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Lincoln, the Constitution, and the Path to Abolition

Abraham Lincoln never joined an abolitionist society, never endorsed defiance of the Fugitive Slave Act, and “rarely referred” to slavery’s “gruesome features,” writes Professor James Oakes (The Graduate Center) in his new book, The Crooked Path to Abolition: Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery Constitution.

He “never called for the immediate emancipation of the slaves … and never endorsed the civil or political equality of blacks and whites.” Nor did he claim that the Constitution gave Congress the power to abolish slavery in the states.

Yet Lincoln hated slavery as much as any abolitionist, Oakes says. And he believed that “the promise of fundamental human equality,” as embodied in the Declaration of Independence, “was flatly incompatible with slavery.” Lincoln also saw the Constitution as an antislavery document—a stance that was and still is the subject of much debate, Oakes writes.

Like millions of other Northerners and many of their elected representatives, Lincoln believed that the Constitution gave the federal government the power to abolish the Atlantic slave trade, ban slavery from the territories and in Washington, D.C., protect the due process rights of fugitive slaves, and emancipate slaves in wartime. 

In contrast, slaveholders viewed the Constitution as inherently proslavery because of the fugitive slave clause and because it counted enslaved individuals as three-fifths of a person, which increased the political clout of slaveholding states.

Those two competing views of the Constitution “emerged in reaction to each other,” Oakes writes, with “each side solemnly invoking the text produced by the founders.” Oakes says his own view is that the document can be read either way, but that “the antislavery reading now strikes me as more compelling–and the proslavery reading less persuasive–than I once believed.”

The New York Times called the book a “solid, carefully and rigorously argued” analysis of “the antislavery constitutionalism that emerged in a dialectical struggle with pro-slavery constitutionalism in antebellum America.”