The Crooked Path to Abolition: Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery Constitution

Norton. Jan. 2021. 288p. ISBN 9781324005858. $26.95. HIST
Radical abolitionists, such as William Lloyd Garrison, decried the U.S. Constitution as a, “pact with the devil,” for its support of slavery. But the Constitution does not clearly address the issue of slavery. Award-winning Civil War historian Oakes (Graduate Center, CUNY; The Scorpion’s Sting) shows how the Constitutional compromises forged by the Founding Fathers led to much ambiguity and dissension. Beginning in the 1820s, an “Antislavery Project” arose with the goal of stopping and then reversing slavery’s expansion. Abolitionists rightfully pointed out that the text embodied the principle of human equality, referred to persons and not slaves, and never referred to a right to human property. Oakes proceeds to argue that Abraham Lincoln’s understanding of the Constitution, rather than racism, explains Lincoln’s sometimes slow and cautious movement on abolitionism. Once the war began, the movement of enslaved people to Union lines and decisions made by Union commanders in the field drove the push toward emancipation and abolition. Oakes’s well researched narrative offers a vivid and insightful contribution to the literature on the abolition of slavery and Lincoln’s role.
VERDICT This book will appeal to readers interested in the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, and constitutional history.
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