Politicians walk a tightrope when they choose their positions on political issues, especially when it’s a thorny issue. And when critics attempt to pigeonhole a politician as an extremist, those critics often achieve exactly the opposite: that politician then essentially has license to choose any position except an extreme one—defying the critics and potentially pleasing the constituency. Meanwhile, other politicians—less “extreme” ones—continue walking the tightrope, carefully planning their next steps. When Abraham Lincoln won the election of 1860, this dynamic took hold: the South made dark predictions about what the “extreme” Lincoln administration would seek to accomplish—opening up space for Lincoln to navigate and gifting him the opportunity to placate fellow northerners while searching for ways to steer the country away from the menace of prolonged civil war.
And the country needed steering. There was evident turmoil. Frederick Douglass, in his newspaper, wrote of the consternation throughout the Union that Lincoln’s victory brought on: “‘minute men’ are forming, drums are beating, flags are flying, people are arming, ‘banks are closing,’ ‘stocks are falling,’ and the South generally taking on dreadfully.”
Lincoln had been the candidate who, “while admitting the right to hold men as slaves in the States already exist[ed], regard[ed] such property as peculiar, exceptional, local, generally an evil, and not to be extended beyond the limits of the States where it is established by what is called positive law.”
But, at the same time, he was the man that the North had elected, “against the opposition of the slaveholding South, a man for President who declared his opposition to the further extension of slavery over the soil belonging to the United States.” In so doing, the North had “demonstrated the possibility of electing, if not an Abolitionist, at least an anti-slavery reputation to the Presidency of the United States.”
Lincoln had positioned himself such that when the Civil War began and the rhetoric against him became even more venomous, he could move from being the man with an “anti-slavery reputation” to an abolitionist—the abolitionist, with his issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. By the time of that proclamation, preliminarily issued about eighteen months into his presidency, Lincoln had secured political cover for it; he had secured some of that cover for himself but also owed much of it to his opponents—opponents that escalated their attacks on Lincoln as each month passed following his election and inadvertently, unknowingly bringing about the very result those opponents sought to avoid when they began seceding from the Union after the election of 1860: the abolition of the institution of slavery.