In thinking about the unhappiness of some young, progressive, and socialist minded voters who say they have a problem voting for Biden, we should remind them of the dilemma of the abolitionist movement when the Republican Party’s nominee in 1860 was a candidate whose oratory didn’t lift people out of their seats, telegenic he wasn’t (albeit in a non telegenic age), didn’t dress to the nines, and, above all, held a position on slavery that most abolitionists considered inimical to their own views and life work.
Of course, I’m talking about Lincoln, who, by his own words, said he wouldn’t abolish slavery where it existed, while adamantly opposing its expansion to states and territories where it didn’t.
In his famous Cooper Union Address in New York City in February of 1860, Lincoln in a single sentence provided the rhetorical ammunition that fueled the abolitionist critique of Lincoln and his politics:
“Wrong as we think slavery is, we can yet afford to let it alone where it is, because that much is due to the necessity arising from its actual presence in the nation; but can we, while our votes will prevent it, allow it to spread into the National Territories, and to overrun us here in these Free States?”
As you would expect, Lincoln’s words nagged at the conscience of abolitionists, while presenting them with a very practical question? Should they set aside their desire for a pure abolitionist ticket and cast a vote for a candidate who says that he won’t challenge slavery where it is, but will where it isn’t?
Or, should they refrain from party politics until a pure abolition ticket is on the ballot in some future election?
Not surprisingly, the abolitionist movement was divided.
What would be mind-boggling is if they were not. Even those who voted for Lincoln must have done it with a mix of hesitations and hopes.
If social media was available during that time, some abolitionists might have established a #NeverLincoln site. Other abolitionists, including a sizable wing of Black political abolitionists, were of a different mind. They wanted no part in sitting out the election. Frederick Douglass was one of them, and while he had plenty of criticism of Lincoln, Douglass was a strategic and tactical thinker of the highest order and understood the dynamics of what a Lincoln’s election and presidency would set into motion. He wrote:
“What, then, has been gained to the anti-slavery cause by the election of Mr. Lincoln? Not much, in itself considered, but very much when viewed in the light of its relations and bearings. For fifty years the country has taken the law from the lips of an exacting, haughty and imperious slave oligarchy. The masters of slaves have been masters of the Republic. Their authority was almost undisputed, and their power irresistible. They were the President makers of the Republic, and no aspirant dared to hope for success against their frown. Lincoln’s election has vitiated their authority, and broken their power. It has taught the North its strength, and shown the South its weakness. More importantly, it has demonstrated the possibility of electing, if not an Abolitionist, at least an anti-slavery reputation to the Presidency of the United States. The years are few since it was thought possible that the Northern people could be wrought up to the exercise of such startling courage. Hitherto the threat of disunion has been as potent over the politicians of the North, as the cat-o’-nine-tails is over the backs of the slaves. Mr. Lincoln’s election breaks this enchantment, dispels this terrible nightmare, and awakens the nation to the consciousness of new powers, and the possibility of a higher destiny than the perpetual bondage to an ignoble fear.” (Excerpted from “The Late Election,” Douglass’ Monthly, December 1860, FULL TEXT via University of Rochester)
Let’s hope that those who say that they will never vote for Biden will take close measure of Douglass’ words and come to the understanding that Biden’s reelection is absolutely necessary if we hope to “break the spell” of Trump and the MAGA movement. To believe that sitting out the storm or voting for a third party candidate is the best course is a pernicious and dangerous delusion.
Let’s hope we are smarter. No Biden, no leverage. No progressive agenda. We will be fighting on our heels, to put it mildly, to prevent the slide toward a dark authoritarian time. And once we arrive at that place, the climb back is steep, likely long, and dangerous.