Louis Masur on Charles Sumner

Friday’s Disunion in the New York Times has a nice piece on Charles Sumner by Louis P. Masur of Trinity College in Connecticut. I would quibble though with his contention that “No politician was more determined than Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts to ensure that secession and war resulted in emancipation.” Owen Lovejoy in the House of Representatives arguably had a longer history as an abolitionist and had already in July pushed through the House a resolution absolving the Union army of hunting for fugitive slaves. But otherwise Masur’s piece is terrific, and another fine example of the public service the New York Times is doing in bringing some of the best scholars and scholarship in Civil War studies to the attention of its readers through the Disunion blog in the Opinionator.

Louis P. Masur relates Sumner’s single-minded crusade early in the Civil War to add to the Union’s war aims liberating the slaves and how he patiently and tirelessly lobbied Abraham Lincoln to use his war powers to issue a proclamation freeing the slaves. Masur’s piece on Charles Sumner is another fine example of how Congress was ahead of Lincoln on emancipation, something that too often does not get acknowledged in the rush to anoint Lincoln as the “Great Emancipator.” Certainly, Lincoln must be credited in history for making the right moral choice in issuing the Emancipation Proclamation and sticking with it despite the reverses experienced by the Union army in 1864. But it must be acknowledged that Abraham Lincoln had to be coaxed to embrace freedom for the slaves. Masur’s essay does a service by reminding us of Charles Sumner’s important role in getting the President to do the right thing, the act that more than any other sealed Lincoln’s status as a great U.S. President, arguably the greatest.

About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at donald_shaffer@yahoo.com
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3 Responses to Louis Masur on Charles Sumner

  1. Edwin Thompson says:

    Hello Donald – You stated: “But it must be acknowledged that Abraham Lincoln had to be coaxed to embrace freedom for the slaves”. Well – you have successfully baited me again.

    One of my pilgrimages to honor Honest Abe is a visit to the Cooper Union. The great hall is in the basement and it is one of the few places you can visit with relative ease. It is still used today as a auditorium. It was constructed only a few years before Lincoln gave his famous 1860 Cooper Union speech; a speech that made him famous with New Yorkers, New Englanders, and Black Republicans. It is also one of the first buildings to use structural steel and is a forerunner to skyscrapers (but that is another story). When empty, the hall is very quite. It was built below ground because even then, New York City was noisy and by building the great hall below grade, the noise of the streets was muffled. The podium is very old, and I sometimes wonder if that is the same podium he used. When I stand in the great hall, I can almost imagine him giving his famous Cooper Union speech.

    It was in this building that this unschooled, self educated, country lawyer from the Midwest came to the big city and spoke to the rough and tumble New Yorkers. This was the speech that ultimately made him one of the greatest statesmen for people around the globe. It made him President of the United States at a time when this fledging republic was unraveling from our national sin.

    The speech was a masterpiece. It has to be read since there is no summary that can replace his words. He begins by asking a question: “What is the frame of government under which we live?” And he answers it: “The Constitution of the United States”. He then spends considerable time explaining the intentions of the 39 signers of the Constitution regarding slavery. He argued that the Federal government had the authority to control slavery in the expanding territories. He addressed the irrationality of the southern people and the effect of slavery rebellions had on these southern people. Throughout his speech, he states over and over again that slavery is wrong. And the south had already threatened to succeed unless slavery in accepted across the continent. After all, that is what Dred Scott was all about.

    Lincoln states more than once the following concept: “Wrong as we think slavery is, we can yet afford to let it alone where it is because that is due to the necessity arising for its actual presence in the nation; but we can, while our votes will prevent it, allow it to spread into the National Territories and to overrun us here in these Free States”. Slavery was tearing this young republic apart for 70 years. It was not banned in the Constitution, so the Constitution would have to be changed. To change it by decree would not make us a republic, but a dictatorship. This backwoods, unschooled man understood that, and he knew if slavery was banned at the expense of the republic, we would be left with nothing.

    Lincoln never would have joined the Republican Party unless his intention was to free the slaves. And this speech made him the candidate of choice. I still may not have convinced you, but I do not believe Lincoln had to be coaxed into freeing the slaves. Ed

    • Hi Edwin. Sorry for not replying earlier. I have been insanely busy at work for the past few weeks and then today was my son’s birthday. I grant you that Lincoln did not like slavery, but he was perfectly willing to tolerate it as the price for Union, as long as the institution was no longer allowed to expand into new territories. For Lincoln preserving the Union was key. Until Summer 1862, he tried to appease slaveholders in the loyal border states because he was convinced that not to do so risked having them secede and with their departure the last of chance of preserving the Union. With the Union position more secure in the Border States by Summer 1862, and with it increasingly apparent that saving the Union meant the destruction of slavery he reversed course. But he still hedged his bets by not announcing the Emancipation Proclamation until after a Union victory on the battlefield, which didn’t come until September at Antietam. Then he hedged again by making the initial Emancipation Proclamation preliminary, giving the seceded states a chance until the end of 1862 to return to the Union and keep their slaves, and exempting the loyal border states and areas of the Confederacy under Union control.

      Certainly, Lincoln did not think slavery would survive forever, something he makes clear in his “House Divided” Speech in June 1858. But as he made clear in his public letter to Horace Greeley in August 1862 (written after he had decided to issue the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation but before he made that decision public), his policy toward slavery would be shaped by its implications for saving the Union. As Lincoln wrote Greeley on August 22, 1862, “I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be ‘he Union as it was.’ If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.”

      So Lincoln does not embrace emancipation until Summer 1862 when he becomes convinced ending slavery is the only way to save the Union.

  2. Edwin Thompson says:

    Thanks – I agree with what you wrote above.

    I would add that we cannot fully understand Lincoln’s position without understanding the early 19th century. This was a world that was moving away from traditional monarchy’s like Spain, Russia, and France and toward the democratic republic government. This type government was not guaranteed to succeed. As Lincoln stated in the Gettysburg address “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth”.

    We do not know what would happen if another man was president (Seward, Douglas, ??), but I have to believe that there were few men who could have managed our national sin while maintaining the republic. Stopping the expansion of slavery was in essence, dooming slavery – and the white south knew this. There were still horrible governments to come that could not have been predicted in 1860 – communism and fascism were right around the corner.

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