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“The Deformed Child”: Slavery and the Election of 1864

From: Civil War History
Volume 47, Number 3, September 2001
pp. 240-257 | 10.1353/cwh.2001.0047

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Civil War History 47.3 (2001) 240-257

Was the Union election of 1864 a referendum on slavery? Abraham Lincoln thought so -- or at least he said so after the ballots were counted. Once it was clear that he would sit for another presidential term, Lincoln declared the vote a signal of the people's wish to see slavery abolished everywhere: "It is the voice of the people now, for the first time, heard upon the question." Frederick Douglass agreed. A week after the national election, the renowned abolitionist told an audience in Rochester, New York, that he saw the vote as "an endorsement, full and complete, of all the leading measures inaugurated by the present Administration, looking to the final extirpation of slavery from our land."

Yet, during the actual campaign, Lincoln and Douglass had seemed less than convinced about the centrality of slavery as an election issue. About three months before the final vote, the president had shown Douglass a draft of a message to the Confederate president Jefferson Davis that seemed to leave open the possibility of slavery surviving a negotiated peace. Lincoln never sent the letter, but neither did he say a word in defense of emancipation during the last months of the campaign. Douglass found the silence deafening. "Slavery, though wounded, dying and despised, is still able to bind the tongues of our republican orators," he told a fellow abolitionist. "The Negro is the deformed child, which is put out of the room when company comes."

Which of Douglass's assessments should we believe, the one given before or after the election? Was slavery the decisive issue or merely the "deformed child" of the 1864 political campaign? Historians are divided on the question. Most have treated the Republican victory as a vote for the Lincoln administration's policies in general and emancipation in particular. Others, most notably Ludwell H. Johnson, have emphasized the way that Lincoln played down the slavery question during the election. More recently, Lex Renda has noted how, in New Hampshire at least, the slavery issue faded into the background as both parties focused on the larger issue of union. Those historians who see the election as a clear victory for emancipation are on solid footing. At the national level, Republican victory meant the continuation of emancipation as a war policy and the creation of an antislavery majority in Congress large enough to abolish slavery by constitutional amendment. At the state level, pro-emancipation victories in Maryland and Missouri meant the triumph of immediate over gradual abolition in those two critical Border States. Yet, those historians who doubt the centrality of slavery in the election also seem justified in their skepticism. Other issues crowded out slavery and, at least in the later stages of the campaign, members of the Lincoln administration held their tongues on the issue. The question of whether the election was about slavery seems irresolvable.

Perhaps it is the question that is the problem. To ask whether slavery was a significant campaign issue in the 1864 election is to assume that there was only one slavery issue. In fact, there were two, and it is the failure of historians to distinguish between them that has confused the place of slavery in the 1864 election. The first question, which I will call the "peace" question, involved presidential power and the end of the war: should Lincoln demand immediate, universal emancipation as a precondition of peace with the Confederacy? If the answer were yes, then the Confederacy would have to commit to complete emancipation before the war could be over. The second question, which I will call the "law" question, involved only the fate of antislavery legislation: should law abolish slavery? If the answer were yes, then the Union government would continue to promote federal and state legislation to abolish the institution. The exact method and timing of emancipation would be left open. The distinction was crucial: war-weary Northerners in 1864 might support or at least stomach proposed emancipation legislation, but they were much less likely to back an emancipation ultimatum that might postpone a peace.

Yet the distinction between the peace and law questions was also subtle. Only unforeseeable...



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