Lincoln and the Abolitionists: John Quincy Adams, Slavery, and the Civil War

by Fred Kaplan

Hardcover, 2017





Harper (2017), 416 pages


Explores how the differing experiences and viewpoints of two Presidents shaped slavery and race relations in America for more than a century. "The acclaimed biographer Fred Kaplan returns with a controversial exploration of how Abraham Lincoln's and John Quincy Adams' experiences with slavery and race shaped their differing viewpoints, providing perceptive insights into these two great presidents and a revealing perspective on race relations in modern America. Though the Emancipation Proclamation, limited as it was, ultimately defined his presidency, Lincoln was a man shaped by the values of the white America into which he was born. While he viewed slavery as a moral crime abhorrent to American principles, he disapproved of antislavery activists. Until the last year of his life, he advocated "voluntary deportation," concerned that free blacks in a white society would result in centuries of conflict. In 1861, he reluctantly took the nation to war to save it. While this devastating struggle would preserve the Union, it would also abolish slavery--creating the biracial democracy Lincoln feared. Years earlier, John Quincy Adams had become convinced that slavery would eventually destroy the Union. Only through civil war, sparked by a slave insurrection or secession, would slavery end and the Union be preserved. Deeply sympathetic to abolitionists and abolitionism, Adams believed that a multiracial America was inevitable. [This book], a frank look at Lincoln, "warts and all," including his limitations as a wartime leader, provides an in-depth portrait of how these two presidents came to see the issues of slavery and race, and how that understanding shaped their perspectives. Its supporting cast of characters is colorful, from the obscure to the famous: Dorcas Allen, Moses Parsons, Usher F. Linder, Elijah Lovejoy, William Channing, Wendell Phillips, Rufus King, Hannibal Hamlin, Andrew Johnson, Abigail Adams, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and Frederick Douglass, among scores of significant others. In a far-reaching historical narrative, Kaplan offers a nuanced appreciation of both these great men--Lincoln as an antislavery moralist who believed in an exclusively white America, and Adams as an antislavery activist who had no doubt that the United States would become a multiracial nation--and the events that have characterized race relations in America for more than a century, a legacy that continues to haunt us all."--Jacket.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member Darcia
Interesting how the distorted lens of history gives us a rose-colored view of Abraham Lincoln as a slave-fighting hero. He was not, at least not in the way he's typically portrayed. While he found slavery morally troubling, without the threat of secession by the south he likely would have been content to leave things as they were. In our modern-day terms, Abraham Lincoln could easily be described as a White Supremacist. Of course, we can't judge past generations by current standards, though it is important to note that Lincoln was not all that different from many of his contemporaries in this respect. He was not unique, nor was he particularly concerned with the suffering endured by the millions of slaves

John Quincy Adams, on the other hand, had remarkably progressive opinions on the issues of slavery and (de)segregation. He was outspoken and passionate, and today would be considered an activist. Yet our textbooks and history lessons largely leave out Adams while putting Lincoln on a pedestal, simply because Lincoln happened to be president when the country was forced to decide between a united nation and slavery.

Fred Kaplan lays the truth out for us in this exceptionally researched book. The author's focus is not on the war itself, but on the people and politics leading up to and surrounding it. We see the nation and its people as they really were, absent the shiny polish and pedestals we tend to give our historical heroes.

Kaplan's writing is an intelligent narrative without the academic pretense. This is an in-depth but easy book to read.

Kaplan gives us a gift here by giving us the truth. We need to know and to acknowledge the truth of where we've been if we ever hope to create a better future.

*I received an advance copy from the publisher, via Amazon Vine, in exchange for my honest review.*
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