Lincoln's Dilemma: Blair, Sumner, and the Republican Struggle over Racism and Equality in the Civil War Era.

Author:Keating, Ryan W.
Position::Book review
 
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Lincoln's Dilemma: Blair, Sumner, and the Republican Struggle over Racism and Equality in the Civil War Era. By Paul W. Escott. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014. 288 pp.

Paul Escott, in Lincoln's Dilemma, has woven a masterful narrative of the social, political, and economic debates surrounding Lincoln's moves against slavery during the Civil War. While significant work has recently appeared tracing the attitudes of the Republican Party concerning the institution of slavery, Escott's study contributes to the literature through his analysis of the nuances of race and racial identity that ran as significant undercurrents of political policy during this period. Facing broader national pressures, in particular, the doctrine of white supremacy and "shared contempt for African Americans" (p. 4), Lincoln walked a fine line between members of his own party, in particular Charles Sumner and Montgomery Blair, over the racial future of the nation. Placing Lincoln's decisions surrounding slavery as part of the larger debate about race and racial identity that took place among the ranks of the Republican Party, Escott illustrates the ways in which the president's policies concerning race and equality reflected a growing feeling among northerners that "slaves were people and that slavery was wrong and un-American"--even if these notions were fleeting manifestations of wartime progress (p. 13).

The Republican Party that Lincoln joined was an "amalgamation of strangely different elements. It contained men from different political backgrounds, and it combined anti-slavery convictions and anti-Black prejudices" (p. 14). Among the early converts to the Republican fold, and key supporters of Lincoln, were Francis Preston Blair (and his sons, Frank and Montgomery) and Charles Sumner. Although opponents of slavery, Escott suggests that these men represented divides over race that existed within the Republican Party. This was an issue that Lincoln was forced to contend with throughout the war and that ultimately ran concurrently with every decision dealing with the institution of slavery. Sumner was a radical when it came to issues of race, a supporter of racial equality who, in 1849, even went so far as to push for desegregation in Boston's public schools (p. 22). The Blairs, on the other hand, were racist--"anti-slavery racists," to be precise (p. 30). This difference between "anti-slavery" and "racism" runs as an important undercurrent...

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