Lincoln, Baltimore and the Black Laws

I was watching Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch last night, talking about their great new book, The Lincoln Conspiracy, on which I provided some research help. Brad lamented our tendency to worship people like Lincoln, saying that this prevents us from seeing Lincoln as a person, one who made some mistakes as well as did some great things. We need to see the mistakes as well as the great things to identify with them as people.

The Lincoln Conspiracy is NOT about John Wilkes Booth and his 1865 conspiracy to kill Lincoln. It is about an 1861 conspiracy, in Baltimore, to kill Lincoln as he passed through Baltimore on his way to his inauguration in Washington. It is an amazing adventure, much of it set in Baltimore, at the time a southern-sympathizing center of a slave state. So an easy place to round up people prepared to kill a man whom the secessionists viewed as an abolitionist. Even though we know, in a sense, how the story ends, that Lincoln does NOT die, the book is a real page-turner, because it seems at some points so clear that he WOULD die in Baltimore.

Brad’s comments last night about mistakes reminded me of a section of the Chase book, one I just finished, dealing with Lincoln’s “ten percent plan.”

As every AP US History student knows, or should know because the exam is in just a few days, under Lincoln’s ten percent plan of late 1863, when ten percent of a southern state’s prewar voters took an oath of loyalty, and formed a state government, he would recognize that as the state government. Lincoln was providing individual southern rebels a chance for a presidential pardon and providing southern states a path back into the Union. So the ten percent proclamation was a good thing.

The AP US history students also learn about the black laws of 1865 and 1866. According to one set of review materials, the southern states enacted the black laws right after the Civil War in order “to give whites control over the former slaves.” The black laws were “essentially slavery all over again.” So the black laws were a bad thing.

Most of the students do not learn about, however, the following sentence from Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation:

“And I do further proclaim, declare, and make known that any provision which may be adopted by such state government in relation to the freed people of such state, which shall recognize and declare their permanent freedom, provide for their education, and which may yet be consistent as a temporary arrangement with their present condition as a laboring, landless, and homeless class, will not be objected to by the National Executive.”

Salmon Chase, when he saw this sentence in Lincoln’s draft, objected. Chase wrote Lincoln a long letter, which included the following:

“I respectfully advise that in the Proclamation you now propose to put forth, virtually inviting the people of the rebel States to reorganize their political institutions on the basis of free labor, no suggestion be made of any apprenticeship of the freedmen or other special legislation for them. There is great difference of opinion as to this, and it seems to me that it is right to leave the whole subject, without any intimation from Washington, to the judgment of those immediately concerned. My own strong impression is that special legislation for colored citizens will be as unnecessary as for white citizens. The demand for labor will secure them employment, and freedom will enable them to buy and build with the proceeds of their labor; while the voluntary charities, already so widely awakened, will, with proper countenance and support from the Government, secure to them the benefits of education and religion. Whether I am right or wrong in this, it seems to me clear that no even apparent sanction of legislation which may be easily perverted into virtual re-enslavement should be contained in the document you are about to put forth.”

In other words, Chase predicted more or less what actually occurred; that southern whites, once they were in charge of southern state governments, would attempt the “virtual re-enslavement” of southern blacks through black codes. Chase was right on this point and Lincoln was wrong. Lincoln should not have suggested to southern whites that they had the right to enact special laws for southern blacks. It was a mistake.

That Lincoln made mistakes does not make him any less of a great man. What it does is make him a man, not a god. And that is a good thing, for if he was a man, then we as men and women can learn from him, and from Chase, and the others of that great generation.