US Political News and Analysis
CONGRESS AT WAR
By Fergus M. Bordewich
Abraham Lincoln did not act alone, and very often did not act as boldly as his strongest Republican supporters would have liked.
Redacted from a more detailed excellent review of the book
By David S. Reynolds
Wall Street Journal, Feb. 15-16, 2020
In the beginning, Republicans stood far to the left of Democrats on most issues. Founded in 1854 as an antislavery political organization, the Republican Party made a strong bid for the presidency just two years later, when John C. Frémont ran against proslavery Democrat James Buchanan and Millard Fillmore of the soon-to-expire Whig party.
In 1860 the Republicans gained victory with the election of Abraham Lincoln, which prompted the secession of 11 Democratic-controlled slave states. Lincoln’s election was accompanied by a Republican sweep of both houses of Congress, thanks in part to Southern Democrats defecting to the Confederacy.
During the subsequent four years of civil war, Lincoln was urged on by radical Republicans in Congress, ardently antislavery politicians who opened the way for the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, which abolished slavery, granted citizenship to African-Americans and gave voting rights to black males.
So-called revisionist historians of that period looked back on the early radical Republicans as fanatical agitators who had allegedly caused a needless war (over abolishing slavery) followed by a nightmarish racial reversal during Reconstruction.
In his splendid “Congress at War,” the seasoned historian Fergus Bordewich demonstrates that congressional Republican Radicals succeeded not only in forcefully challenging slavery but also in strengthening federal support for infrastructure, public education and financial stability.
Lincoln had the opportunity to work with a Congress controlled by his own party. But the outbreak of civil war in April 1861 created an unprecedented emergency that demanded the president’s unilateral action. Faced with a fractured nation, Lincoln increased the size of the regular armed forces, twice called up militia volunteers, imposed a naval blockade on Southern ports and suspended habeas corpus in certain regions—all without Congress’s approval.
Congress followed up with legislation supporting Lincoln’s goal of winning the war through vigorous government action. But early battlefield losses—at Bull Run, Ball’s Bluff and elsewhere—shattered the Union’s expectations of a short, easy war. Appalled by the lackluster showing of Union generals, congressional Republicans formed the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War to serve as a watchdog of the Union military.
… In no area was the Republican Congress more active than in dealing with slavery. Mr. Bordewich skillfully describes the continuing congressional effort to abolish the institution. He places particular emphasis on the leadership of two Republican senators, Benjamin Wade of Ohio and William Pitt Fessenden of Maine, and the Pennsylvania representative Thaddeus Stevens.
These and other forward-thinking Republicans directed the political antislavery movement. Mr. Bordewich traces the congressional strategizing behind the Confiscation Acts of 1861 and 1862, which awarded freedom to blacks who fled behind Union lines. He registers the drumbeat of emancipation, from the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia through its termination under the 13th Amendment.
Lincoln’s approach to the politics of slavery was nuanced. He loathed slavery, and he believed that the Founders had envisaged its ultimate extinction. But, in conducting the war, he had to keep in mind five slave states that had remained in the Union instead of joining the Confederacy—Kentucky, Delaware, Maryland, Missouri and what is now known as West Virginia.
Had Lincoln insisted on the immediate abolition of slavery, he might well have driven away one or more of these states, thereby weakening the North’s chances in the war. “I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game,” he wrote in 1861. “Kentucky gone, we can not hold Missouri, nor, as I think, Maryland.”
As it turned out, uprooting slavery required a cataclysmic war, the deaths of 750,000 Americans and the cliffhanger passage of the 13th Amendment.
Many individuals were involved in the antislavery battle—radical Republicans, socially minded vigilantes, slave rescuers, Union officers and their troops and, behind all, the firm-principled Lincoln. These and other Americans, as Mr. Bordewich and Ms. Keith remind us, only by working in tandem finally succeeded in defeating slavery—the greatest moral victory the nation has yet achieved.
—Mr. Reynolds, who teaches at the CUNY Graduate Center, is the author of “John Brown, Abolitionist,” “Walt Whitman’s America” and other books. His next book, “Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times,” will appear in October.
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