On the anniversary of the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln, scholars around the country — indeed around the world — are weighing in on the Civil War president and his profound legacy in American history.
Speaking in Chapel on Lincoln’s birthday, Roger Billings ’59, a Lincoln scholar, attorney, and writer, suggested that critics who claim Lincoln used the abolitionist movement only as a political crutch are wrong in their interpretation of history.
Billings’ Chapel Talk was part of a comprehensive series of events celebrating Lincoln’s birthday. See photos of Lilly Library’s exhibits and birthday party by clicking here.
Citing the notorious Lincoln-Douglas debate in Charleston, Illinois in 1858 in which Lincoln said he never imagined freed slaves would be allowed to vote or serve on juries, Billings made the case that Lincoln demonstrated a shrewd sense of politics… and a complete understanding of the time and place in which he lived.
"Any conclusions [drawn from the Lincoln-Douglas debates] must be made by a thorough understanding of the place and time," said Billings, noting the social climate of southern Illinois at the time was pro-slavery and was populated by largely immigrants from the south.
Lincoln made those insensitive remarks in the debate "to give his audience what they wanted," said Billings, a law professor at the Northern Kentucky’s Chase College of Law. "But he concluded the debates by making the morality of slavery his key issue."
According to Billings, Lincoln knew he couldn’t get elected to office by siding with "radical abolitionists," and further he knew that it would take a constitutional amendment to free the slaves.
"Lincoln chose a non-violent, step-by-step approach," said Billings.
Billings said that Lincoln was keenly aware of the political landscape and felt the key to ending slavery was to contain it to the south. Lincoln hoped to prevent the southern states from expanding slavery to states where fresh soil could be planted with cotton, particularly the key border states between the Union and Confederacy.
Prior to the start of the Civil War, Lincoln focused his political efforts on saving the Union, knowing he would be unable to raise a competent Union army only on the issue of freeing the slaves.
A master of words, Lincoln in the Emancipation Proclamation "carefully excluded the border states, which teetered on the brink of joining the Confederacy," Billing said. "Lincoln knew that by doing so, he could keep those states in the Union." When Lincoln told his cabinet about his plans for the proclamation in 1862, he said, "There’s no turning back."
Billings noted that Lincoln knew that his presidential proclamation could be overturned by act of a reunited congress and that only passage of the 13th amendment would ultimately end slavery.
According to Billings, Lincoln’s vision of equality was all part of a carefully orchestrated plan that included his ability to be elected, raise the Union army, contain slavery in the south, and ultimately passage of the 13th amendment. Lincoln knew the key was to save the Union in order "to make the nation ready to pass the amendment."
Billings pointed out the national climate of the times and the care in which Lincoln’s plan unfolded by noting the 13th amendment passed by only three votes in congress.
Critics have often claimed that Lincoln didn’t know or befriend freed slaves during his time in Springfield, which Billings refuted. Billings said Lincoln frequently did pro bono legal work for African Americans, and a number of Underground Railroad conductors were in regular contact with Lincoln.
"Lincoln was not intimated in racially charged Springfield," Billings said.
But choosing not to publicly fight Illinois’s restrictive "Black Laws" was intentional, Billings said. Lincoln knew it would be a futile effort in pro-slavery, but free Springfield, and that he would need to hold a much higher office to make change.
"Yes, Lincoln pandered to audiences in order to gain necessary power to bring about change," Billings admitted. "But Lincoln was no enemy to the Black race."
The rest, as they say, is history.
A video podcast of Billings’ Chapel Talk will be available on Friday.