Obama Even Disappoints Frederick Douglass: Ranks Preserving Union above Ending Slavery


In an otherwise bland clip for supporters, President Obama chooses a strange example to support his case for political compromise: Abraham Lincoln's compromise with Union-allied slaveholders in the drafting of the Emancipation Proclamation: 

Obama says: 

[Lincoln's] first priority was preserving the Union. I've got the Emancipation Proclamation hanging up in my office. And if you read through it, turns out that most of the document is – those states and areas where the emancipation doesn't apply because those states are allied with the Union, so they can keep their slaves. Think about that. That's the Emancipation Proclamation. Right?

So here you've got a wartime president who's making a compromise around probably the greatest moral issue that the country ever faced because he understood that right now my job is to win the war and to maintain the union. 

Well can you imagine how the Huffington Post would have reported on that? It would have been blistering. Think about it. "Lincoln sells out slaves." There would be protests. They'd run a third-party guy. 

I don't worry too much about the misuse of history, because, you know who else worried about the misuse of history?

But this does make you wonder why, if Lincoln's compromise on emancipation is an honorable act, Obama, who doesn't seem like a wartime president but is at least a kinetic-action president, can't even compromise on unpopular bailouts for decrepit industries, unpopular prosecutions of peaceful citizens, and an increasingly unpopular health care payout for the industry's biggest bigshots? I mean, if it takes a great compromiser to end a civil war, what does it take to pass a budget in less than two years? 

By the way, I don't believe Lincoln's compromise on emancipation was honorable, and it certainly wasn't the kind of moral flexibility in the service of a strictly institutional goal (preserving the union) I want any president emulating. You could make the case that the Emancipation Proclamation justified the Civil War by creating a situation where the freed people of the rebel states were now at odds with their own governments and thus the Confederacy had no legitimacy, or something like that. You could say Lincoln was unable at that time to get his goal of total liberation and had to make a compromise within his own coalition. 

Instead, Obama applauds Lincoln for trading away the moral goal (ending state-sponsored slavery) in the pursuit of strictly procedural goals (maintaining the geographical integrity of the nation-state; winning a war) that have no moral weight. 

Lincoln's insufficient fire for emancipation was more than just political pragmatism. It was a central flaw in his presidency, and there's still a lot of argument about how much Lincoln considered emancipation central and how much he had to be argued into that position.

Because Frederick Douglass was a better writer than Lincoln, and because the Woodhull/Douglass ticket may have been the only presidential option worth voting for in the history of this country, here's Douglass arguing for the centrality of real emancipation – including in Union-occupied and border states – in an article from May 1861

Fire must be met with water, darkness with light, and war for the destruction of liberty must be met with war for the destruction of slavery. The simple way, then, to put an end to the savage and desolating war now waged by the slaveholders, is to strike down slavery itself, the primal cause of that war. 

Freedom to the slave should now be proclaimed from the Capitol, and should be seen above the smoke and fire of every battle field, waving from every loyal flag! 


We are often asked by persons in the street as well as by letter, what our people will do in the present solemn crisis in the affairs of the country. Our answer is, would to God you would let us do something! We lack nothing but your consent. We are ready and would go, counting ourselves happy in being permitted to serve and suffer for the cause of freedom and free institutions. But you won't let us go. Read the heart-rending account we publish elsewhere of the treatment received by the brave fellows, who broke away from their chains and went through marvelous suffering to defend Fort Pickens against the rebels.—They were instantly seized and put in irons and returned to their guilty masters to be whipped to death! Witness Gen. Butler's offer to put down the slave insurrection in the State of Maryland. The colored citizens of Boston have offered their services to the Government, and were refused. There is, even now, while the slave- holders are marshaling armed Negroes against the Government, covering the ocean with pirates, destroying innocent lives, to sweep down the commerce of the country, tearing up railways, burning bridges to prevent the march of Government troops to the defence of its capital, exciting mobs to stone the Yankee soldiers; there is still, we say, weak and contemptible tenderness towards the blood thirsty, slaveholding traitors, by the Government and people of the country. Until the nation shall repent of this weakness and folly, until they shall make the cause of their country the cause of freedom, until they shall strike down slavery, the source and center of this gigantic rebellion, they don't deserve the support of a single sable arm, nor will it succeed in crushing the cause of our present troubles.