Constitutional Abolitionists

by Benjamin Flower Shaw

Constitutional Abolitionists, Republicans, if you please, believed that slavery was not recognized by the constitution, save indirectly. They urged that slavery was a mere matter of fact in the face of the national and state constitution. In face of everything but a tyrannical public sentiment and a diabolical practice, they argued that man cannot be property. If one man can be sold as property, every man can, and constitutions made to protect human liberty are annulled if they fail. There is no allusion to the right of one man to enslave another. Love of country and reverence for the constitution, was used to advantage by the slave power and threats of secession were frequent. Like a pall, fear of dissolution of the Union hung over the American people during the many years of slavery agitation.

In the line of thought regarding Constitutional Abolitionists, I recall an interview with Mr. Lincoln at his residence at Springfield, that has not heretofore been made public. It occurred a few weeks before his departure for Washington to deliver his inaugural address, and take his seat as president. I, with several Dixon citizens, among them Col. John Dement, a leading Democrat in the state, who had enjoyed an acquaintance with the president-elect in early days, and was a comrade in the Black Hawk War, called to pay our respects.

When we arrived we were ushered into the parlor where we found several gentlemen from Arkansas, and, I believe from other border states, as they were then called, who had come as a sort of a committee to urge upon the president-elect to issue some sort of a manifesto assuring the people of the south that it was not his intention to liberate the salves. The committee was very urgent in the matter and seemed to believe that such a precaution was necessary to prevent insurrection among the slaves, who were impatient regarding their anticipated freedom.

It was urged by the gentlemen from the south that the slaves believed that Mr. Lincoln's election meant their freedom. They had been told that they would be liberated. They heard the people of the south talk about it and were discontented. The committee understood very well that Mr. Lincoln did not intend to abolish slavery. But the negroes and the ignorant whites of the south did not so understand it. The gentlemen believed that it was the duty of the president-elect to at once undeceive them. Several members of that committee of safety earnestly urged the importance of some assurance from Lincoln to colored men and ignorant people of the south, that an Emancipation Proclamation would not be among his first official acts.

He listened respectfully, and after the importance of a proclamation was fully urged, he made a reply that was so masterful in logic; so touching in kindness and yet so full of marvelous sarcasm coupled with witticism showing the absurdity of the proposition of the committee, that I shall never forget it. Mr. Lincoln opened in answer by stating that such a manifesto would indicate fear on his part and would be, by most of the citizens of the south, attributed to cowardice, a charge freely made against the people of the north generally. He believed that his inaugural address which would in a few days be delivered from the steps of the national capital, would be in ample time to undeceive people having erroneous opinions upon the matters which troubled them. To anticipate his inaugural address, as requested, would be unwise and lacking in dignity.

He closed his remarks with much earnestness and no little emphasis; the words I remember quite well: "In all my speeches," he said, "I have never uttered a word indicating intention to interfere with slavery where it exists in states; Republican speakers and newspapers not only never advocated abolition of slavery, but are constantly refuting the charge that they are radical Abolitionists. Such utterance has been one of the principal contentions of the campaign just closed. So you see, gentlemen, if the colored people of the south have heard that I intended to abolish slavery, they received the idea from the lips of your own people; from their masters at the dinner table, or heard it at your own political meetings, and not from any Republican source; therefore it is your duty to rectify the mistake. It is certainly not encumbent upon me to correct at this time the falsehoods of our opponents."


Transactions of the McLean County Historical Society
Pantagraph Printing and Stationery Company, Bloomington Illinois, 1900