One of the major misconceptions about Abraham Lincoln is that he ran for president with the full intent of ending slavery in the United States. It’s nice to think that it was once possible for someone with so much moral sense and the courage of his convictions to get elected to, well, anything. But the true story of Lincoln’s evolving feelings about slavery and racial equality, chronicled in “Lincoln’s Undying Words,” a new exhibition opening at the Chicago History Museum on Saturday, is far more complicated, and also far more interesting.
“This is the most important part of Lincoln you can study, in my opinion,” says Olivia Mahoney, who curated “Lincoln’s Undying Words” in partnership with the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield and has worked on Lincoln exhibits for most of her career. “His life story is compelling, but this rises above it. This is the central story he dealt with.”
In many ways, Lincoln remains an enigmatic figure. He kept no diary. Even among his closest friends and associates (such as his law partner Billy Herndon) he was “shut-mouthed.” There’s no way to know what he was really thinking in the pivotal years before and during the Civil War. But he did leave us his speeches. And since he was one of the most eloquent speakers in American political history, that is far from nothing. “Through his speeches,” Mahoney says, “we understand his actions.”
Mahoney built the exhibit (which previously showed at the Lincoln Museum) around five key speeches Lincoln made between 1858 and 1865, interspersed with background information and interactive displays to provide context, as well as notable Lincoln artifacts, including the presidential carriage (the 1860s equivalent of an Escalade, large and black and impressive, but also American-made) and the bed in which Lincoln died.
The first of those speeches was his stump speech when he was running for senator of Illinois, in which he famously declared “A house divided against itself cannot stand” and accused his opponent, Stephen A. Douglas, of conspiring to make the United States an entirely slaveholding nation. “It’s very much a political campaign speech,” Mahoney says. “There are no moral issues.”
Politically, Lincoln was a moderate back in 1858. His views, Mahoney says, were similar to those of Kentucky Senator Henry Clay: somewhere between slavery supporter John C. Calhoun and radical abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. He advocated prohibiting the spread of slavery to the new states in the west and allowing southern slavery to die gradually on its own. Perhaps southern plantation owners could be compensated by the government for the loss of free labor, and maybe former slaves could be resettled in Africa. “Lincoln was afraid of abolition,” says Mahoney. “He thought it would destroy the union. Lincoln was devoted to the union and its founding ideas. He wasn’t ready to extend those ideals to men of other races.”
Lincoln and Douglas argued over the spread of slavery around the state in a series of debates that made them both nationally famous. Douglas won the election, but Lincoln got the bigger prize two years later, when he became the Republican nominee for president. (The nomination took place here in Chicago in a convention hall called the Wigwam at what’s now Lake and Wacker; Lincoln won the nomination on the third ballot.) His campaign prominently featured his humble rail-splitting frontier origins and the slogans “Free homes for free men” and “No limit to freedom, no extension to slavery.” The Democrats were divided: the southern delegates walked out of the convention and nominated their own candidate, John C. Breckinridge, who ran on a pro-slavery platform. The Northern Democrats nominated Stephen A. Douglas, who supported “popular sovereignty.” The Constitutional Party, led by John Bell, decided to ignore the slavery issue altogether. It must have been quite a painful election year.
Lincoln won because the north had more votes in the electoral college than the south. (In the exhibit, there’s a picture of him watching the celebratory parade from the front porch of his house in Springfield, surrounded by his neighbors.) But between his election in November and inauguration the following March, seven states seceded, forming the Confederate States of America. They were under the impression that Lincoln would abolish slavery as soon as he was in power.
This was the occasion for the second of the five speeches in the exhibit, Lincoln’s first inaugural address. In it, he invited the southern states to rejoin the Union. He wasn’t ready to shed blood over the issue of slavery. He was a lawyer—he knew that slavery was permitted by the Constitution and it would take an amendment to stop it.
Then there are no more speeches until the Gettysburg Address in 1863. (Which, by the way, says Mahoney, was not written on the back of an envelope.) By then, Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order that freed all the slaves in the Confederacy. (Strangely, because border states were still part of the Union, slavery wouldn’t be abolished there until after the war.) Although the Gettysburg Address doesn’t mention slavery explicitly, it’s clear that Lincoln’s thinking had changed a great deal in the previous two years. “Where does that speech come from?” Mahoney asks. “It’s not from the man of 1858. What made him different was the war.”
In the spring of 1862 the Union army tried and failed miserably to take Richmond, the Confederate capital. “The war was to preserve the Union,” Mahoney says. “But the war quickly turns, the carnage increases, and it costs more than anyone imagined. There was a storm of criticism. What was all the fighting for? That was Lincoln’s turning point.”
When Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, it was a signal that the war was no longer about preserving the Union but about forming a new Union without slavery. There was also the pragmatic consideration: as long as slaves were taking care of the plantations, the southern economy would continue and Confederate soldiers wouldn’t ever have to leave the battlefield to go home. Lincoln would consider it his greatest act as president.
But maybe more extraordinary, at least to someone used to 21st-century politics, was Lincoln’s second inaugural address from 1865, just a month before the war ended. It’s famous for the phrase “with malice toward none, with charity for all,” and it’s the first time Lincoln publicly said that slavery was the cause of the war, but the most extraordinary part is that Lincoln accepts part of the responsibility and the blame for allowing slavery to continue for as long as it did: “Neither [side] anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.”
“He says, ‘God gave us this terrible war to end slavery,'” says Mahoney. “The north was complicit, and he was, too. They were willing to let it go on.”
Lincoln delivered his final speech on April 11, 1865, just two days after the end of the war and three days before he would be assassinated. In it, he outlined his plans for Reconstruction which, he said, would be “fraught with great difficulty.” The 13th Amendment, passed on January 31, abolished slavery throughout the entire country, but the former slaves would not be considered full citizens until the passage of the 14th Amendment three years later. It would be two more years after that before the 15th Amendment granted voting rights to all men. Lincoln himself suggested a slower change: allowing voting rights only to very intelligent black men and former soldiers. (How intelligence was to be determined remained a mystery; it sounds suspiciously like the literacy tests from the Jim Crow era.) “He was following precedent,” says Mahoney. “In the early days, you had to be a property owner to vote. It was a small step. Freedom was one thing, equality was another.”
But still, Mahoney says, you can’t expect Lincoln to be any more than a man of his time. “Lincoln’s most important legacy was that, at least on paper, blacks would have equality,” she says. “It was a law, and we are a nation of laws. But that’s also why Lincoln was afraid of abolition. Look at what it caused, all the carnage, the bloodshed. This is the most important story you can tell about Lincoln.”
“Lincoln’s Undying Words,” 4/9-2/20/17, Chicago History Museum, 1601 N. Clark, 312-642-4600, chicagohistory.org.