It’s difficult for us today to grasp how divisive the issue of slavery was in the United States before the American Civil War. Of course, today, we think that the United states is terribly divided politically between Republicans and Democrats. However, today’s political divisions pale in comparison to the schisms that led this nation to the bloodiest conflict in American history.
Even politicians we might think of as moderate for that time still professed strongly held beliefs in the idea that the races were unequal and so created by God. One typical mid-western moderate politician of the era said, “I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and Black races.” This same former member of the United States House of Representatives went on to argue that Blacks should not have the vote, were unqualified to be on juries, hold office, and most certainly should never be allowed to marry white people. God, forbid!
On another occasions, this same moderate argued for the resettlement or colonization of Blacks to, well, somewhere else in the world. Liberia, the African nation set up by former slaves of the U.S., was one of the possible places Blacks could be sent, he said. Central America was also floated as a potential resettlement spot by this man. He justified this belief by saying that the differences between the races were simply too great to be resolved and, therefore, separation was the only safe and sane recourse.
He further held that he must support slavery simply because he believed in the United States Constitution. While the Constitution did not specifically mention slavery as a right, the fact that such things as the 3/5 Compromise and the reference to Fugitive Slave Laws in the document supported the idea in his mind—even if he personally disliked the institution. These feelings echoed those of Thomas Jefferson—himself a slave owner—who supposedly said that slavery, “was like holding a wolf by the ears. You didn’t like it, but you sure didn’t let it go.”
You can see that even moderates of that period such as this man held beliefs that today are wildly inappropriate and wrong. That should show you how deeply held the racial animosity was among those considered to be radical in the period leading up to the Civil War.
Yet, this politically moderate man further felt that the institution of slavery was a “necessity” in those area where it existed. When, during the Civil War, the discussion of declaring slavery to be illegal in the areas of the United States where it did not exist—the idea of an Emancipation Proclamation—he posited again that he wished to not interfere with those parts of the nation where slavery still was legal.
Yes, Abraham Lincoln’s position on slavery was indeed moderate for its time, even if he eventually came to see the Civil War as the method for eliminating it once and for all.