Lincoln, slavery and the US civil war: unwilling liberator

It was the threat of losing the Civil War that pushed Lincoln into ending slavery, not his convictions, argues Tom Orsag

The new film Lincoln depicts the US President as an implacable opponent of slavery, prepared to stare down his opponents to abolish it through the US Constitution.

But Lincoln did not begin the war with the intention of abolishing slavery. Instead he pursued a moderate policy aimed at keeping some of the slave-owning states within the Union. When General John C. Fremont ordered the freeing of slaves in Missouri in 1861, Lincoln reversed the order. With the South in open rebellion against the elected government Fremont had argued that any property, including slaves, should be confiscated as “contraband.”

But Lincoln held that slaves who ran away from the South should be returned to their masters, unless they had been used in “military labour”. Lincoln even appointed a supporter of slavery, George B. McClellan, to run the army.

The Civil War rested fundamentally, as Karl Marx wrote, on “nothing but a struggle between two social systems” inside the US. At stake was primarily which system would dominate the new unsettled Territories in the West of the US.

The US emerged from its war of independence from Britain, in 1783, with two different economies, each catering for the world market.

The North was built by “free labour” of small farmers, artisans and waged workers in small workshops. Gradually, the pace of industrialisation in the North would lead to larger companies and larger workforces. It was developing into a modern industrial capitalist economy.

The South was controlled by the owners of slave-owning plantations, even though the majority of its white population were small farmers, artisans or workers without slaves of their own.

The Southern slave states dominated the federal government in the years after independence. They produced more US presidents from 1783 to 1861 and were over-represented in the US Supreme Court and in the officer corps of the US Army. But as the population of the Northern states grew the South began to lose control of the House of Representatives and the Senate.

The insatiable appetite of the British textile mills in Lancashire saw large scale cotton-farming transform the South into an economic system based on gangs of slaves working under the threat of the whip by gang masters. Plantations were an “efficient” means of cultivating and picking cotton on a large-scale.

And if the mortality rate was high, new slaves could easily be shipped across the Atlantic from West Africa for minimal cost. By 1860, there were four million black slaves in the US.

The rulers of both the North and South looked to the territories of the West of the Mississippi river as a means of expanding their economic system, and with it their wealth and power.

The Northern industrial capitalists wanted tariffs to protect their products and their markets from British capitalists, who at that time presided over the world’s leading economy, the “workshop of the world”.

The Southern cotton economy was intimately tied to the British cotton manufacturing industry and resented any threat to “free trade”, which Northern “protectionism” might present.

Lincoln’s election

The slave states of the South viewed the election of the Republican Party’s Abraham Lincoln as President in November 1860 as an existential threat.

Seven states in the US Deep South succeeded from the Union. They formed the Confederacy, which was joined by four more states in the South when the war started.

Founded only in the 1850s, the Republican Party of the civil war era was a far cry from the reactionary institution of today.

Its drew its support from the northern “free states” where slavery had already been abolished. The party’s success stemmed from its ability to make “free labour” rather than racism or even slavery the central issue. Lincoln personified that approach.

Its support cut across class lines. Sections of big business, farmers, artisans and workers were bound together by their determination to preserve the western territories for free labour.

Outright opponents of slavery, known as abolitionists, were a small minority both in the new Congress and among the population of the North. It was quite usual for their meetings to be broken up by hostile mobs, even in Boston, regarded as their stronghold.

The abolitionist Wendell Phillips railed against Lincoln’s timidity on slavery, his timidity in the conduct of the Civil War in relation to the Border States and called him, “A first rate second rate man.”

William Lloyd Garrison called him “Nothing better than a wet rag” and Frederick Douglass said he allowed “himself to be…the miserable tool of traitors and rebels.”

But once the Civil War started a radical mood gripped the North. The abolitionists suddenly found their meetings packed with enthusiastic crowds. Newspapers printing a statement by Wendell Phillips sold 200,000 copies. Frederick Douglas, the powerfully spoken, black abolitionist, got enthusiastic receptions wherever he went. Huge audiences, many of whom previously frowned on women’s involvement in politics, listened spellbound to speeches by the 19 year-old abolitionist, Anna Dickinson.

From Britain, Karl Marx shared the abolitionists’ frustration with Lincoln’s timidity, but believed that the development of the war would force Lincoln into ending slavery. He regarded the civil war as “the greatest event of the age”, and threw his energies into building support for the Union cause amongst the working class movement in Britain.


Lincoln was at pains to say he was not against slavery where it already existed insisting, “I have no purpose to interfere with the institutions of slavery in the states where it exists”.  He aimed to win the war while maintaining slavery in the South.

Lincoln said in December 1861, “I have been anxious and careful” that the war “shall not degenerate into a violent and remorseless revolutionary struggle.”

But the need to win the war pushed Lincoln into unleashing just such a revolutionary war to completely destroy the power of the slave owning class of the South. He was forced into increasingly radical measures that mobilised black soldiers to fight for their own freedom.

The North suffered military defeats and a series of indecisive draws as a result of Lincoln’s initial moderate policy. Their desire to maintain slavery and to restore the Union on its previous terms meant the conservative generals running the war were unwilling to unleash the kind of force necessary to destroy the rebellion.

The sense that the war was going nowhere created an ever bigger audience for the abolitionists. They pointed out that the South had four million black slaves to do its manual work, allowing it to mobilise much of its free, white male population for war.

Abolitionists argued that Lincoln would undercut the economy of the South by a declaration of freedom for the slaves. Their calls for revolutionary methods to defeat the South began to draw greater and greater support.

Radical army commanders were beginning to resort to welcoming escaped slaves to their camps and taking away property, including slaves, of Southern rebels in areas occupied by Union troops.

The slaves themselves would not let the issue fade away. By ones and twos, dozens and scores, they continued to escape over the Union lines. Many northern regiments gave refuge to fugitives and refused to yield them up, despite orders to do so.

Through 1862, Congress first abolished slavery in the District of Columbia, which Congress directly controlled, and then passed a Confiscation Act, declaring free all slaves in areas conquered by the Union armies including those that fled across Union lines.

Finally towards the end of 1862 Lincoln began a series of radical moves, culminating in his Emancipation Proclamation that declared all slaves in Confederate areas to be forever free from 1 January 1863.

Lincoln sacked General McClellan as head of the army in order to pursue a policy of total war against the economy of the South.

Former slaves were welcomed into the army, with the raising of the first black regiments. By the war’s end there were 200,000 black soldiers in the Union army. They were still made to serve under white officers and it took another year and a half before they won the right to equal pay.

But the bravery that black soldiers showed in battle helped to prove their right to equality to many of the white soldiers. One member of a white unit wrote in a letter that, “But for the bravery of three companies of the Massachusetts 54th [a black unit] our whole regiment would have been captured… they fought like heroes”.

Here was the revolution in earnest. Armed blacks were truly the sum of all Southern nightmares.

Despite his initial hesitations, Lincoln became the leader of a revolutionary struggle that ensured the final victory of capitalist class relations in the US. The end of slavery was confirmed through the 13th amendment to the US constitution.

But this was only a bourgeois revolution, with the aim of sweeping away barriers to the development of industrial capitalism based on “free labour” across the US. Workers were now legally free, but still compelled to sell their labour to the emerging industrial corporations. Efforts to form unions and demand decent working conditions were often brutally surpressed.

With the war won, and following Lincoln’s assassination, the old Southern elite reasserted itself following a short lived period of Reconstruction where blacks held greater rights. After the Northern armies withdrew the Southern elite sponsored groups like the Ku Klux Klan to wage terror against the newly free black population. The result was the imposition of the notorious Jim Crow system of discrimination and segregation that lasted until the 1960s.

It took another tremendous effort through the black civil rights movement before blacks regained the right to vote. But the civil war remains a powerful demonstration of the ability of even the most oppressed people to fight for their own liberation—and proof of the transformative power of revolutionary struggle.


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