Wednesday’s Disunion in the New York Times has an interesting piece by Daniel W. Crofts on Charles Francis Adams, son of John Quincy Adams, grandson of John Adams, and during the Civil War period, U.S. ambassador to Great Britain. The piece is rather instructive, in a microhistory sense, of how the war helped shift the opinion of men, who before the conflict were willing to appease the South by providing firm guarantees to preserve slavery, toward supporting freedom for the slaves.
Adams represented a particular type of Unionist: like his father and grandfather, he believed that human nature was turbulent and fractious, and that it must be restrained by government. He therefore revered the Constitution: this solemn compact bound the nation together by guaranteeing the Southern states that slavery was secure within their borders, while at the same time allowing the free states to distance themselves from it. And nothing, not even the abolition of slavery, was more important than preserving the Union.
Although Crofts asserts “that Adams personally found slavery repugnant” and was active in freesoil politics in the 1840s and 185os, he was willing to mollify southern concerns, in the wake of Lincoln’s election, much more than many of his fellow Republicans.
To reassure white Southerners who worried that Republicans might at some point in the future have both the strength and the inclination to “initiate a plan of emancipation,” Adams proposed a constitutional amendment to safeguard slavery in the states. It would take away “no rights which the free States ever should attempt to use.” Like all other Republicans, Adams hoped that white Southerners themselves would come to see that slavery retarded progress and economic development. At some point in the future, he predicted, they might take the “welcome” step of moving voluntarily toward emancipation.
This position led to Charles Francis Adams not only to be criticized by members of his party that were against appeasing slaveholders, but also by supporters of the Crittenden Compromise who believed his proposed constitutional amendment did not go far enough to reassure the slave states. Yet it was the support of politicians like Adams that gave enough Republicans political cover to vote for the Corwin Amendment and get it through Congress (although it failed badly in the states).
Adams was quite disappointed, Crofts writes, when:
The seceding states spurned all olive branches and forcibly overwhelmed Fort Sumter on April 13. A groundswell of “war excitement” swept the free states — and it made Adams aware that the Union his grandfather has done so much to create might have to be rebuilt on a different basis. On April 20, he mused in the privacy of his diary that the coming struggle had the potential to result in “the destruction of slave property.” If so, he decided, that would justify the war’s costs, “however great.”
So it was the cost in lives and treasure that played an important role in convincing people in the North, who like Charles Francis Adams had been willing to countenance slavery in the South as the price of preserving the Union, that since most of the slave states had seceded anyway leading to civil war, only emancipation would make the conflict worth it. Charles Francis Adams was perceptive enough to have this insight within days of the attack on Fort Sumter. It would take just about everyone else in the free states longer to come to the same conclusion, including Abraham Lincoln. But events were rapidly approaching that would begin to change the hearts and minds of many people in the North about emancipation, and the slaves themselves would play an integral role in their coming to pass.