History Bite

How Revisionists Revise the Reputations of our Greatest

By Allen Guelzo

In an age when rocking century-old statues off their pedestals has become a public sport, no historical reputation is safe. That includes Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator.

It is “now widely held,” Columbia historian Stephanie McCurry announced in a 2016 article, that emancipation “wasn’t primarily the accomplishment of Abraham Lincoln or the Republican Party, but of the slaves themselves, precipitated by the actions they took inside the Confederacy and in their flight to Union lines.” Ebony editor Lerone Bennett put this argument forward in his 2000 book, “Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream.” The Zinn Education Project, which distributes Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” to students, claims that Lincoln offered “verbal cake and ice cream to slaveowners,” while slaves themselves did “everything they could to turn a war for national unity into a war to end slavery.”

The case against Lincoln is a lot less energizing than it seems. Slavery, as it emerged in American life and law, was always a matter of state enactments. There was no federal slave code, and Madison had been particularly eager to ensure that the Constitution gave no federal recognition to the idea that there could be “property in man.” But there was also no federal authority to move directly against slavery in the states.

The attempt by the Southern slave states to break away in 1861 seemed to offer several ways to strike at slavery. Some U.S. Army officers attempted to declare slaves “contraband of war,” and therefore liable to seizure like any other military goods. But the “contraband” argument fell into the error of conceding that slaves were property, and, anyway, no legal opinions on the laws of war regarded such property seizures as permanent.

Congress tried to put a hand on slavery through two Confiscation Acts, in 1861 and 1862. But “confiscating” slaves wasn’t the same thing as freeing them, since the Constitution (in Article I, Section 9) explicitly bans Congress from enacting “bills of attainder” that permanently alienate property. Confiscation would also have had the problem of ratifying the idea that human beings were property.

Lincoln tried to dodge the constitutional issues by proposing, as early as November 1861, a federal buyout of slaves in the four border states that remained loyal to the Union—Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri. But the representatives of those states rebuffed the offer, telling Lincoln that they “did not like to be coerced into Emancipation, either by the Direct action of the Government, or by indirection,” as a Maryland congressman reported.

Many slaves didn’t wait on the courts or Congress, and instead ran for their freedom to wherever they could find the Union Army. But the Army wasn’t always welcoming, and there was no guarantee that the war wouldn’t end with a negotiated settlement including the forced return of such runaways. Fugitive slaves were free, but their freedom needed legal recognition.

That method Lincoln found in the “war powers” implied by the president’s constitutional designation as commander in chief. That authority, he reasoned, permitted him to take whatever steps were necessary to cripple an enemy’s war-making capability. It was that “war power” which he invoked in the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863.

Lincoln understood that he was shimmying out on a constitutional limb, since the Constitution doesn’t enumerate such “war powers.” It also meant that he would have to exclude the slaves of the four border states, and any Southern areas restored to federal control, since these weren’t enemy territory and thus were outside his “war powers.” But that still left three million slaves in Confederate hands who he unhesitatingly declared “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”

Lincoln was anxious enough about postwar court challenges that in 1864 he began pressing for a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery entirely. But in itself the Emancipation Proclamation was, as Lincoln said, “the central act of my administration, and the great event of the nineteenth century.”

In 1865 Frederick Douglass hailed Lincoln as “emphatically the black man’s president.” In an age that balks at revering, this may be difficult to swallow. But emancipation was an act that only the president could have performed, and only in his capacity as commander in chief. It was the most heroic deed any president has ever done.

Mr. Guelzo is a professor of history at Gettysburg College.