A review of Lincoln and the Border States: Preserving the Union (University Press of Kansas, 2014) by William C. Harris.

William C. Harris has set before him the admirable task of examining whether the border states indeed “unequivocally cast their lot with the Union” in 1861 (page 8). Unfortunately, his political views send him into the issue with one hand tied behind his back.

The trouble begins even before opening the book. Why “Preserving the Union”? What unquestioned law of nature dictated that this was forever and unequivocally a good thing? On this first premise apparently Harris would join Eric Foner, who in 1990 claimed that Lincoln was an excellent precedent for Gorbachev to suppress the secession of Lithuania from the Soviet Union. Foner said:

There really is a genuine parallel between Lincoln and Gorbachev. Lincoln’s position, like Gorbachev’s, was that a union, no matter how it was formed, cannot be abandoned. The question is: Who decides? Gorbachev and Lincoln contend that the entire union must decide. The Lithuanians, of course, resent the parallel because they consider themselves illegally occupied. (Debate at Moscow State University, March, 1990.)

Right, how ‘bout them “mystic chords of memory,” Lithuania?

The trouble continues right from page one, where Harris begins his relentless repetition of phrases like “southern insurrection” (p1, 42, 46, etc.) – never deigning to capitalize Southern anywhere; calling Confederates who dared defend their homeland “rebels” (p6, etc.) and “traitors” (p7, 41, etc.). At all times Lincoln is the mythic legend, nobly crusading for the “suppression of the southern insurrection” (p1). At all times Lincoln’s treatment of the border states exhibits wise forbearance, never once raising the possibility that such treatment – including the suspension of habeas corpus, arbitrary arrests, and the arbitrary impo­sition of martial law to replace functioning state governments – was simply war by other means. At all times Lincoln is the crusader for emancipation, temporizing only to stay within the bounds of the Constitu­tion that he so deeply revered – with nary a mention of Lincoln’s earnest support of the Corwin Amend­ment that would have enslaved blacks in perpetuity. According to Harris, Lincoln was not inconsistent in countermanding General John C. Frémont’s Emancipation Proclamation in Missouri and part of Kentucky on August 30, 1861, explaining that expediency demanded it: Union soldiers were throwing down their arms rather than fight for that cause (p100, p144). Harris cites Lincoln’s Peoria Speech of 1854 only to extol his desire to free all the slaves (p4) – omitting his further desire to then “send them to Liberia.”

At least Eric Foner had the integrity to concede that a flawed Lincoln “grew” into his colossal moral height, as witness his famous open letter to black journalist Lerone Bennett:

Lincoln was not an abolitionist or Radical Republican […]. He did not favor immediate abolition before the war and held racist views typical of his time. (Was Abraham Lincoln a Racist? Los Angeles Times, April 9, 2000)

In spite of Harris’ worship of Lincoln, his book makes several important contributions to the subject:

  • He has dug out the details of the intrigues and machinations between Lincoln and the border authorities – although he omits West Virginia, considering only Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware, but without devoting a separate chapter to the latter.
  • He has recorded the outrage of all the border state governors upon learning of Lincoln’s April 15, 1861 proclamation that 75,000 troops be called up, mostly from militia, to put down the “insurrection.”
  • He has discussed Lincoln’s policy of compensated emancipation in the border states – a policy adopted neither there nor at the national level, though Lincoln broached it for the entire Confederacy at the Hampton Roads Conference (February 3, 1865).

Representative of the interesting details presented by Harris is his account of the Baltimore Riots of 1861. He faithfully notes the outrage of the entire state that federal troops might pass through it, even though leaving Maryland neutral while in transit against Virginia. The Baltimore Southern Rights Convention met on April 18 to pass resolutions against the presence of federal troops in the state for any reason. Harris does record that the convention did not advocate armed resistance to those troops, but can’t resist adding:

But the resolutions were highly inflammatory and contributed to a mob atmosphere in the city. (p45)

Troops from Massachusetts and Pennsylvania did arrive in the city the next day, however – though Harris never states who sent them. Whether you call them patriots, or a “mob” as Harris does, the local citizens rose up violently against the invaders, leaving four New England soldiers and twelve citizens dead (p46). In desperation, Governor Thomas H. Hicks and Mayor George W. Brown ordered the burning of the railroad bridges providing northern access into the city (p48). Governor Hicks’ response to the incursion of the troops might well have provided the text for Robert E. Lee, when Hicks said to an assembled crowd:

I love my State and I love the Union but I will suffer my right arm to be torn from my body before I will raise it to strike a sister State. (p47)

Harris excuses Lincoln’s stubborn refusal to back down from having troops in Maryland, noting his only concession to detour around Baltimore. He passes over in silence Lincoln’s enormous whopper to a Baltimore delegation that he had “no desire to invade the South [but] must have troops to defend this capital.” (p54, emphasis added)

Harris should have been on to something historically when he provides evidence, as he cannot avoid providing, that it was untrue that the border states “unequivocally cast their lot with the Union” in 1861. But he refuses to follow that lead. Instead, he makes excuses for Lincoln’s many unconstitutional measures – among them the suspension of habeas corpus (ignoring justice Roger Taney’s declaration of its invalidity, pp59-60), arbitrary arrests, and the arbitrary impo­sition of martial law to replace functioning state governments – as being executed with great reluctance, but with the completely justified purpose of “suppressing the southern insurrection.”

The truth is that not one of the four border states (Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware) voted for Lincoln in the 1860 election. Lincoln received just 26,390 total votes from the border states in that election – with 17,028 of those coming from the city of St. Louis, where its large German community favored him (mistakenly) as an abolitionist. Every one of the four held the opinion of Kentucky Senator John J. Crittenden that

Mr. Lincoln is at the head of the great anti-slavery party, a purely sectional party […]. (p9, emphasis added)

The border states provide the most objective evidence contradicting the historical falsehood that secession was somehow a traitorous “insurrection” – objective in that for several of the border states, slavery was not revered, while the Constitution most certainly was. All of the border states sent delegates to the Peace Conference held in Richmond early in 1861 (p34). The outrage of all the border state governors upon learning of Lincoln’s April 15, 1861 proclamation that 75,000 troops be called up included the following – all of them stressing not just the error of Lincoln’s decision, but its moral evil:

Governor John W. Ellis of North Carolina: “[I will be] no party to this wicked violation of the laws of the country, and to this war upon the liberties of a free people. […]  You can get no troops from North Carolina.” (p39)

Governor Claiborne F. Jackson of Missouri: “[I will supply no troops] to make war upon the people of the seceded states. [The requisition for troops is] illegal, unconstitutional, and revolutionary in its objects inhuman and diabolical, and cannot be complied with. […] Not one man will the State of Missouri furnish to carry on any such unholy crusade.” (p39)

Governor Beriah Magoffin of Kentucky: “[Kentucky will] furnish no troops for the wicked purpose of subduing her sister Southern States.” (p39)

Governor John Pendleton Kennedy of Maryland: “[The requisition is a] wicked blunder. […The Administration in Washington] have literally forced the Border States out of the Union, and really seem to be utterly unconscious of the follies they have perpetrated.” (p40)

In spite of Lincoln’s intransigent willingness to use force to ‘put down the southern insurrection,’ it must be fairly stated that he supported compensated emancipation, in spite of its enormous cost, as a peaceful solution to maintaining the Union. Advocacy of the policy must have been sincere, as he devoted great pains to elaborating it. Harris’ description of his plan for Delaware is worth quoting at length:

On about November 26, 1861, one week before Congress met in its regular session, the president completed the draft of two options for such a bill. He gave the draft to [Delaware Congressman George P.] Fisher to present to his friends in the Delaware legislature. Both options provided for the allocation of 6 percent federal bonds totaling $719,200, to be distributed in five equal annual installments as the process of freedom unfolded. The first option called for the phased ending of slavery, with one-fifth of the adult slave population becoming free by mid-1862, and the remaining four-fifths by 1867. The second option provided for a far longer period of phased emancipation, extending to 1893. Both options required that the state adopt a system of “apprenticeship, not to extend beyond the age of twenty-one years for males, nor eighteen for females for all minors whose mothers were not free” at the time of birth. The president admitted, “on reflection, I like No. 2 the better,” since it expanded the period for the completion of emancipation, though that meant Delaware would not be required to abolish slavery before 1893. (p160)

None of Lincoln’s plans for compensated emancipation were ever adopted, neither those for the border states, nor the one suggested nationally two months before the War’s end. Harris does not discuss the contradiction between Lincoln’s exigency for war – purportedly for the abolition of slavery – and his willingness to wait up to 32 years to abolish it peacefully.

In spite of all these failings, Mr. Harris has produced a valuable book for the reasons stated. The pity is that it must be read as if published in Pravda, where the reader must painfully glean the truth by reading between the lines and beyond the political bias.

Terry Hulsey

Terry Hulsey is a former computer programmer now retired in Guanajuato, Mexico. His two major achievements, his two daughters, enjoy successful careers in New York City. His study of sortition resulted in The Constitution of Non-State Government: Field Guide to Texas Secession, available through Shotwell Publishing and elsewhere.

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