The enormous excitement and anticipation of the 1860 presidential election campaign spread into unexpected corners of the United States. Indeed, during the months surrounding the contest, and especially after Americans learned of Abraham Lincoln’s victory, reports circulated across the Southern states of political attentiveness and restlessness among the slaves.
Southern newspapers noted the slaves’ attraction to “every political speech” and their disposition to “linger around” the hustings or courthouse square “and hear what the orators had to say.” But even more significantly, witnesses told of elevated hopes and expectations among the slaves that Lincoln intended “to set them all free.” And once Lincoln assumed office and fighting erupted between the Union and Confederacy, hopes and expectations seemed to inspire actions. Slaves’ response to the election of 1860 and their ideas about Lincoln’s intentions suggest that they, too, were important actors in the country’s drama of secession and war, and that they may have had an unappreciated influence on its outcome.
Scholars and the interested public have long debated Lincoln’s views on slavery and how they influenced his policies as president. How committed was he to abolition? What was he prepared to do? Could he imagine a world in which white and black people lived together in peace and freedom? For many slaves, at least at first, the answer was clear: Lincoln’s election meant emancipation.
On one Virginia plantation, a group of slaves celebrated Lincoln’s inauguration by proclaiming their freedom and marching off their owner’s estate. In Alabama, some slaves had come to believe that “Lincoln is soon going to free them all,” and had begun “making preparations to aid him when he makes his appearance,” according to local whites. A runaway slave in Louisiana told his captors in late May 1861 that “the North was fighting for the Negroes now and that he was as free as his master.” Shortly thereafter, a nearby planter conceded that “the Negroes have gotten a confused idea of Lincoln’s Congress meeting and of the war; they think it is all to help them and they expected for ‘something to turn up.’”
The slaves, of course, had no civil or political standing in American society on the eve of the Civil War; they were chattel property subject to the power and domination of their owners, and effectively “outside” formal politics. But they were unwilling to accept their assignment to political oblivion. Relying on scattered literacy, limited mobility and communication networks they constructed over many years, slaves had been learning important lessons about the political history of the United States and Western Hemisphere. They heard about the Haitian Revolution and the abolition of slavery in the British West Indies; they knew of a developing antislavery movement in the Northern states and of slaves escaping there; and they heard of a new Republican Party, apparently committed to ending their captivity.
Some slaves discovered that John C. Fremont was the first Republican candidate for president in 1856 and, like William Webb, a slave in Kentucky and Mississippi, held clandestine meetings to consider what might come of it. But it was Lincoln, four years later, who riveted their imaginations. Even as a candidate he was the topic of news and debate on countless plantations. In the view of one slaveholder, slaves simply “know too much about Lincoln . . . for our own safety and peace of mind.” News spread quickly, recalled Booker T. Washington, who grew up in western Virginia: “During the campaign when Lincoln was first a candidate for the presidency, the slaves on our far-off plantation, miles from any railroad or large city or daily newspaper, knew what the issues involved were.”
Of course, the slaves’ expectations that Lincoln and the Republicans were intent on abolishing slavery were for the most part misplaced. Lincoln’s policy in 1860 and 1861 was to restrict the expansion of slavery into the federal territories of the West but also to concede that slavery in the states was a local institution, beyond the reach of the federal government. At the very time that slaves were imagining Lincoln as their ally, Lincoln was assuring slaveholders that he would uphold the Constitution and the Fugitive Slave Law and make no moves against them and their property.
Yet slaves were fortified in their beliefs by the dire predictions many slaveholders were making and by the secessionist movement that led to the creation of the Confederacy. They knew as well as anyone else in the country that the likelihood of civil war was growing and, by sharing information and interpreting the course of political events, they readied themselves to act – not only to escape their bonds, but to do their part to make the war about their freedom, whether the North wanted it that way or not.
Thus the case of Harry Jarvis. Born a slave on the eastern shore of Virginia, Jarvis took to the woods for several weeks after the Civil War began, where he survived owing to fellow slaves who brought him news and food. Then, seizing an opportunity, Jarvis headed to Fort Monroe, 35 miles away, where Union troops were stationed, and asked commanding General Benjamin Butler “to let me enlist.” Although Butler rebuffed Jarvis and told him “it wasn’t a black man’s war,” Jarvis stood his political ground: “I told him it would be a black man’s war before they got through.”
Library of CongressA wood engraving of “contraband” slaves escaping to Fort Monroe, Va.
Like many other politicized slaves, Jarvis seems to have understood the stakes of the Civil War far better than the combatants themselves. And by testing their expectations, they began to reshape federal policy. By the time of the first Battle of Bull Run, General Butler had declared fugitive slaves within Union lines to be “contrabands of war,” and the Congress soon confirmed him. Before too much longer, as Northern armies moved into the densely populated slave plantation districts of South Carolina and the lower Mississippi Valley, slaves crossed the Northern lines by the thousands, at once depriving the Confederacy of needed labor and forcing the Lincoln administration to reevaluate its position on slavery.
By the early fall of 1862, Lincoln had decided to issue an Emancipation Proclamation and enroll African Americans in the Union Army and Navy. Bold initiatives these were, revolutionary in effect, and wholly unimagined when the war began: except by the slaves whose actions helped bring them about. Lincoln’s political sensibilities had finally caught up to theirs.
Steven Hahn is a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of “A Nation under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration” and “The Political Worlds of Slavery and Freedom.”