'He had been treated like a slave': Lincoln had strong views on the issue that left our house divided

News-DemocratNovember 5, 2013 

Lincoln the rail splitter is a well-known image, but the future president felt he had been treated like a slave — and that helped him develop his anti-slavery views.

While slavery wasn't formally abolished in the United States until the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was adopted Dec. 6, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln's determination to ban it can be traced back five decades earlier.

According to author and Lincoln expert H. Donald Winkler, the 16th president was forced by his father to do hard labor without any compensation since he was a small child -- and Lincoln resented every minute of it.

"Lincoln felt he had been treated like a slave during his childhood," Winkler said. "At age 8 he was given an ax and required to clear trees, grub stumps, and split rails for fences -- work usually reserved for older boys and men. He also had to carry heavy pails of drinking water about a mile -- from a spring to the family cabin in Indiana. His workload increased during his teenage years and included farming, grubbing, hoeing, making fences, plowing, splitting rails, skinning coons, and butchering hogs."

It wasn't just work to benefit his family that the future leader of the United States was forced to perform.

"Abe's father, Thomas, also leased Abe and his ax to work for other farmers -- at 25 cents a day for hard labor -- and then made Abe give him the money," Winkler said. "By law, Thomas was entitled to everything Abe earned until he became 21, and Thomas took it. Abe would later describe the arrangement as 'organized robbery' and remained outraged at the idea that someone could be forced to work in the hot sun all day while someone else received all the profits."

While he was bitter about being forced to labor for free was strong, it wasn't until he struck out on his own that he discovered the true horrors of the slave trade.

At age 22, during the summer of 1831, Lincoln was hired as a hand on a supply boat traveling from Illinois to Louisiana.

When he arrived in New Orleans, Lincoln was horrified to see "Negroes chained, maltreated, whipped and scourged," according to memoirs of John Hanks, another member of the crew. Lincoln's future law partner wrote that those events, coupled with his witnessing a slave auction during the same trip, left Lincoln with "a deep feeling of unconquerable hate."

According to Winkler, Lincoln's decision to throw his hat in the political ring came in 1854 when the U.S. Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, thereby eliminating portions of the Missouri Compromise that limited the expansion of slavery.

"Opposing any extension of slavery, Lincoln ran again for the Illinois Legislature and was elected, but then resigned to seek election to the U.S. Senate," Winkler said. "Election was determined by legislative vote, and in a close contest Lincoln gave up on the tenth ballot. Meanwhile 'popular sovereignty' turned Kansas into a killing field. And that prompted Lincoln to abandon the Whig Party and become the principal architect of the new Republican Party in Illinois party with one major goal: Opposition to the spread of slavery."

While determined to put a stop to slavery, Lincoln had to choose his words and actions carefully because of the political climate of the country.

"Lincoln, while opposed to slavery, would not campaign on that position because the Constitution protected slavery, as did the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision," Winkler said. "You will not find many references to the Constitution in any of Lincoln's speeches or writings. The Declaration of Independence was Lincoln's guidepost. Lincoln also did not want to inflame the South. He did not want a civil war. He said time and time again that he would not try to abolish slavery where it already existed, but he would do all in his power to prevent its extension."

It wasn't until June of 1856 when Lincoln made his "house divided" speech that he made the abolition of slavery a political priority. While he made no immediate move to take slavery from states that already allowed it, Lincoln proclaimed that the Union couldn't last forever with half the states free and half slave.

Lincoln lost his election bid to the Senate to Democrat Stephen A. Douglas after their famous debates in 1858. Douglas was author of the Kansas-Nebraska act, which sought to undo the Missouri Compromise that prohibited new states admitted to the Union from having slavery by allowing residents of the new states to vote on the issue.

In 1860, Douglas challenged Lincoln in the U.S. presidential election and lost badly, finishing fourth. Lincoln, the Republican nominee, received 180 electoral votes and 1.87 million popular votes, carrying all the northern states, Oregon and California. Southern Democratic Party candidate John C. Breckenridge, of Kentucky, received 72 electoral votes and 848,000 popular votes, carrying the majority of Southern states. John Bell, of Tennessee, was nominated by the Constitutional Union Party and got 39 electoral votes and 591,000 popular votes, carrying Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. Douglas, from Illinois like Lincoln, earned 1.38 million popular votes. But he lost the electoral votes to Lincoln where he got the most of the ballots cast in his favor. He managed only 12 electoral votes. The only state Douglas carried was Missouri and he got three of seven electoral votes from New Jersey while Lincoln took the other four.

After his election to the presidency, Lincoln resisted the idea of issuing an edict that would declare Southern slaves to be free because he feared it would tip the balance of the war against the Union, according to Winkler.

"New England abolitionists pursued President Lincoln endlessly trying to get him to issue a proclamation to emancipate the slaves. Quakers were also active in this effort," Winkler said. "But early in the war Lincoln resisted.

"Maryland, which bordered Washington D.C, and Kentucky, which bordered the Ohio River, were leaning toward secession," Winkler said. "Lincoln could not afford to lose either state. The Union government itself would be in jeopardy, and success in the war would be difficult. Lincoln told a group of Quakers that a decree of emancipation would not be effective because it could not be enforced."

It wasn't until the momentum of the war began to head in the Union's favor that Lincoln felt the time was right to move.

"As the situation in Kentucky and Maryland stabilized and when Lee invaded Maryland, Lincoln changed his position and told his cabinet: 'I made a vow, a covenant, that if God gave us the victory in the approaching battle, I would consider it an indication of Divine will, and that it was my duty to move forward in the cause of emancipation.'"

Confederate forces attempted to invade the north but were stopped by Gen. George McClellan at the Battle of Antietam, also known as the Battle of Sharpsburg. Lincoln then issued his Emancipation Proclamation.

Ironically, McClellan, who gave Lincoln the political clout to take on the issue of trying to ban slavery, ran as a Democrat and opposed Lincoln in the 1864 election on a platform of finding a negotiated end to the war.

Lincoln, thanks to the sudden improvement in the Union's position in the Civil War, took 212 electoral votes and more than 2.2 million votes compared to McClellan's 21 electoral votes and 1.8 million popular ballots.

A controversial move on both sides of the battle lines, Winkler said the Emancipation Proclamation opened the Union Army to African-American volunteers and created havoc in the South where invading Northern troops set free thousands of slaves.

"The big political controversy came after the 1864 election when Lincoln pressed for an amendment to the Constitution banning slavery forever in every part of the nation," Winkler said. "It required a two-thirds majority in the House of Representatives. Lincoln worked the Congress one-by-one, cajoling, arm-twisting, and using all of his political skills to secure the necessary votes. The measure passed by three votes."

Winkler said Steven Spielberg's 2012 movie "Lincoln" gives a pretty accurate account of how the amendment became a reality.

"Before the 13th Amendment could go into effect, it had to be ratified by 27 of the 36 states," Winkler said. "Lincoln's home state of Illinois began the process, and the amendment was well on its way to becoming the law of the land."

Lincoln never lived to see slavery formally banned in the United States. The 13th amendment wasn't ratified by the states until eight months after he was cut down in April 1865 by assassin John Wilkes Booth.

Winkler is the author of several books about Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War including "Stealing Secrets: How a Few Daring Women Deceived Generals, Impacted Battles and Altered the Course of the Civil War," "Lincoln's Ladies: The Women in the Life of the Sixteenth President" and "Lincoln and Booth: More Light on the Conspiracy."

Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at swuerz@bnd.com or call 618-239-2626.

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