended to justify the sacrifices still to be made in the war.

After the legendary battles of July 1863 (Battle of Gettysburg and Surrender of Fortress Vicksburg), a few weeks before the presidential election in 1864, Lincoln's party received a moral boost with the fall of Atlantas. That secured the re-election of the president and strengthened Lincoln's position. On the slavery question, from now on, even though Lincoln considered the unity of the nation to be more important than the abolition of slavery, there was "no going back." With the 13th amendment to the constitution, slavery was banned in the entire scope of the constitution in 1865; amendments 14 and 15 gave blacks citizenship and suffrage in the United States.

Ongoing disenfranchisement and racial segregation

After the last federal troops withdrew from the southern states, the discrimination against former slaves continued. Since targeted intimidation and terror were apparently insufficient for the influential white circles in the southern states to keep Afro-Americans, whose numbers doubled within 30 years after the war, from participating in politics, they increasingly relied on restrictions, the ranged from head controls to read and write tests. Above all, however, an abundance of laws ensured that the racial barriers prevailed and expanded in public space. Named after a popular entertainment figure on the minstrel shows who stereotypically portrayed black characters with racist undertones, the so-called Jim Crow laws called for radical segregation: the separation of whites and blacks in public spaces. This applied to schools, hospitals, cemeteries, parks, theaters and public transport. Some courts even banned the use of the same Bible for black and white people. In the case Plessy v. Ferguson In 1896, the Supreme Court expressly declared spatial separation to be lawful if the authorities made "separate but equivalent" facilities available to blacks and whites. The "separate but equal"-Doctrine finally lost with the Civil Rights Act from 1964 and the Voting Rights Act from 1965 their legal basis. Since the individual states in the USA are allowed to determine how they hold elections and how they hold Congress in accordance with Article 1, Section 4 of the Constitution, there is still a clear disadvantage of minorities, especially blacks, in the 21st century, especially in the south. [1]

Demands for reparations

With the rise of the "Black Lives Matter" movement, which condemns violence against blacks, awareness of racism and discrimination has increased significantly in the USA since 2013. In the same context, the once marginal issue of reparations to the descendants of slaves became the focus of the political debate. The advocates of reparations payments point out that slaves in the 19th century represented an even greater source of economic wealth than the entire US factory production. In 1865 Union General William Tecumseh Sherman had promised freed slave families up to 40 acres (i.e. 16 hectares) of land and a mule in an army order. A promise remained without consequences. Economic inequality between black and white Americans is still significant more than 150 years later. In 2019, the average net worth of a black family was 10 percent of that of a white family (the median income was around 60 percent). Against this background, the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates argues that injustice done with financial compensation would be recognized and a historical debt would be paid off. In 2019, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bartelet called on the US to redress slavery on the grounds that "today's racist violence" is a "legacy of the slave trade and colonialism". In the same year, the first hearing on compensation in the US Congress took place. The topic also played a role in the democratic election campaign for the successor to US President Donald Trump. An increasing number of Americans are in favor of reparations payments, but 73 percent were still against them in June 2020. [4] The US Supreme Court has repeatedly denied claims for compensation for unpaid slave labor, arguing that racial preference is unconstitutional.

The legacy of the war

With the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by the leader of a southern conspiratorial group, the president became a martyr and symbol of the indivisible nation. In the south, on the other hand, the legend of Lost cause: According to this version of history, the material superiority of the north had the virtues of the southern aristocracy, the economic order and the Southern way of life destroyed. Even today advocates of this view argue that the Confederates were not concerned with maintaining slavery, but with personal freedom, state rights and lowering taxes.

Without the civil war, the liberation of the slaves would certainly have been a long time coming. Unlike in Haiti, for example, where the former slaves Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines rose to become leaders of the revolution and the latter even declared himself emperor in 1804, the African-American population in the southern states was almost everywhere only a minority. Slaves willing to resist had little chance of success in an uprising. For the southern states, their liberation meant a psychological and economic defeat and a social upheaval, the consequences of which shaped the character of the region and the mentality of the population well into the 20th century.

The terrible devastation of wide stretches of land, the immense death toll and the myths surrounding the civil war and its protagonists have led to the fact that there are almost 150 memorials and museums related to the civil war in the USA today and that the war is probably more sustainable inscribed in the collective memory of Americans than any other event in US history. [5]

In Richmond, the former capital of the Confederate States, a statue of General J.E.B. Stuart away. In the background another southern monument in honor of Robert E. Lee. (& copy picture-alliance, ASSOCIATED PRESS | Steve Helber)

Since the beginning of 2017, a conflict has broken out in numerous places in the former southern states about how to deal with Confederate monuments, for example for the General of the Southern Army Robert E. Lee or the Southern President Jefferson Davis. On one side of the sometimes violent conflict are activists, historians and politicians who fight for the removal of monuments that are reminiscent of slavery, discrimination and racism. On the other hand, there are right-wing groups, such as the "League of the South", which glorifies the rebellious past of the Confederation and describes the removal of monuments as" cultural and ethnic cleansing. "Although numerous (168) Confederate monuments and symbols were removed or renamed in 2020, according to the civil rights organization SPLC (Southern Poverty Law Center) in 2021 there were still around 2,100 symbols and monuments that were once erected in honor of the Confederation, many with the participation of the Ku Klux Klan. [6] Six states also have Confederation-era holidays. Such honors contrast with a critical commemoration of the civil war and the crimes of slavery. Not only the Afro-American population in the former Confederate states see the monuments as a symbol of racism, because they were erected in honor of "southern heroes" who enslaved their ancestors.Several southern states have passed laws that generally prohibit the dismantling of public war memorials. A reconciliation between the two sides - former US President Trump is also one of the opponents of the dismantling of the monument - is not in sight.