Commentary Magazine


To the Editor:

In his review of David Donald’s Lincoln [Books in Review, January], Walter Berns writes:

Lincoln and Douglas were contesting more than a Senate seat; they were engaged in a contest for public opinion, or, in Lincoln’s words, for the public mind on slavery. Although Douglas won the Senate seat in 1858, Lincoln was destined to win that wider contest. Told by friends that if he posed a certain question in the debate, he would lose the Senate race he replied, “Gentlemen, I am killing larger game; if Douglas answers, he can never be President, and the battle of 1860 is worth a hundred of this.” He was right, and the rest is history.

The “rest” may be history, but the story Mr. Berns relates is apocryphal. The second of Lincoln’s “interrogatories” at Freeport—to which Mr. Berns alludes—was whether the people of a United States territory could exclude slavery prior to the formation of a state constitution. Neither Lincoln nor anyone else doubted that Douglas would say that they might exclude slavery by passing “unfriendly legislation.” He had said so innumerable times before. Donald says that this was the key question, and Mr. Berns appears to accept this. In fact the third question was of far greater consequence. In it Lincoln asked whether Douglas would acquiesce in another Dred Scott decision, in which the Supreme Court would decide that neither a state nor a territory could lawfully exclude slavery from its limits.

That there had been a plot to extend slavery to the free states, and that Douglas had been part of that plot, was the heart of the argument in Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech, which had launched his campaign. That Douglas had fallen out with his co-conspirators did not, Lincoln insisted, change this fact. It was this third question that Douglas was really unable to answer. He merely blustered and said that no Justice would so far forget himself as to decide something so manifestly unconstitutional. But Lincoln pinioned him by proving with Euclidean precision that such a decision would be no more unconstitutional than the Dred Scott decision, which Douglas accepted merely because the Supreme Court had decided it. Here was Lincoln’s dialectical genius in its full flower.

Mr. Berns notes that Douglas won the Senate seat. It must be remembered, however, that Senators were elected by the state legislatures, not by popular vote. Douglas won, with the assistance of holdover Democrats in the state senate. In statewide popular votes, Lincoln and the Republicans outpolled the Douglas Democrats. If it had been a straight contest with the voters, Lincoln would have won.

Neither Mr. Berns nor David Donald recognizes the most important reason Lincoln was chosen over Seward in the Republican convention in Chicago in 1860. In the presidential election of 1856 the Republicans had carried New York by a large margin, but they had lost narrowly in Illinois and Indiana. They did not need Seward to carry New York in 1860. But Lincoln in 1858 had proved his ability to carry Illinois against Douglas. There was then never any reason for him to have sacrificed his chances in 1858 for the sake of 1860. The apocryphal story related by Mr. Berns makes no political sense at all.

Mr. Berns also writes that:

Lincoln at one point during the war proposed that the Southern states be compensated by the national government in return for a willingness, over a period of years, to abolish slavery within their boundaries. Although Congress rejected the plan, there was much to be said in its favor.

One must, however, know at what point in the war Lincoln made this proposal. It was in his annual message to Congress in December 1862. The Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation had been issued on September 30, and the Final Proclamation was to come on January 1, 1863. Lincoln never expected the “Southern states” to abolish slavery. With the possible exception of Antietam, the Confederacy had at this point hardly lost a battle, and was not about to surrender. But the Emancipation Proclamation would exempt from its operation any states, or parts of states, not in rebellion, and loyal to the Union.

Lincoln did not think he had any constitutional authority to emancipate the slaves of loyal slaveholders. But he believed that if his emancipation policy succeeded, it would doom slavery in the loyal slave states as well. If the war ground to a victorious conclusion there would no longer be any possibility of the United States returning runaway slaves. Lincoln did not think it right that those who sold slaves should keep the money, and those who bought them should take all the loss. Lincoln’s reverence for the rights of property was profound. Except for those in rebellion, emancipation should not be expropriation. In the end, that was what happened, but it was in spite of Lincoln, not because of him.

Harry V. Jaffa
Claremont Institute
Claremont, California



Walter Berns writes:

Silence, Harry V. Jaffa once wrote, quoting Shakespeare, “is the perfectest herald of joy,” but he is not much given to practicing it, as I and many others who have been the targets of his numerous letters in this and other journals over the years have come to know.

In this latest of his effusions, after saying that my “story” of the second of Lincoln’s Freeport questions is apocryphal (which it might very well be), Mr. Jaffa goes on to say that “the third question was of far greater consequence.” I do not doubt that, but in his book on the Lincoln-Douglas debates (Crisis of the House Divided), Mr. Jaffa wrote that “Lincoln’s second question to Douglas at Freeport is rightly famous, for it was the immediate cause of the most significant political effects.” That, in a nutshell, is what I said, and since he taxes me for saying it, I must conclude that either he thinks I should be censured for not citing him as authority for it or that he has changed his mind.

The rest of his letter has to do with my reference to Lincoln’s compensated-emancipation proposal. Unable to find fault with anything I wrote, he is reduced to saying that it is important to know, as if I did not know, “at what point in the war Lincoln made this proposal.” In the course of making this point, he says that “Lincoln never expected the ‘Southern states’ to abolish slavery,” which leaves us with the question as to why he bothered to propose that they do so. By way of forestalling another letter from Mr. Jaffa, I hasten to add that I already know the answer.

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