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

by Fred Kaplan

Hardcover, 2017





Harper (2017), 416 pages


"[Kaplan] tells this story with precision and eloquence." --Seattle Times "An eye-opening biography from a trusted source on the topic." --Kirkus Review "Elegantly written and thoroughly researched." --Publishers Weekly The acclaimed biographer, with a thought-provoking exploration of how Abraham Lincoln's and John Quincy Adams' experiences with slavery and race shaped their differing viewpoints, provides both perceptive insights into these two great presidents and a revealing perspective on race relations in modern America. Lincoln, who in afterlife became mythologized as the Great Emancipator, was 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 anti-slavery 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 had reluctantly taken 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. John Quincy Adams, forty years earlier, was convinced that only a civil war would end slavery and preserve the Union. An antislavery activist, he had concluded that a multiracial America was inevitable. Lincoln and the Abolitionists, a frank look at Lincoln, "warts and all," provides an in-depth look at how these two presidents came to see the issues of slavery and race, and how that understanding shaped their perspectives. In a far-reaching historical narrative, Fred Kaplan offers a nuanced appreciation of both these great men and the events that have characterized race relations in America for more than a century--a legacy that continues to haunt us all. The book has a colorful supporting cast from the relatively obscure Dorcas Allen, Moses Parsons, Violet Parsons, Theophilus Parsons, Phoebe Adams, John King, Charles Fenton Mercer, Phillip Doddridge, David Walker, Usher F. Linder, and H. Ford Douglas to Elijah Lovejoy, Francis Scott Key, William Channing, Wendell Phillips, and Rufus King. The cast includes Hannibal Hamlin, Lincoln's first vice president, and James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson, the two presidents on either side of Lincoln. And it includes Abigail Adams, John Adams, Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and Frederick Douglass, who hold honored places in the American historical memory. The subject of this book is slavery and racism, the paradox of Lincoln, our greatest president, as an antislavery moralist who believed in an exclusively white America; and Adams, our most brilliant statesman, as an antislavery activist who had no doubt that the United States would become a multiracial nation. It is as much about the present as the past.… (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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LibraryThing member stevesmits
In popular thinking, as well as among many historians, there is a bent toward mythologizing the heroes of our history. We designate holidays in their memory, erect statues to commemorate them, place their visages on currency and, no matter of which political persuasion, utilize their stories for political messaging. Our heroes are always associated with their impact on major events in their times, most often crises, that resonate down to the present. Such remembrances are vital to supporting and strengthening important values that we share as a culture and nation.

What inevitably emerges, however, are revisionist assessments of a fuller nature that draw attention to the flaws and failures of our heroes, their misguided thinking and injurious decisions. One only needs to consider the plethora of well-researched and well-reasoned alternative views on Columbus, Jefferson, Jackson, Grant, both Roosevelt's and others to accept the legitimacy of less adulatory perspectives on these significant personages. This is a legitimate function of historians and a necessary element of historiography.

It is appropriate to apply this fuller view to Lincoln's views on abolitionism and race relations in America. Lincoln is perhaps the most mythologized of the pantheon of America's heroes, not undeservedly so. The encomiums Lincoln has received are utterly due him. His determination to preserve the union, his boldness in emancipating the slaves, his views on reuniting the nation, and his adroitness in balancing sharply opposing policy demands from allies and foes are among his accomplishments we admire still today.

This excellent book -- Lincoln and the Abolitionists: John Quincy Adams, Slavery, and the Civil War -- casts a cogent light on aspects of Lincoln's thinking on race relations in America that in modern times we find not comforting. Using John Quincy Adams to contrast with Lincoln is an effective way to highlight the quite different views of the two leaders. Lincoln and Adams were both anti-slavery, but while Lincoln was morally opposed to slavery, he was decidedly not an abolitionist. In his brief Congressional service, Lincoln and Adams's views coincided in opposition to the Mexican War and on abolishing slavery in the District of Columbia, but Lincoln was nowhere as activist as compared to Adams.

As his political ambitions matured, Lincoln adamantly opposed the spread of slavery beyond where it existed. He was greatly alarmed that the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Supreme Court's infamous Dred Scott decision would put at risk the containment of slavery. Lincoln held that slavery's westward expansion would imperil the perpetuation of the union. While stalwart on this position, Lincoln took great pains to distance himself from abolitionism. (It is probably underappreciated today how deeply unpopular in all sections was abolitionism, even among many who considered themselves anti-slavery.) He hoped that, left alone where it already existed, slavery would gradually extinguish, either through proactive compensation schemes or by its inevitable economic non viability. Lincoln was a constitutionalist who held that, even though slavery was antithetical with the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, it was constitutionally sanctioned.

Even though Lincoln famously said he would preserve slavery if it meant preserving the union, his handling of the four union slave states is instructive to apprehending his cautious and evolving views. He made no effort to eliminate slavery there, even exempting them from the edicts of the Emancipation Proclamation. His ham-handed overtures to elicit their interest in compensated emancipation were resoundingly rebuffed. His efforts foretold his growing awareness that the continued presence of slavery would be incompatible in a reunited union after the war.

Lincoln's moral distaste of slavery, and his determination that the nation should be free of it, should not be conflated to mean that he was not a racist. He frequently remarked on the social incompatibility of the races. Freedom from the bonds of slavery did not, in his view, imply political rights for blacks; only very late did he hint at the possibility of some limited access to the polls for black veterans or those of demonstrable intelligence. Lincoln adhered to the colonization movement, thinking that voluntary repatriation to Africa or Central America could achieve an all-white America. In 1862, he met with black leaders in the White House urging them to promote colonization; a proposal they found insulting. The 13th Amendment was necessary to constitutionally bar slavery, but this did not include civil rights for freedmen. (It is interesting to speculate how Lincoln would have dealt with the Radicals in his second term. One suspects he would not have wished to go as far as they did.)

Lincoln's views on the inequality of the races raise uneasy questions as we think about his legacy. When his overt racism is brought up in dinner party conversation, they response of others is often, "But, remember such was largely the prevailing sentiment of the era", as if this somehow mitigates its immorality. One must also remember that this unalloyed racism promoted the oppression of African-Americans for a century after the Civil War. And it lingers even to today. The present controversy about Civil War monuments honoring Confederate soldiers strongly suggests that many people are, at the least, indifferent to the fact that these honorees fought to sustain a morally heinous practice (and that the statues were plainly intended to reinforce the notion of that white supremacy is the norm in America.) The rejoinder that such public works are merely meant to honor soldierly courage and bravery begs the question. Would not those who hold this view be outraged to see memorials in German village squares or campuses to honor the "courageous and brave" soldiers who fought for Nazi Germany?
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