Dr. Danilo Petranovich delivers a new perspective on Lincoln's stance on slavery

Posted by Alex Mintz

"Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever..." wrote Thomas Jefferson in his "Notes on the State of Virginia," published in 1785 and in reference to slavery. 75 years later, Lincoln decided justice in the United States had slept long enough.

Roughly 40 students and a few professors crowded into the Pohndorff Room in Scribner Library on Thursday night, for a lecture presented by Dr. Danilo Petranovich of Yale University. The lecture dismantled the popular belief that President Abraham Lincoln's actions to end slavery during the Civil War were not driven by political necessity, but were influenced by a high-minded moral stance on the issue.

Petranovich took an unconventional stance on the deeper reasons behind the actions of the 16th president of the United States, stating that Lincoln's primary driving force during his pre-presidency was to change the way Americans viewed slavery. Citing speeches in which Lincoln denounced slavery as a "monstrous injustice" and "vast moral evil," Petranovich sought to demonstrate that Lincoln was a leader in a moral revolution within the Union.

"Lincoln sought not to widen the anti-slavery notion but to deepen it," Petranovich said. He began by examining Lincoln's pre-presidency politics. Unlike abolitionists who attempted to convince Americans that slavery is immoral, Lincoln used rhetoric that would appeal to Americans who already had abolitionist ideas.

"It was not enough for Lincoln that the anti-slavery north hate and oppose slavery, but that they hate and oppose for the right reasons - this was important," Petranovich said.

"Lincoln was crafting a unionist message to change the minds of the northerners. Moralistic attacks were not likely to win over the southern slave owners, and Lincoln knew this." Referencing speeches from Lincoln's days in Congress, Petranovich argued that Lincoln alienated the north from the south as to create a situation in which he could initiate emancipation on his own terms. "Lincoln was crafting a unionist message to change the minds of the northerners. Moralistic attacks were not likely to win over the southern slave owners, and Lincoln knew this."

"[Lincoln] promoted morally radical and destructive public agitation," Dr. Petranovich said, "with little to promote the cause of peaceful emancipation.
This moral strategy was, of course, controversial in 1857, and involved the deliberate risk of civil war."

In Petranovich's closing remarks, he highlighted the fact that Lincoln was fully aware of the dichotomous nature of his oratory and that this was intentional. Lincoln demanded moral justice and abolition of slavery in the United States, and was willing to pit his enemies against one another to create a situation in which he might push his ideologies through the political system.

Petranovich attempted to demonstrate that Abraham Lincoln was a master politician who fought for his principles in subtle ways. In contrast to the traditional viewpoint that Lincoln emancipated the slaves for political or wartime purposes, Petranovich argued that Lincoln had a moral desire to free slaves, and pursued a one track path to alter the nation's views of slavery and ultimately complete his goal.

Dr. Petranovich is a lecturer at Yale University and Duke University. He received his Ph.D. from Yale, where he focused his studies on American national culture and Abraham Lincoln.  

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