Ultimately, Gallagher’s sharp dichotomy between the goals of Union and emancipation seems excessively schematic. It begs the question of what kind of Union the war was being fought to preserve. The evolution of Lincoln’s own outlook illustrates the problem. On the one hand, as Gallagher notes, Lincoln always insisted that he devised his policies regarding slavery in order to win the war and preserve national unity. Yet years before the Civil War, Lincoln had argued that slavery fatally undermined the nation’s ability to exemplify the superiority of free institutions. The Union to be saved, he said, must be “worthy of the saving.” During the secession crisis, Lincoln could have preserved the Union by yielding to Southern demands. He adamantly refused to compromise on the crucial political issue — whether slavery should be allowed to expand into Western territories.
I’m always interested in this debate because I think it reveals something about the general question of how to evaluate politicians. When you look at the career of Abraham Lincoln, you see a guy who joined the more slavery-skeptical of the two political parties. As a member of the Illinois state legislature, he opposed the short-lived effort to bring slavery to the state. As a member of congress he criticized the Mexican War as a slave power land-grab and backed the anti-slavery Wilmot Proviso. He got back into politics to criticize the Kansas-Nebraska Act as too favorable to slavery. He helped found a new anti-slavery political party. He ran for Senate in 1858 as a member of the new anti-slavery party and criticized his opponent as an appeaser of the pernicious slave power. Then he ran for president in 1860 as the nominee of the new anti-slavery party against a number of candidate who all warned, accurately, that his election would precipitate secession. Then when his election did precipitate secession, he implemented a policy of military coercion against the seceding states rather than compromise on slavery even though he knew this would prompt even more states to secede. Then he fought and won a war against the seceded states, during the course of which he freed the slaves!
On the other side of the ledger, you have the fact that he spent a lot of time saying that he was only interested in saving the union. But the entire point of the Republican Party was to break the hold of slaveowners over the national government at the cost of provoking sectional conflict. There was a whole other political party—the Democratic Party—organized around the principles of white supremacy and sectional accommodation and it’s a party Lincoln never belonged to.
Back to the present day, this all reminds me of the idea that Paul Ryan is a “deficit hawk.” Sure throughout his career his regularly voting for deficit increasing measures and regularly voted against deficit cutting ones. Sure his budget plan actually cuts taxes on the rich. But he talks a lot about the deficit. So that must be what’s really driving him! Political actors never use rhetoric to try to broaden their coalition and advance their real aims.