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Lincoln’s epiphany

A letter at UR reveals the past president’s plan to end the Civil War: Buy the slaves


It's one thing to read about history; it's quite another to be staring down at a letter written by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862.

In the letter, addressed to Senator James A. McDougal, Lincoln makes a bold suggestion: the Civil War could be ended if slave owners were compensated monetarily. In other words, instead of fighting for the freedom of the slaves, the Union would buy it.

"This letter presents one of the great 'what if' scenarios of the 19th century," says Richard Peek, director of the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections of the University of Rochester's Rush Rhees Library, where the letter is housed. "Here Lincoln is faced with the real-life crisis which Thomas Jefferson predicted the United States would eventually have to confront; slavery was 'the wolf by the ears,' which the nation could neither hold, nor safely let go."

The UR had the letter on display for a brief period in 2000; it can now be viewed only by appointment (call 275-4477). The letter is on deposit at the UR and could eventually be reclaimed by its owner.

Because the letter is written in his own hand, with no secretary present, you can almost imagine Lincoln alone in his office at night, wrestling with ideas about how to end the horrific conflict. The three-page document provides a palpable sense of Lincoln's dilemma.

"There is not a historian alive who does not get a special buzz from handling an original document; the older the document, the bigger the buzz," says Larry Hudson, a professor of history at the UR who plans to use the letter in his courses on the Civil War and a new course called "Lincoln, Douglass, and Black Freedom."

"Of course, what is crucial is the content of the document," says Hudson, "but to feel and smell the paper on which the words appear is to take a step closer to the moment of writing and with it a deeper immersion into the historical moment under investigation. Original documents provide a quick and sure way to transport the student historian into the past."

By March 14 of 1862, the war had been raging for a year and the North was not doing very well. Just a week earlier, the South's ironclad battleship, the Virginia, had destroyed two Northern ships and disabled three more. Lincoln was desperately trying to come up with a solution. And an economic strategy had its precedents.

"The US is the only place where slavery ended without some sort of compensation," says Dr. Stanley Engerman, John H. Munro professor of economics and professor of history at the UR. Engerman goes on to cite examples involving the British, the French, the Danes, and the Swedes. "In all cases of slavery which ended before 1860, there was compensation paid in cash and bonds to slave owners. So the whole idea of compensating slave owners was something that was accepted as the appropriate thing to do. No one ever thought of paying off the slaves."

Compensation was not new to the US.

"Most of the Northern States had a very peculiar form of compensation," says Engerman. "Those who were born after a certain date were free, but they had to work for their mothers' owners for 18, 20, 25 years, depending on the state. Effectively, that was done deliberately to cover the cost of raising a slave."

While Lincoln uses the figure of $400 as the cost of a slave, slaves were selling for more than $1,000 before the war started. Under wartime conditions, says Engerman, the slaves would be worth less.

In From Slavery to Freedom, John Hope Franklin writes that abolitionists were vehemently against Lincoln's plan. They argued that slave owners should not be compensated for something that was not their rightful property in the first place.

But even some freed slaves realized that compensation might be part of the solution.

"Two ex-slaves in Britain wrote major books at the turn of the century: Equiano and Cugoano," says Engerman. "Cugoano argued, as did most abolitionists, that slavery was theft and therefore it wasn't appropriate to pay." But, he says, Cugoano realized that the owners would have to be compensated, and suggested seven years of work before freedom. "So even a very strong abolitionist was willing to undergo some from of compensation in terms of labor time rather than immediate emancipation."

Does the Lincoln letter have any relevance to the world we live in 142 years later?

A recent strategy in the United States' war in Iraq involved purchasing the weapons of militiamen loyal to rebel Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr. The buy-out was recently extended in an effort to stabilize the situation there before elections scheduled for January.

But purchasing thousands of weapons does not seem to have made a dent in the number and severity of attacks on Americans and their Iraqi allies.The supply of weapons there appears to be endless and the hearts and minds of the insurgents have not followed the weapons.

The idea of purchasing the freedom of slaves is also very much alive.

Last January, New York Times Op-Ed columnist Nicholas D. Kristof wrote several columns describing his attempt to buy the freedom of two female sex slaves in the town of Poipet in northwestern Cambodia. Kristof's columns revealed the enormity of the problem and the complex web of social circumstances that stood in the way of any solution. Cambodia is one of many countries where forms of slavery still flourish.

"There are two places where slavery exists almost legally," says Engerman. "One is Mauritania, which used to be French Morocco. The other is Sudan, where they seem to be enforcing laws of slavery. The American anti-slavery movement, a few years ago, got involved in the policy of buying off slaves in the Sudan to free them. That led to a major controversy. One, if it's immoral you shouldn't purchase slaves. But what happened is the Sudanese would sell the slaves, get the money, and then either the same person or someone else would be enslaved. So, effectively, they were just supporting slave owners."

In areas of the world where human beings are subject to the laws of supply and demand, an act of goodwill can have unforeseen consequences.

"If you pay money to buy slaves, what you've done is increase the market for slaves," says Engerman.

Engerman believes that most people today have a distorted picture of the extent of slavery through the course of civilization.

"Most people think slavery existed in one place --- the American South before 1860," he says. "Slavery existed everywhere, all times, every place. Everyone's ether been a slave or has enslaved. There are no societies up to fairly recently that haven't had slavery."

Although slavery is in the past in the United States, its legacy is still with us. When UR history professor Hudson uses the Lincoln letter in his classes, he also will make connections to current-day arguments concerning reparations for the descendents of slaves.

"Lincoln's comparison of the daily cost of war with the market value of slaves suggests the incredible financial cost to the Union of compensated emancipation," Hudson says. "For those who support reparations, however, it was a missed opportunity to end the war and with it the growing bitterness between white and black Southerners. Furthermore, while Lincoln was calculating the cost of slavery, he should also have given some attention to the cost of compensating former slaves."

The UR letter reveals another side of the man known as the Great Emancipator. In it, Lincoln deals only with financial aspects of the issue.

"The moral concepts were missing," says Dr. Walter Cooper, a retired scientist and African-American history scholar. "The moral argument has less relevance than the economic aspects. In this way it's related to the civil rights movement of the 20th century. People shouldn't have been opposed to what [Martin Luther] King was saying in terms of the Constitution, but fear of economic competition always takes precedent over moral arguments."

In fact, according to Engerman, the biggest threat Southerners used against the North was the idea that if freed, Blacks would go north and take jobs away from whites. They also said blacks would take white women. As late as 1868, Iowa was passing legislation to keep blacks from settling there.

Lincoln also makes no mention of the mounting casualties of the war. The fact that he offers only the cold calculation of a financial solution does not necessarily mean that ethical and human concerns were not among the underlying reasons for his proposal, but Engerman does not view the North as occupying the moral high ground. In 1820 there were 10,000 slaves in New York, he says. And there were only two Northern states that allowed blacks to vote and receive an education.

Engerman points to a term used in the antebellum South: the peculiar institution of slavery.

"Many people took that term to mean that slavery made the South different than the North, that Southerners were somehow aberrant people," he says. "My sense is that most of these slave owners felt that they were doing what was a nice, decent thing to do; they were, with a certain degree of harshness, taking care of people. People have marvelous techniques for covering up what they're doing, rationalizing. The idea that they felt guilty was absurd."

Other examples of rationalization included long debates about the biblical justification for slavery.

Bible scholars have told Engerman that pro-slavery advocates can find more in the Bible to support their position than people who say the Bible is anti-slavery. "These people have always worked out systems," he says "In the North, they figured out how to have Irish women work as servants and work in factories. We know where the highest ground is, but it's not very high."

Lincoln is often accused of being more pragmatic than ethical in his handling of slavery. But it can be argued that the political realities of his time would have made it impossible to accomplish the goal of eliminating slavery on purely ethical grounds. 

Lincoln's cautious policy toward Kentucky, a slave state fighting on the side of the North, was an example of this, says Engerman. Because Kentucky had a lot of troops and was well positioned, Lincoln had to compromise on slavery in Kentucky just to keep the state fighting for the North. When he was accused of being soft on slavery in Kentucky, Lincoln said, "To win the war, it would be really nice to have God on our side, but we really have to have Kentucky on our side."

Given the fact that the Civil War raged for three years after the UR letter was written, resulting in the death of a total of 620,000 soldiers, Lincoln's idea certainly appears to have had merit.

"Clearly [Lincoln's proposal] would have been the right answer," says Engerman. "It would have been very expensive. But if you compensate the slave owners, some people wouldn't like it. It's not fully thought out in terms of labor, but it's basically a very shrewd calculation."

Lincoln's plan was coupled with the idea of the voluntary immigration of slaves to colonies in Haiti and Liberia. According to John Hope Franklin, Lincoln met with prominent free Negroes in the White House in 1862 and urged them to support his plan on the basis that "Your race suffer greatly, many of them, by living among us, while ours suffer from your presence."

But, for the most part, the problem was not solved through immigration. Most ex-slaves stayed where they were.

"In all slave emancipations, including the US case, no land was taken away from the slave owners," says Engerman. "They had to hire workers and ex-slaves had to eat. They weren't given any land. 'Forty acres and a mule' didn't take place. What happened was the slaves basically became workers."

"That's what happened after manumission until the 1920s and 1930s, a quasi-servitude operation," says Cooper, whose great grandfather was a slave. "I met people in my childhood who had escaped from quasi-servitude on a plantation down South. They were called Hatchet, Riverside, Cherry Red, and Roughhouse; I never knew their full names because they feared they would be caught and returned to the South. They would have debts to the 'company store.'"