Welcome to 'Lost in the Myths of History'

It often seems that many prominent people of the past are wronged by often-repeated descriptions, which in time are taken as truth. The same is also true of events, which are frequently presented in a particular way when there might be many alternative viewpoints. This blog is intended to present a different perspective on those who have often been lost in the myths of history.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Lincoln on the Spread of Slavery

This letter should serve to dispel the notion, which is becoming increasingly prevalent, that Lincoln only liberated the slaves for political expediency, rather than from moral conviction. Some authors dismiss his public statements against slavery as hypocritical rhetoric, but I see no reason for him to feign sentiments on the topic in a private letter to one of his closest friends, Joshua Speed.

The letter, written two years before the infamous Dred Scott Decision, five years before Lincoln's election to the Presidency and six years before the beginning of the Civil War, deals with the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. The Act, repealing the provisions of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, allowed slavery to spread into the new territories of Kansas and Nebraska, if the settlers there so desired. Intended to diffuse tension between Northerners and Southerners, the measure actually gave rise to bloody feuding between pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers. In 1858, as part of a failed bid for the Senate, Abraham Lincoln would engage in a famous series of public debates with fellow Illinois politician Stephen A. Douglas,  the author of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, covering many of the same themes discussed in this letter.

The penultimate paragraph is also particularly interesting, because it alludes to a less well-known episode of Lincoln's career, his defense of Roman Catholics from persecution by the Know-Nothing party. It contradicts the myth, substantiated by a number of spurious quotes, and apparently started by a renegade priest, who wanted to usurp Lincoln's moral authority for his defection from the Catholic Church, that Lincoln was violently opposed to Catholics.

To Joshua F. Speed [1]

Dear Speed: Springfield, Aug. 24, 1855

You know what a poor correspondent I am. Ever since I received your very agreeable letter of the 22nd. of May I have been intending to write you in answer to it. You suggest that in political action now, you and I would differ. I suppose we would; not quite as much, however, as you may think. You know I dislike slavery; and you fully admit the abstract wrong of it. So far there is no cause of difference. But you say that sooner than yield your legal right to the slave---especially at the bidding of those who are not themselves interested, you would see the Union dissolved. I am not aware that any one is bidding you to yield that right; very certainly I am not. I leave that matter entirely to yourself. I also acknowledge your rights and my obligations, under the constitution, in regard to your slaves. I confess I hate to see the poor creatures hunted down, and caught, and carried back to their stripes, and unrewarded toils; but I bite my lip and keep quiet. In 1841 you and I had together a tedious low-water trip, on a Steam Boat from Louisville to St. Louis. You may remember, as I well do, that from Louisville to the mouth of the Ohio there were, on board, ten or a dozen slaves, shackled together with irons. [2] That sight was a continual torment to me; and I see something like it every time I touch the Ohio, or any other slave-border. It is hardly fair for you to assume, that I have no interest in a thing which has, and continually exercises, the power of making me miserable. You ought rather to appreciate how much the great body of the Northern people do crucify their feelings, in order to maintain their loyalty to the constitution and the Union.

I do oppose the extension of slavery, because my judgment and feelings so prompt me; and I am under no obligation to the contrary. If for this you and I must differ, differ we must. You say if you were President, you would send an army and hang the leaders of the Missouri outrages upon the Kansas elections; still, if Kansas fairly votes herself a slave state, she must be admitted, or the Union must be dissolved. But how if she votes herself a slave state unfairly---that is, by the very means for which you say you would hang men? Must she still be admitted, or the Union be dissolved? That will be the phase of the question when it first becomes a practical one. In your assumption that there may be a fair decision of the slavery question in Kansas, I plainly see you and I would differ about the Nebraska-law. I look upon that enactment not as a law, but as violence from the beginning. It was conceived in violence, passed in violence, is maintained in violence, and is being executed in violence. I say it was conceived in violence, because the destruction of the Missouri Compromise, under the circumstances, was nothing less than violence. It was passed in violence, because it could not have passed at all but for the votes of many members, in violent disregard of the known will of their constituents. It is maintained in violence because the elections since, clearly demand it's repeal, and this demand is openly disregarded. You say men ought to be hung for the way they are executing that law; and I say the way it is being executed is quite as good as any of its antecedents. It is being executed in the precise way which was intended from the first; else why does no Nebraska man express astonishment or condemnation? Poor Reeder [3] is the only public man who has been silly enough to believe that any thing like fairness was ever intended; and he has been bravely undeceived.

That Kansas will form a Slave constitution, and, with it, will ask to be admitted into the Union, I take to be an already settled question; and so settled by the very means you so pointedly condemn. By every principle of law, ever held by any court, North or South, every negro taken to Kansas is free; yet in utter disregard of this---in the spirit of violence merely---that beautiful Legislature gravely passes a law to hang men who shall venture to inform a negro of his legal rights. This is the substance, and real object of the law. If, like Haman, they should hang upon the gallows of their own building, I shall not be among the mourners for their fate.

In my humble sphere, I shall advocate the restoration of the Missouri Compromise, so long as Kansas remains a territory; and when, by all these foul means, it seeks to come into the Union as a Slave-state, I shall oppose it. I am very loth, in any case, to withhold my assent to the enjoyment of property acquired, or located, in good faith; but I do not admit that good faith, in taking a negro to Kansas, to be held in slavery, is a possibility with any man. Any man who has sense enough to be the controller of his own property, has too much sense to misunderstand the outrageous character of this whole Nebraska business. But I digress. In my opposition to the admission of Kansas I shall have some company; but we may be beaten. If we are, I shall not, on that account, attempt to dissolve the Union. On the contrary, if we succeed, there will be enough of us to take care of the Union. I think it probable, however, we shall be beaten. Standing as a unit among yourselves, you can, directly, and indirectly, bribe enough of our men to carry the day---as you could on an open proposition to establish monarchy. Get hold of some man in the North, whose position and ability is such, that he can make the support of your measure---whatever it may be---a democratic party necessity, and the thing is done. Appropos of this, let me tell you an anecdote. Douglas introduced the Nebraska bill in January. In February afterwards, there was a call session of the Illinois Legislature. Of the one hundred members composing the two branches of that body, about seventy were democrats. These latter held a caucus, in which the Nebraska bill was talked of, if not formally discussed. It was thereby discovered that just three, and no more, were in favor of the measure. In a day or two Douglas' orders came on to have resolutions passed approving the bill; and they were passed by large majorities!!! The truth of this is vouched for by a bolting democratic member. The masses too, democratic as well as whig, were even, nearer unanamous against it; but as soon as the party necessity of supporting it, became apparent, the way the democracy began to see the wisdom and justice of it, was perfectly astonishing.

You say if Kansas fairly votes herself a free state, as a christian you will rather rejoice at it. All decent slave-holders talk that way; and I do not doubt their candor. But they never vote that way. Although in a private letter, or conversation, you will express your preference that Kansas shall be free, you would vote for no man for Congress who would say the same thing publicly. No such man could be elected from any district in any slave-state. You think Stringfellow & Co [4] ought to be hung; and yet, at the next presidential election you will vote for the exact type and representative of Stringfellow. The slave-breeders and slave-traders, are a small, odious and detested class, among you; and yet in politics, they dictate the course of all of you, and are as completely your masters, as you are the masters of your own negroes.

You enquire where I now stand. That is a disputed point. I think I am a whig; but others say there are no whigs, and that I am an abolitionist. When I was at Washington I voted for the Wilmot Proviso [5] as good as forty times, and I never heard of any one attempting to unwhig me for that. I now do no more than oppose the extension of slavery.

I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that ``all men are created equal.'' We now practically read it ``all men are created equal, except negroes.'' When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ``all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.'' When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty---to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy.

Mary will probably pass a day or two in Louisville in October. My kindest regards to Mrs. Speed. On the leading subject of this letter, I have more of her sympathy than I have of yours.

And yet let [me] say I am Your friend forever



[1]   ALS, MHi, copy IHi

[2]   See Lincoln to Mary Speed, September 27, 1841, supra.

[3]   Andrew H. Reeder, appointed governor of Kansas Territory by President Pierce in June, 1854.

[4]   Benjamin F. Stringfellow was a leader of the pro-slavery armed forces in the Kansas struggle; his brother John H. Stringfellow edited the Squatter Sovereign at Atchison and was speaker of the territorial House of Representatives.

[5] A failed attempt to ban slavery in any territories gained from the Mexican War.


Anonymous said...

(In 2 parts)

Dear Matterhorn,

Thank you for your thoughtful post. My view of the subject is quite different and the following links express some of what I
consider the myths around the war and Lincoln.

"The Northern onslaught upon slavery was no more than a piece of specious humbug designed to conceal its desire for economic control of the Southern states."--Charles Dickens.

"Union means so many millions a year lost to the South; secession means the loss of the same millions to the North. The love of money is the root of this, as of many other evils. The quarrel between the North and South is, as it stands, solely a fiscal quarrel." Charles Dickens

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=24ZMUx_0wqo Lincoln's Tariff War (at about 27 1/2 minutes what the Dickens quotes describe becomes clear.)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nbFty9nZUac C-Spans Brian Lamb interview with DiLorenzo on Lincoln

The following is from: http://lewrockwell.com/dilorenzo/dilorenzo211.html

(Thomas DiLorenzo is the author of Lincoln Unmasked and The Real Lincoln. He is Professor of Economics at Loyola University Maryland:

Anonymous said...

I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.

~ Abraham Lincoln, Debate with Stephen Douglas, Sept. 18, 1858, in Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings, 1832-1858 (New York: Library of America, 1989), pp. 636-637.

These are the words of the real Lincoln, who was as much a white supremacist as any man of his time. In fact, he was a much more extreme white supremacist than most, for he advocated "colonization" or the deportation of black people from America for his entire adult life. As soon as he entered politics in the early 1830s he became a "manager" of the Illinois Colonization Society which sought to use state tax funds to deport the small number of free blacks living in Illinois out of the state (the state amended its constitution in 1848 to prohibit the immigration of black people into the state, an amendment that Lincoln supported).

Lincoln followed in the footsteps of his idol, Henry Clay, who was the president of the American Colonization Society, and quoted Clay often on the subject. During his presidency he established a colonization office in the Department of Interior and funded it with $600,000, while working diligently to plan on deporting black people to Liberia, Haiti, Jamaica, Central America, the West Indies – anywhere but the U.S.

These historical facts have long presented a problem for the purveyors of the comic book/fairy tale history of Lincoln that has been taught to Americans for generations. For they suggest that, rather than being a racial saint, as the comic book/fairy tale version of history contends, the exact opposite is true. The Lincoln cult has mostly covered up these truths by seeing to it that they rarely, if ever, make it into the public school textbooks. But just in case the truth does seep out, the Cult has concocted several excuses, "justifications," and rationales for Lincoln’s extreme racist language and actions.

A recent DiLorenzo piece: http://lewrockwell.com/dilorenzo/dilorenzo213.html The Founding Father of ' Collective Responsibility'.

I love Benjamin Franklin, and can personally relate to this quote:

"Having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged, by better information or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise." - Benjamin Franklin

It seems a fit for this lovely site.

All the best,


Anonymous said...



Judge Napolitano's book A Nation of Sheep, is a keeper.

All the best,


May said...

Thank you, Tess, for the links and your kind comments. I am familiar with DiLorenzo and similar points of view. In fact, I used to share your negative view of Lincoln to some extent. Having looked into the matter further, though, I really do think that most of these accusations are based either on taking words and actions out of context, failing to grasp the complexity of Lincoln's problem or the exigencies of war, and, in the cases of some authors, outright lying. I can recommend this article:


If Lincoln was such a horrible racist, it does not make sense that Frederick Douglass would have come to think so highly of him.

May said...

By the way, here is a website responding to DiLorenzo's claims, in detail:


Best wishes, Tess, and thank you again for taking the time to comment.

Anonymous said...

Dear Matterhorn,

With respect I think that Lincoln's thoughts and feelings were quite clear, and it isn't a matter of taking them out of context.

An article from The Washington Times on Feb. 8, 2011:

Thanks to the intrepid research of historian researchers, Dr. Phillip W. Magness of George Mason University’s Institute for Humane Studies here in Fairfax, VA and Sebastian N. Page, a junior research fellow at Oxford, the little known story has been found and will be published as “Colonization After Emancipation: Lincoln and the Movement for Black Resettlement" (University of Missouri Press: ISBN0826219098) due out next week (02/14/11.)

Talking with Dr. Magness tonight, he mentioned his overriding interest in the whole emancipation subject, and the discovery of a note regarding a meeting between Lincoln and former Union Gen. Benjamin “Beast” Butler at the White House on April 11, 1865 to discuss reviving the subject of colonization.

His interest whetted, he began the long research task, both at the U. S. National Archives and at the British National Archives outside London.

“Lincoln personally pitched the scheme to the British ambassador only three weeks after the Emancipation Proclamation,” Magness told me, however “It was a matter of diplomatic secrecy, so it left a very sparse paper trail.”

Please excuse me, as I haven't been able to spend the time I would like with the links you have suggested. It is my intention to do so by the week-end.

Don't know if you are aware that Thomas DiLorenzo, Tom Woods and Lew Rockwell are Roman Catholics.

Warm regards,


May said...

Another (quite moderate and cautious) article on Lincoln and colonization, by Magness himself:


Dear Tess, of course I know that he did, indeed, support colonization projects, but why assume he did this for sinister reasons? From what I have seen of his writings/speeches on the issue, he was more motivated by a concern that blacks and whites would not be able to live together in peace, not least because of the bitter prejudices of his fellow whites against the blacks. The whole sad history of race relations for over a century after the Civil War shows that his worries were well-founded. This is the "context" people like DiLorenzo don't seem to take into consideration. De Tocqueville himself, visiting the US several decades before the Civil War, predicted that a race war would break out at some point. Fortunately, this did not occur, but it shows that L. was not alone in his concerns.

In any case, I've never seen any proof that he planned to FORCE blacks out of the country. Why is it such a crime to support voluntary emigration of a persecuted group at a very troubled time?

As for the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Lincoln's main point in those speeches, as is clear when one reads them in their entirety, was to protest the extension of slavery to the new territories, and ultimately the existence of slavery. Douglas, who was in favor of letting slavery spread to the new territories, tried to turn the audience against Lincoln by claiming he was promoting full civil equality of the races, which was an abhorrent idea to many whites at the time. So Lincoln denied he was trying to introduce full civil equality of the races, and drew the discussion back towards slavery itself. It was delicate enough to oppose slavery at the time, and politics is the art of the possible.

May said...

Another strange thing about DiLorenzo is that, while blaming Lincoln for being insufficiently abolitionist and insufficiently committed to racial equality, he also blames him for opposing Southern secession, which would have left blacks indefinitely in slavery. Slavery was very strictly, explicitly protected in the Confederate Constitution, and despite all the talk of 'states' rights', individual states could not ban slavery within their borders in the CSA. An important contrast with the USA, where states could choose to outlaw slavery and where slavery was not even mentioned *by name* in the Constitution. Based on that alone, I will always support the Union over the Confederacy.

But in any case, my main point in this post was not to debate secession or all the ramifications of Lincoln's views on race relations, but merely to show that his hatred of slavery was sincere, and genuinely based on a concern for its victims. I think that much is clear from this letter. This does not mean I think he was a god or a saint.

May said...

PS: I appreciate your polite way of voicing disagreement, Tess. I apologize if any of my comments come off as offensive in any way.

Anonymous said...

Dear Matterhorn,

Thank you for a lively discussion, and one in which I think we have agreed to disagree. :-)

Nothing you have written has come off as offensive in any way.

Being of a more Libertarian philosophy, I personally feel that the smaller the government, the less opportunity for individuals and rights to be trampled.
Suspending rights enumerated in The Constitution, whether done in 1861, or as has been done in our more recent memory is IMHO, never alright.

Suspending the Constitution

Fort Sumter was bombarded on April 12, 1861. By the end of the month, the Republican administration had ripped the guts out of the Constitution, as constitutional government passed away in the United States, not to return for almost five years. Here is the sequence of events:

First, on April 15, Lincoln called up the militia from all of the states to put into the field an army of more than 75,000 men. The Constitution puts this power with the Congress: Article I, Section 8, sets forth the powers of Congress: “To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections....”

Six governors rejected Lincoln’s call as illegal. The governor of North Carolina, John Ellis, responded,

I regard the levy of troops made by the administration for the purpose of subjugating the states of the South as in violation of the Constitution, and a usurpation of power. I can be no party to this wicked violation of the laws of the country, and to this war upon the liberties of a free people. You can get no troops from North Carolina.

The other five governors answered in the same vein.

Second, also on April 15, Lincoln called Congress into session, as required by the Constitution for “extraordinary Occasions,” but delayed the meeting of Congress almost three months. By contrast, when Pearl Harbor was attacked, Roosevelt called Congress into session the very next day, December 8, 1941.

Third, less than a week later, April 21, he ordered the purchase of war materials, five naval vessels, which under the Constitution required congressional appropriations.

Fourth, the same day, he ordered the navy to blockade all Southern ports. A blockade is an act of war, requiring the resolution of Congress.

Fifth, on April 27, he suspended the right of habeas corpus — unquestionably one of the most important of our civil liberties, for it prohibits government from making arrests without just cause, that is, from locking people up and throwing the key away, so to speak. In time, more than 10,000 were arrested and imprisoned by military officers, often for crimes that never existed in any law book, manufactured by the generals, often just plain silly. One unfortunate fellow, while drunk, was arrested and imprisoned for shouting, “Hurrah for Jeff Davis!” Under the Bill of Rights, a person cannot be charged with a crime except by an indictment from a grand jury, nor can a person be convicted except by a jury of fellow civilians. No military trial of civilians was permitted, or so said the Constitution.

Lincoln’s denial of these most basic constitutional rights led to the destruction of civilian government in Maryland, where in late 1861 he had soldiers arrest and imprison the members of the legislature believed to be Southern sympathizers and who might vote for Maryland’s secession. Democratic government ceased in Maryland for the duration of the war.

Anonymous said...

Preceding the arrest of the Maryland legislators, Lincoln’s most shocking, even treacherous act, swept under the rug by Lincoln’s loving biographers, grew out of ex parte Merryman. John Merryman was a known Southern sympathizer in Maryland. He was arrested by General Cadwallader and imprisoned in Fort McHenry in Baltimore. Merryman petitioned the Supreme Court for a writ of habeas corpus, which was granted by Chief Justice Roger Taney, and the general was ordered to bring Merryman into court for adjudication. The general refused.

Ordering the arrest of the chief justice

In response, the Court ordered federal marshal Bonifant to bring the general and Merryman to court. Taney could have organized an armed posse of deputy marshalls to arrest the general, but that might have resulted in bloodshed and was avoided.

As an alternative approach, Taney wrote a blistering opinion — today considered one of the greatest opinions of the Supreme Court — and had a copy delivered to President Lincoln. The opinion condemned the action of the president and reviewed the leading authorities on English as well as American constitutional law.

An undoubtedly enraged Lincoln took it upon himself to execute an order to arrest the chief justice for having the gall to give orders to the president and to condemn his acts against the Constitution. And remember: Taney was simply doing his duty, as under the Constitution the Supreme Court has the final say on Constitutional issues, not the president, not the Congress, not anyone else.

According to the writings of U.S. Marshal Ward Hill Lamon, questions arose about serving the arrest order on the chief justice, and where he should be imprisoned. Lamon recalls that Lincoln gave the arrest warrant to him with instructions to “use his own discretion about making the arrest unless he receive further orders.”

Lincoln was saved the condemnation of history, possibly impeachment and removal from office as well, by a reluctant federal marshal who wisely refrained from arresting the chief justice of the United States. But notwithstanding the failure to arrest the chief justice, this episode marked the end of constitutional government in the United States, as a British periodical, Macmillan Magazine, observed in 1862:

There is no Parliamentary (congressional) authority whatever for what has been done. It has been done simply on Mr. Lincoln’s fiat. At his simple bidding, acting by no authority but his own pleasure, in plain defiance of the provisions of the Constitution, the Habeas Corpus Act has been suspended, the press muzzled, and judges prevented by armed men from enforcing on the citizens’ behalf the laws to which they and the President alike have sworn.


Warm regards,


May said...


There was a very thorough study of Lincoln's actions in regard to civil liberties, done by Mark Neely, which I can recommend:


He also did a companion piece on similar problems in the Confederacy:


Please, be careful of overwrought accounts by libertarians. I'd also be careful of assuming that "smaller government" is necessarily better. We need GOOD government, not small government per se. In all the libertarian fear of "centralized federal power", some seem to neglect the fact that local elites can be just as much of a danger to human life and liberty (look at the slaveholding local elites of the South, for instance!)

In desperate wars, when nations are struggling for their very survival- it's the struggle for survival that tends to take precedence. Excesses are bound to happen in such a context. Remember, the first purpose of the Constitution, stated in the preamble is to form a more perfect UNION. Lincoln saw maintaining the Union as his main task and considered that measures normally out of bounds could become constitutional under extraordinary circumstances, out of necessity, for this constitutional purpose.

We have to be very careful with comparing his actions to those of other presidents, in earlier or later wars, because none of them faced the same threat to the survival of the United States, that he faced.

The care and caution Lincoln took in his emancipation policy, tolerating slavery for so long because it was a 'states' right' and so on, shows that he did not just ignore or throw the Constitution out wholesale. Many extreme abolitionists would have preferred for him to do so.

And Taney, you do realize that he was also the one responsible for the Dred Scott Decision?

Whatever mistakes Lincoln may have made, I don't think he was a dictator at heart and his freeing of four million people outweighs these issues, IMO.

May said...

BTW, Maryland was a powder-keg at the beginning of the war, and Lincoln would obviously be especially worried about secessionist sentiment there, since Washington D.C. itself is surrounded by Maryland...

You seem very ready to assume dishonest motives on the part of historians and biographers of Lincoln. Why not be similarly skeptical of the motives of libertarian political authors?

May said...

There also seems to be serious dispute about whether he actually ordered Taney arrested:


Anonymous said...

Dear Matterhorn,

'You seem very ready to assume dishonest motives on the part of historians and biographers of Lincoln. Why not be similarly skeptical of the motives of libertarian political authors?'

One of the tenets of my life is never to assume anything. After six plus decades of looking underneath much of what passes for 'so' in this world, I've found that anything approaching 'truth'
is usually beneath the surface of what is generally agreed upon. Five decades of researching subjects that I love, and in some cases don't like at all have lead to the views I hold, and like the Franklin quote, I've had to make some adjustments :-) along the way. My views on Lincoln are among those have changed over time.

I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it...Voltaire

Warm regards,


May said...

Thank you, Tess. I am glad you keep an open mind and continue to search for the truth through life.

We'll just have to agree to disagree.