In this very solid, carefully and rigorously argued book, James OakesIn his final and perhaps most original chapter Oakes traces the winding route Lincoln followed in order to get to the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States once and for all. A Republican-dominated Congress might muster the two-thirds vote to pass such an amendment, but ratification by three-quarters of the states would be more difficult. During the war, Lincoln’s position became more and more radical, but, Oakes says, Lincoln was skeptical all along that emancipating slaves, even in large numbers, would ever be enough; and he always remained committed to the belief that the slave states should abolish slavery on their own. describes and analyzes the antislavery constitutionalism that emerged in a dialectical struggle with pro-slavery constitutionalism in antebellum America.
In The Crooked Path to Abolition, Oakes delineates early on the many things that Lincoln was not: 'He never called for the immediate emancipation of the slaves… he never denounced slaveholders as sinners and never endorsed the civil or political equality of Blacks and whites… He never opened his home to fugitive slaves… he endorsed voluntary colonization of free Blacks… He certainly spoke at colonization meetings… but never at an abolitionist meeting.' Oakes ably guides the reader through the Byzantine legal labyrinth of slavery American style – perhaps Gordian Knot is a better metaphor. If the author’s narrative occasionally waxes repetitive and academic, all is forgiven: Most often Oakes brings clarity and insight to a political conundrum of bewildering complexity.
... illuminating and accessible ... Much insight is to be gained by contrasting the antislavery constitutionalism of Douglass and Lincoln with the proslavery constitutionalism of Southern enslavers: Doing so brings into sharp focus the anti-racist qualities of Lincoln’s leadership ... Acknowledging the persistent fault lines in the North, even among slavery’s opponents, is a key to understanding why fundamental rights remained so elusive for Black Americans.
If Republicans were willing to deny the federal government the power to abolish slavery, why did the South bother to secede? James Oakes’s The Crooked Path to Abolition provides an effective answer to this question. As shocking as the Corwin Amendment seems today, it merely expressed what was already “implied constitutional law,” as Abraham Lincoln himself explained. Virtually everyone, including abolitionists, agreed that the federal government had no constitutional authority to abolish slavery directly ... Mr. Oakes, a distinguished Civil War historian and a professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, describes the development of these constitutional antislavery strategies concisely and clearly. At just over 200 pages, his book contains more insightful analysis than countless massive tomes on the antislavery movement. Indeed, historians have generally slighted the strategies that Mr. Oakes emphasizes in favor of the absolutist position taken by the radical abolitionist movement, whose most prominent champion was William Lloyd Garrison ... In this book and in his earlier work, Mr. Oakes has provided a compelling rebuke to scholars who confuse moral clarity with moral fanaticism, the position that is most effective with the one that is most extreme. Slaveholders had no reason to fear those who denounced the Constitution as a proslavery compact. But they rebelled and destroyed themselves in fear of those who invoked it as an instrument of universal freedom.
In his exhumation of antislavery constitutionalism, Oakes unapologetically seeks to recover some kind of usable past ... This explication of the antislavery reading of the Constitution represents Oakes at his best, showing how clauses that seemed to protect slavery also opened, for a growing number of antislavery politicians, doors to its potential abolition ... A closer look at complications that Oakes glides over leads one to wonder how consensual the federal consensus really was. Given his objections to how some scholars collapse important distinctions and suggest unanimities that never really existed, it’s striking that he sometimes does the same thing, downplaying disagreements within the antislavery movement over what policies the federal consensus allowed and what the Antislavery Project could therefore do ... Oakes is masterful in showing how...two principles shaped Lincoln’s actions once the fighting commenced ... What is less convincing, however, is Oakes’s insistence that the Antislavery Project as instituted remained 'substantially unchanged' from before the war.
By the time he was inaugurated, Lincoln had gone on record to support the major principles of such an interpretation, and now Oakes explores this subject in his compelling and detailed The Crooked Path to Abolition ... Oakes demonstrates that the goal of all antislavery politics through the Civil War was to use federal power to prevent new territories from becoming slave states and allow existing slave states to do away with slavery on their own ... This relatively short book is richly rewarding.
In charting Lincoln’s struggle with that conflict - as much an inner, personal quest as a matter of canny workaday politics - Oakes packs an absolutely enormous amount of research and contemplation into barely 200 pages. He’s never willing to exonerate Lincoln, and that makes The Crooked Path to Abolition unfailingly challenging reading. Much longer books have been written about the broiling constitutional issues on everybody’s lips in the 1850s, but as Oakes notes, comparatively little popular history work has been done on antislavery constitutionalism (he cites a 1977 study by William Wiecek as a groundbreaking work on the subject). This brief book works as a powerful corrective to that neglect; it’s a fascinating way to look at Lincoln the thinker.
Oakes explored some of this before in The Scorpion’s Sting (2014) and Freedom National (2012). But his focus on Lincoln’s antislavery constitutionalism is new, and Oakes’ conclusions about Lincoln have evolved accordingly. The result is a timely consideration of the interrelation of law and politics and a valuable contribution to Lincoln studies.
A crisp and well-argued examination of the politics and constitutional theories behind President Lincoln’s stance on slavery ... This intelligent and deeply researched study adds much to the scholarly debate about how and why slavery was abolished.
Although the Constitution is widely considered a sacred document, legal scholars disagree on what the various clauses mean, and activists denounce it as flawed by shameful racist compromises. Oakes agrees that the Founding Fathers did indeed compromise. However, he demonstrates that the end result was so sloppy that, before the Civil War, slavery supporters could claim that it protected their institution, and abolitionists had no doubt that it didn’t ... Oakes persuasively shows how, from the moment Lincoln assumed office, he made it clear by both rhetoric and action that slavery was doomed. Many books discuss Lincoln and abolition, but this is among the best.