Abraham Lincoln was a realist. At a time when many in the country, including most politicians, were desperately seeking a way to keep the slavery issue under wraps, Lincoln had already recognized that the South’s “peculiar institution” wasn’t going to just shrivel up and blow away on its own.
That’s what Lincoln wrote in a letter to a friend in 1855. Judge George Robertson was a former Congressman from Kentucky who had represented Lincoln in a family-related legal proceeding. Although Robertson was a slaveowner, he thought that slavery would one day disappear. But he didn’t expect or desire it to happen anytime soon. In fact, when Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862, Robertson vehemently opposed it. He wanted fugitive slaves in Kentucky returned to their owners, and when one of his own ran away to a Union army camp and was not returned, he sued. That sequence of events put something of a strain on his relationship with Lincoln.
But in 1855 their relationship was still intact, and Robertson sent Lincoln copies of his writings and speeches concerning slavery. Lincoln’s reply shows that even then, six years before Ft. Sumter, he saw clearly that slavery would not end without a fight. Here’s Lincoln’s letter:
Springfield, Illinois, August 15, 1855
Hon: Geo. Robertson
My Dear Sir:
The volume you left for me has been received. I am really grateful for the honor of your kind remembrance, as well as for the book. The partial reading I have already given it, has afforded me much of both pleasure and instruction. It was new to me that the exact question which led to the Missouri compromise, had arisen before it arose in regard to Missouri; and that you had taken so prominent a part in it. Your short, but able and patriotic speech upon that occasion, has not been improved upon since, by those holding the same views; and, with all the lights you then had, the views you took appear to me as very reasonable.
You are not a friend of slavery in the abstract. In that speech you spoke of “the peaceful extinction of slavery” and used other expressions indicating your belief that the thing was, at some time, to have an end. Since then we have had thirty six years of experience; and this experience has demonstrated, I think, that there is no peaceful extinction of slavery in prospect for us. The signal failure of Henry Clay, and other good and great men, in 1849, to effect any thing in favor of gradual emancipation in Kentucky, together with a thousand other signs, extinguishes that hope utterly. On the question of liberty, as a principle, we are not what we have been. When we were the political slaves of King George, and wanted to be free, we called the maxim that “all men are created equal” a self evident truth; but now when we have grown fat, and have lost all dread of being slaves ourselves, we have become so greedy to be masters that we call the same maxim “a self evident lie” The fourth of July has not quite dwindled away; it is still a great day—for burning fire-crackers!!!
That spirit which desired the peaceful extinction of slavery, has itself become extinct, with the occasion, and the men of the Revolution. Under the impulse of that occasion, nearly half the states adopted systems of emancipation at once; and it is a significant fact, that not a single state has done the like since. So far as peaceful, voluntary emancipation is concerned, the condition of the negro slave in America, scarcely less terrible to the contemplation of a free mind, is now as fixed, and hopeless of change for the better, as that of the lost souls of the finally impenitent. The Autocrat of all the Russias will resign his crown, and proclaim his subjects free republicans sooner than will our American masters voluntarily give up their slaves.
Our political problem now is “Can we, as a nation, continue together permanently — forever — half slave, and half free?” The problem is too mighty for me. May God, in his mercy, superintend the solution.
Your much obliged friend, and humble servant