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The Crooked Path to Abolition: Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery Constitution

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The long and turning path to the abolition of American slavery has often been attributed to the equivocations and inconsistencies of antislavery leaders, including Lincoln himself. But James Oakes’s brilliant history of Lincoln’s antislavery strategies reveals a striking consistency and commitment extending over many years. The linchpin of antislavery for Lincoln was the C The long and turning path to the abolition of American slavery has often been attributed to the equivocations and inconsistencies of antislavery leaders, including Lincoln himself. But James Oakes’s brilliant history of Lincoln’s antislavery strategies reveals a striking consistency and commitment extending over many years. The linchpin of antislavery for Lincoln was the Constitution of the United States. Lincoln adopted the antislavery view that the Constitution made freedom the rule in the United States, slavery the exception. Where federal power prevailed, so did freedom. Where state power prevailed, that state determined the status of slavery, and the federal government could not interfere. It would take state action to achieve the final abolition of American slavery. With this understanding, Lincoln and his antislavery allies used every tool available to undermine the institution. Wherever the Constitution empowered direct federal action—in the western territories, in the District of Columbia, over the slave trade—they intervened. As a congressman in 1849 Lincoln sponsored a bill to abolish slavery in Washington, DC. He reentered politics in 1854 to oppose what he considered the unconstitutional opening of the territories to slavery by the Kansas–Nebraska Act. He attempted to persuade states to abolish slavery by supporting gradual abolition with compensation for slaveholders and the colonization of free Blacks abroad. President Lincoln took full advantage of the antislavery options opened by the Civil War. Enslaved people who escaped to Union lines were declared free. The Emancipation Proclamation, a military order of the president, undermined slavery across the South. It led to abolition by six slave states, which then joined the coalition to affect what Lincoln called the "King’s cure": state ratification of the constitutional amendment that in 1865 finally abolished slavery.


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The long and turning path to the abolition of American slavery has often been attributed to the equivocations and inconsistencies of antislavery leaders, including Lincoln himself. But James Oakes’s brilliant history of Lincoln’s antislavery strategies reveals a striking consistency and commitment extending over many years. The linchpin of antislavery for Lincoln was the C The long and turning path to the abolition of American slavery has often been attributed to the equivocations and inconsistencies of antislavery leaders, including Lincoln himself. But James Oakes’s brilliant history of Lincoln’s antislavery strategies reveals a striking consistency and commitment extending over many years. The linchpin of antislavery for Lincoln was the Constitution of the United States. Lincoln adopted the antislavery view that the Constitution made freedom the rule in the United States, slavery the exception. Where federal power prevailed, so did freedom. Where state power prevailed, that state determined the status of slavery, and the federal government could not interfere. It would take state action to achieve the final abolition of American slavery. With this understanding, Lincoln and his antislavery allies used every tool available to undermine the institution. Wherever the Constitution empowered direct federal action—in the western territories, in the District of Columbia, over the slave trade—they intervened. As a congressman in 1849 Lincoln sponsored a bill to abolish slavery in Washington, DC. He reentered politics in 1854 to oppose what he considered the unconstitutional opening of the territories to slavery by the Kansas–Nebraska Act. He attempted to persuade states to abolish slavery by supporting gradual abolition with compensation for slaveholders and the colonization of free Blacks abroad. President Lincoln took full advantage of the antislavery options opened by the Civil War. Enslaved people who escaped to Union lines were declared free. The Emancipation Proclamation, a military order of the president, undermined slavery across the South. It led to abolition by six slave states, which then joined the coalition to affect what Lincoln called the "King’s cure": state ratification of the constitutional amendment that in 1865 finally abolished slavery.

30 review for The Crooked Path to Abolition: Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery Constitution

  1. 4 out of 5

    Stacey

    Thank you to NetGalley for providing a copy of "The Crooked Path to Abolition" in exchange for an honest review. I am really interested in Abraham Lincoln and anything pertaining to his history. Therefore I jumped at the chance to read and review this new book. I will say that the book is well researched and informative. I will also say that I found the book to be extremely dry and dense. The first half of the book essentially made points about pro-slavery vs anti-slavery readings of the constit Thank you to NetGalley for providing a copy of "The Crooked Path to Abolition" in exchange for an honest review. I am really interested in Abraham Lincoln and anything pertaining to his history. Therefore I jumped at the chance to read and review this new book. I will say that the book is well researched and informative. I will also say that I found the book to be extremely dry and dense. The first half of the book essentially made points about pro-slavery vs anti-slavery readings of the constitution and how different groups of people in America viewed the document that decides everything two very different ways. I kept reading and finished the book hoping against hope for any personal details but came away without that. I did appreciate a review of statements that seemed so out of character made by Lincoln regarding slaves and black Americans and why he likely made those statements to pacify certain people politically. However by analyzing those statements, it is made clear that he rarely, if ever, made those statements from a place of his personal views. I definitely found some new tidbits to think over with this book but I didn't come away with what I hoped for with this book.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Bob

    Summary: A historical account of how Abraham Lincoln, although not a traditional abolitionist, strongly supported and implemented the antislavery portions of the Constitution to pursue the end of slavery. Abraham Lincoln was not an abolitionist in the traditional sense. He did not advocate immediate emancipation in the slave states. He did not advocate active resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act, but only for due process rights. He did not rail in his rhetoric against the vile evils of slavery. B Summary: A historical account of how Abraham Lincoln, although not a traditional abolitionist, strongly supported and implemented the antislavery portions of the Constitution to pursue the end of slavery. Abraham Lincoln was not an abolitionist in the traditional sense. He did not advocate immediate emancipation in the slave states. He did not advocate active resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act, but only for due process rights. He did not rail in his rhetoric against the vile evils of slavery. But Abraham Lincoln hated slavery and believed there were resources within the Constitution properly leveraged that would lead to its eventual end. How could this be so when the Constitution protected slavery in the states? Only states could abolish slavery, not the Federal government. Both Constitution and legislation allowed slave owners or their proxes to capture and return runaway slaves even where slavery was not legal. And there was that language of slaves being three-fifths of a person. Actually those who believe in an antislavery Constitution might start there. Slaves are written of as “persons,” undermining the contention of slaves as being property. Beyond this, those who developed the idea of an antislavery Constitution drew on both the Declaration of Independence and the Preamble affirming the equality of persons. They focused on the due process rights protected under the Fifth Amendment to make it as hard as possible for slave owners to retrieve runaways, while not breaking the fugitive slave laws. They used the Federal power to regulate the territories to make these free rather than slave. The Constitution said Congress had no authority “to give legal existence to slavery in any territory of the United States.” They antislavery people were committed to no more compromises that would admit new slave states into the country. Lincoln believed that slavery would eventually wither away of its own. Some proposed that slaves brought into free territory could sue for their freedom. The dynamic economy of the north would outstrip the south, particularly because it could not expand its economy, fenced about by free territories becoming states. Eventually Southern states would abolish slavery on their own, which only they could do, Lincoln believed, since the Constitution did not give this power to the Federal government. James Oakes traces the development of this antislavery doctrine, particularly within the Republican party. With enough votes in the growing North, Lincoln was elected. While he assured the South that slavery would be upheld, the implementation of other aspects of the antislavery doctrine triggered secession. Oakes shows how this offered new avenues to antislavery effort: ending slavery in the District of Columbia, ending the slave trade and blocking slave shipping to southern ports, and most significantly, voiding Fugitive Slave laws for slave owners in rebel states, since they no longer were under the laws of the Union. Slaves who fled into Union lines would be considered “contraband” and emancipated. While this was not so for border states who remained in the Union, the Army was directed not to assist in the retrieval of any fugitive slaves, since they did not have the legal powers to properly adjudicate such matters. The owners were on their own, further contributing to abolition. Oakes doesn’t portray Lincoln as an antiracist. He favored colonization of Blacks, believing Blacks and Whites could not live together. But he hated slavery with a singular focus. One senses a Lincoln both shrewd and resolute in availing himself of all the resources available in the Constitution to move the needle toward abolition and emancipation, even maneuvering conquered states to constitute themselves as free and to join in ratifying the Thirteenth Amendment. What I continue to wonder about is whether Lincoln realized his approach would send the South over the edge, precipitating the Civil War? Or did the South adequately take on board Lincoln’s resolve to preserve the Union once attacked? I wonder, given the case Oakes make, whether there is an argument to suggest that the South played into Lincoln’s hand, accelerating the demise of slavery that may otherwise have taken another fifty to one hundred years. Did Lincoln fully understand the cards he was holding and play them to full advantage? I’ve often commented about the writing of slavery into our Constitution. I don’t think we can dodge that terrible compromise. But Oakes offers another perspective, showing the side of the Constitution that assumes freedom and equality the norm and slavery an exception. He also shows the lawyerly genius of Lincoln to recognize and exploit that side to its full extreme. The great sadness of all this was the lives it cost, including in the end, Lincoln’s own.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Socraticgadfly

    This is good overall, but it loses a star on Lincoln and colonization. With Oakes, it's more a throwaway than a full-throttled claim like that of David S. Reynolds in "Abe-Abraham Lincoln and His Times," but Oakes claims Lincoln stopped discussing abolition after 1862. (Update: Book lost a star due to email exchange with Oakes: You have to be obsessed with colonization to give a shit about this. I’m not and I don’t. Here’s why: Q. Of the four million slaves emancipated by the Civil War, how many di This is good overall, but it loses a star on Lincoln and colonization. With Oakes, it's more a throwaway than a full-throttled claim like that of David S. Reynolds in "Abe-Abraham Lincoln and His Times," but Oakes claims Lincoln stopped discussing abolition after 1862. (Update: Book lost a star due to email exchange with Oakes: You have to be obsessed with colonization to give a shit about this. I’m not and I don’t. Here’s why: Q. Of the four million slaves emancipated by the Civil War, how many did the federal government colonize outside the United States? A. Zero I’m interested in explaining what happened, not what didn’t happen.) My response: I'm "obsessed" with historical accuracy. I guess you're admitting you're not. PLUS, you knows it "goes to motive" on explaining persona of Lincoln.) This is half-true by the letter, at best, and totally untrue in spirit, as he allowed the Emigration Bureau to discuss Belize colonization in 1863, asked AG Bates in 1864 if colonization was legally still on the table, and reportedly discussed the issue with Spoons Butler just before his assassination. Given this, and that Oakes like Reynolds tries to "soften" old Lincoln statements from charges of racism, it's no wonder Reynolds blurbed it. Add to that the fact that they're peers at CUNY and even both went to Berkeley and there probably was some cross-pollinization. As with Reynolds' book, were the five-star elements in it not fully five-star, the book would have gotten three stars because of this willful and egregious failure. (As with Reynolds, it is both; I know he knows the history I just cited.)

  4. 4 out of 5

    Ernest Spoon

    A slim volume dense volume with ideas centered on the evolution of Abraham Lincoln's thoughts on ending slavery in the United States. Today it is fashionable to denigrate Lincoln as insufficiently abolitionist and a tad too racist. This, I feel, is unfair and irrational, as the man grew, evolved and changed the nation as no other US president until, perhaps, Franklin Roosevelt. Of course Lincoln's image was tarnished in the aftermath of the Compromise of 1877; the political resurrection of unrep A slim volume dense volume with ideas centered on the evolution of Abraham Lincoln's thoughts on ending slavery in the United States. Today it is fashionable to denigrate Lincoln as insufficiently abolitionist and a tad too racist. This, I feel, is unfair and irrational, as the man grew, evolved and changed the nation as no other US president until, perhaps, Franklin Roosevelt. Of course Lincoln's image was tarnished in the aftermath of the Compromise of 1877; the political resurrection of unrepentant Southern Slavocrates, and the diminution of Radical Republicans in Congress; and the rise of the so-called "Liberal" Republicans who placed big business interests before civil rights and looked the other way as states of the old Confederacy enacted legislation that all but reinstituted slavery. Of course this book covers the bigger picture of the antislavery movement than just Abraham Lincoln. While many today regard the unamended US Constitution as decidedly proslavery, it was anything but. The ambiguousness of many pertinent articles regarding the South's "peculiar institution" also, interestingly enough, gave rise to antislavery constitutionalism. An "Antislavery Project" began almost as soon as the Constitution was ratified. Of course that is a fact of our history that was buried in the post-Civil War years as the political strength of institutions lampooned by Jay Ward's Bullwinkle cartoon series as "Confederate Correctors," grew in the years leading up the election of unrepentant segregationist Woodrow Wilson.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Matthew Hatch

    I gave it 5 stars. I think it was a 4.6 star book so I rounded up. It was well done for its genre. Great structure, great preface, backed with gobs of facts and quotes. If there is fault in this book, it’s that it reads a little dry. But it’s essentially a historical record, so I think it fits. I think, in this day and age, I am used to some history books that read like novels. This one doesn’t. A first I would get tired of the plethora of facts and figures, but the author does a good job making s I gave it 5 stars. I think it was a 4.6 star book so I rounded up. It was well done for its genre. Great structure, great preface, backed with gobs of facts and quotes. If there is fault in this book, it’s that it reads a little dry. But it’s essentially a historical record, so I think it fits. I think, in this day and age, I am used to some history books that read like novels. This one doesn’t. A first I would get tired of the plethora of facts and figures, but the author does a good job making sure they are organized and tell a cohesive story. The preparation for this book must have been extensive. I’m grateful for the hard work that went into that. Though the author doesn’t explicitly make the connection, I liked the way the constitution mirrored Lincoln— an anti-slavery document/man, but riddled with some confusing and contradictory statements regarding slavery and race. The battle for emancipation was so political. One side would use clever wording to get a bill passed, then the other would find a technicality to flip it to their advantage. This political bickering goes on for so many years that the language of the bills gets so specific and added to the confusion. The arguments for what to do in certain circumstances with certain slaves from certain places became so packed with rules and exceptions that it ultimately builds tensions that can only be released by full emancipation. By adding all the details in this book, we can get a taste of what it must have been like to feel that tense progression. Anyway, great book!

  6. 5 out of 5

    N

    I got this book as an e-arc from the publisher. This was a fascinating book. I learned a lot. The tone changed pretty abruptly on page 186 to more personal and conversational, which was a much better tone for the book to take. I wish the entire book had been like that. It did end rather abruptly as well. If it were a research essay a student gave me, I'd likely tell them they needed some sort of conclusion. For instance, I know the book is about the PATH to abolition, but it gets to the states ra I got this book as an e-arc from the publisher. This was a fascinating book. I learned a lot. The tone changed pretty abruptly on page 186 to more personal and conversational, which was a much better tone for the book to take. I wish the entire book had been like that. It did end rather abruptly as well. If it were a research essay a student gave me, I'd likely tell them they needed some sort of conclusion. For instance, I know the book is about the PATH to abolition, but it gets to the states ratifying it (very hurriedly gets through that, by the way) and then is just over. Feels like the author just needed another day or two with it, to be honest. Even with these small issues, I learned so very much and it was very interestingly written. I plan to recommend it to a lot of people.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Zachary

    3.5 Oakes discussion of whether the constitution was fundamentally a slavery or antislavery constitution was very interesting to me as a lawyer and historian, I think it is an important part of our counties constitutional history that is often forgotten. My primary issue with the book is that it is far too repetitive, the preface and the first two chapters are all essentially the same information. I was also disappointed that there was not more about Lincoln's beliefs and efforts over his lifetim 3.5 Oakes discussion of whether the constitution was fundamentally a slavery or antislavery constitution was very interesting to me as a lawyer and historian, I think it is an important part of our counties constitutional history that is often forgotten. My primary issue with the book is that it is far too repetitive, the preface and the first two chapters are all essentially the same information. I was also disappointed that there was not more about Lincoln's beliefs and efforts over his lifetime, Lincoln's part in the "crooked path" only really starts half way through the book. I think this would have made a great article, but is only an okay book.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Naim Peress

    This book was brilliant and enjoyable. Though the preface was overlong, Crooked Path gives an excellent explanation of the pro and anti-slavery views of the Constitution. Oakes clearly and intelligently describes the constitutional and legal views of slavery from 1787 to the Civil War. He also shows the legal basis for the Emancipation Proclamation and how pre-war abolitionist thinking became federal policy during the Civil War. In addition, the author demonstrates how Lincoln brilliantly advanc This book was brilliant and enjoyable. Though the preface was overlong, Crooked Path gives an excellent explanation of the pro and anti-slavery views of the Constitution. Oakes clearly and intelligently describes the constitutional and legal views of slavery from 1787 to the Civil War. He also shows the legal basis for the Emancipation Proclamation and how pre-war abolitionist thinking became federal policy during the Civil War. In addition, the author demonstrates how Lincoln brilliantly advanced three separate policies at once to bring slavery to an end. This is an excellent book for those who love to read about the Civil War.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Nancy George

    A good look at the crisis and controversy that led to the Civil War and how it gave the President a way into abolishing slavery. ...something the U.S. government had no legal right to do. Because we are a Republic, the states rights had to be respected. Lincoln went into the Presidency hoping at least for a gradual end to slavery but when the southern states seceded it opened up the opportunity to end it all at once. Also shows the turmoil and struggle for power in government still going on, onl A good look at the crisis and controversy that led to the Civil War and how it gave the President a way into abolishing slavery. ...something the U.S. government had no legal right to do. Because we are a Republic, the states rights had to be respected. Lincoln went into the Presidency hoping at least for a gradual end to slavery but when the southern states seceded it opened up the opportunity to end it all at once. Also shows the turmoil and struggle for power in government still going on, only now it's more about personal gain.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Jenny Taylor

    Informative, yet dry and repetitive. Very little analysis. Oakes does not come into his own voice until the final chapter, which is too little, too late. An explanation in the acknowledgment that the book was born of turning an essay on the origins of the Thirteenth Amendment into a short book is very insightful.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Jenni Heins

    Good information and research but so painful to read. Dry; like a high school textbook.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Susan

    interesting, illuminates lincoln's gradual awakening, not hiding his ambiguity interesting, illuminates lincoln's gradual awakening, not hiding his ambiguity

  13. 4 out of 5

    Dan Cotter

    Interesting book about Lincoln and the Antislavery constitution. Decent read and thoughtful, only complaint being the timeline jumps a bit.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Pat

    Very good history book. I learned a lot about how the 13th Amendment came to be. Fascinating

  15. 4 out of 5

    Ken Bennett

    Relatively dry read.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Barbara Roth

    This book is complete BS. Written for the sole purpose of BLM and especially contrived to make money off of today's desperate society reach. I would rather give it a 0 rating! This book is complete BS. Written for the sole purpose of BLM and especially contrived to make money off of today's desperate society reach. I would rather give it a 0 rating!

  17. 4 out of 5

    Jason Park

    Was Lincoln the "Great Emancipator", who set all enslaved people free with a stroke of his pen? Or was he a white supremacist? Neither, says James Oakes in his new book *The Crooked Path to Abolition*. My review: https://medium.com/park-recommendatio... Was Lincoln the "Great Emancipator", who set all enslaved people free with a stroke of his pen? Or was he a white supremacist? Neither, says James Oakes in his new book *The Crooked Path to Abolition*. My review: https://medium.com/park-recommendatio...

  18. 4 out of 5

    Jodie

  19. 5 out of 5

    George P.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Sarah Brosvic

  21. 4 out of 5

    Nick Vozel

  22. 4 out of 5

    Gary

  23. 4 out of 5

    Philemon Ababio

  24. 5 out of 5

    Grace Kane

  25. 4 out of 5

    KnitCinn

  26. 5 out of 5

    Amandeep Gomez

  27. 4 out of 5

    Tim

  28. 4 out of 5

    Ashley

  29. 5 out of 5

    Randy

  30. 5 out of 5

    Diana

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