A New President, and an Ambivalent Abolitionist
The fire-eaters across the South saw the election of Abraham Lincoln as the beginning of the end of slavery in the United States. Although the Republicans were careful not to challenge the institution where it already existed, for many in the South, the new administration was seen as a harbinger all the slaveholding class’ worst fears — economic turmoil, political upheaval and collapse of a carefully-crafted legal and social structure centered on race. The fire-eaters worked themselves up into a fury, convincing themselves and many of their contemporaries that Lincoln himself was a radical abolitionist, bent on nothing less than the complete and utter eradication of slavery and establishing full social and racial equality between blacks and whites.
Actual abolitionists knew better, and were largely ambivalent about Lincoln’s candidacy in 1860. Some supported it, reluctantly, as the best practical alternative, while others held a convention that summer to nominate their own presidential candidate as a show of protest. Frederick Douglass eventually came to embrace Lincoln as an ally, but even after the election, Douglass still considered the Republicans a sort of least-bad option, and expressed concern that the Republicans’ tolerance of slavery where it already existed would undermine, and possibly destroy, the movement to eliminate slavery everywhere in the country:
Nevertheless, this very victory threatens and may be the death of the modern Abolition movement, and finally bring back the country to the same, or a worse state, than Benj. Lundy and Wm. Lloyd Garrison found it thirty years ago. The Republican party does not propose to abolish slavery anywhere, and is decidedly opposed to Abolition agitation. It is not even, by the confession of its President elect, in favor of the repeal of that thrice-accursed and flagrantly unconstitutional Fugitive Slave Bill of 1850. It is plain to see, that once in power, the policy of the party will be only to seem a little less yielding to the demands of slavery than the Democratic or Fusion party, and thus render ineffective and pointless the whole Abolition movement of the North. The safety of our movement will be found only by a return to all the agencies and appliances, such as writing, publishing, organizing, lecturing, holding meetings, with the earnest aim not to prevent the extension of slavery, but to abolish the system altogether.
It was as true one hundred fifty years ago as it is today; we have an unfortunate tendency to reduce those movements and political figures we oppose to simplistic caricatures, and to assume that all those actors share similar motivations and goals. They don’t, and sometimes they don’t even fully trust each other.
Update: Though Douglass worried about the victory of Lincoln and the Republicans, he welcomed South Carolina’s secession, bringing with it as it did a constitutional crisis that, in his view, must ultimately decide the matter of slavery. As historian David Blight points out in a new editorial in the New York Times, “Cup of Wrath and Fire,” Douglass “heaped scorn on the Palmetto State’s rash act, but he also relished it as an opportunity. He all but thanked the secessionists for ‘preferring to be a large piece of nothing, to being any longer a small piece of something.’”