Abraham Lincoln hated slavery.
But he didn't believe he had the power, as president, to abolish it on his own.
So, in the final months of his life, he used his considerable powers of political persuasion to get Congress to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and send it to the states for ratification.
That's Ken Winkle's take on the story at the heart of Steven Spielberg's movie “Lincoln,” which opens here Friday.
Winkle, a professor of history at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has written three books about Lincoln: “Lincoln's Citadel: The Civil War in Washington, D.C.” (out next August), “The Young Eagle: The Rise of Abraham Lincoln” and “Abraham and Mary Lincoln,” about their marriage. He eagerly awaits Spielberg's movie.
He's not alone. Mark Scherer, chairman of the history department at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, teaches a graduate seminar on presidential decisionmaking.
“There is no issue that more profoundly shaped this nation's history than slavery,” Scherer said. “It's that one inescapable poison we can never completely eradicate, and it continues to shape the nation to the present day. Lincoln's actions are at the heart of that story.”
We talked to the two professors about the history behind the movie in advance of the Omaha premiere.
Though Spielberg's movie begins in early 1865, Winkle says you have to go further back in history to understand the politics of that time.
While the president loathed slavery, calling it a monstrous injustice, he believed as commander in chief that his priority must be reuniting the nation, Winkle said. As the Civil War began in April 1861, barely a month after Lincoln took office, the president feared emancipation of slaves would divide the North and risk losing the war.
“So he moved the country slowly over four years of the war toward the 13th Amendment,” Winkle said.
Radical Republican abolitionists and African-Americans criticized Lincoln for not moving quickly enough. Border-state congressmen, Democrats and seceded Southerners howled that he moved too quickly.
“That was a good sign he was in the right place,” Winkle said. “He disagreed with extremism. He stayed in the middle. He thought it was the best way to get things done. And it was.”
In April 1862, Congress ended slavery in the District of Columbia.
In the summer of 1862, Lincoln single-handedly wrote the Emancipation Proclamation and presented it to his stunned Cabinet that July. All were on board by the time he issued it officially in January 1863.
“He was a master at finding just the right position in the middle that he believed both sides could endorse and embrace,” Winkle said. “He knew the right time to take a step forward, and he waited until it was the right time.”
As the Civil War's third year approached, freeing the slaves could weaken the Confederacy's ability to maintain military operations, Scherer said.
Issued under his military powers as commander in chief, the proclamation was accepted in a time of war. But Lincoln knew the Supreme Court could rule it unconstitutional after the war.
“He'd have liked to wave a magic wand and say slavery is now abolished,” Scherer said. “But as a constitutional lawyer himself, he could not do that.”
When Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney died in October 1864, Lincoln named his former treasury secretary, Salmon Chase, to the job. Chase was an abolitionist who might support the proclamation.
But the only sure way to eradicate slavery was to get a constitutional amendment passed by a two-thirds majority of both the Senate and House, then get three-quarters of the states to ratify it.
The Senate passed the measure, but the House rejected it, in April 1864.
That fall a new Congress was elected. Quite a few House members either did not run for re-election or were defeated. Lincoln saw his chance in targeting them before the new House was sworn in.
“They could not be voted out of office for supporting the amendment, so they had nothing to lose,” Winkle said. “Lincoln felt it was so important to ratify the amendment, he was willing to engage in the kind of wheeling and dealing it would take, the horse trading, to get votes.”
He used patronage and appointments to woo other wavering lawmakers.
The measure passed the House by a single vote on Jan. 31, 1865.
Ten weeks later, Lincoln was dead. John Wilkes Booth, a Southern sympathizer who supported slavery, shot him just five days after Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered, ending the Civil War.
In December 1865, enough states having ratified it, the 13th Amendment became part of the U.S. Constitution.
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