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Traveling with Lincoln’s Train of Thought – Destination: Emancipation

By Wendy Swanson

Washington, D.C.

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Participants on the Juneteenth walking tour visit the Emancipation Monument

In honor of Juneteenth, Lincoln Group member and tour guide Craig Howell developed a walking tour that explored the evolution of Lincoln’s thoughts on slavery, his changing ideas that eventually led to emancipation. This then was more than walking tour of Lincoln sites on Capitol Hill. Rather, the sites visited provided a backdrop for the discussion of the journey that led Lincoln to emancipation.

As expected of Craig, his tour was packed with historical information along with a mixture of fun, humor and interesting asides! On a warm summer day, our guide also arranged stopping points to coincide with shady spots, a tour feature much appreciated by the participants.

First stop: the Library of Congress. Craig took the tour members on a journey back in time – to 1847, to be exact. That year was when Lincoln reported for duty as congressman from Illinois. At the time not the Library but a row of boarding houses stood at this location. The new congressman lived in what was known as the Abolition House. Lincoln differed from other residents of the house, and not only because he was not an abolitionist himself, although he was against slavery. He brought his family along, an unusual move for the time. As Craig described the situation, Mary Lincoln had the task of raising two sons in “what amounted to a glorified frat house.”

The tour then moved down the street a bit – across from the Capitol and in sight of the Supreme Court Building. Of course, the latter was another structure not located there in Lincoln’s time – the justices met in the basement of the Capitol. While in Congress, Lincoln did introduce a bill on DC emancipation – which went nowhere. The “congressional powers that be” were not in favor of the bill, one that would have provided gradual emancipation as well as compensation. As for Lincoln himself, his primary focus was not on slavery issues but on those involving infrastructure. Craig reminded the tour that Lincoln’s claim to fame while in Congress actually was as an opponent of the Mexican War. Accusing President Polk of looking for an excuse for war, he demanded that the president “identify the spot where blood was shed.” (Was the first blood actually shed on American soil?)

Craig advised that Lincoln was not excited about events such as the Compromise of 1850 and the Wilmot Proviso. Yet, slavery issues continued and were further ignited by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney’s decision in the Dred Scott case (1857) which opened up slavery in the territories. In Illinois the following year, senatorial candidates - challenger Abraham Lincoln and Senator Stephen Douglas - participated in seven debates with the major issue being just that, extension of slavery into the territories.

As our tour moved to its next stop, we also jumped ahead in time - to the Lincoln presidency. Craig emphasized that 1862 was a turning point in Lincoln’s thinking about slavery. The war was not going well – the Peninsula campaign was a disaster for the Union. Lincoln saw that the war would not be a short one; greater fighting strength would be needed. Moreover, soldiers fighting for the North had marched into battle in Confederate territory and saw first-hand slavery and its impact.

Lincoln’s thoughts had moved in the direction of abolition of slavery - an action seen as a necessary step to win the war. Craig mentioned some of the signs. Lincoln overruled emancipation efforts by Generals John C. Frémont and David Hunter, emphasizing that this is “my job.” In a meeting with Black leaders, he admitted that we (Whites) have done you a terrible wrong.” Lincoln discussed the issue of emancipation with his cabinet but was advised by Seward to wait for a Union victory. Meanwhile, Lincoln’s letter to Horace Greeley in August 1862 served to test public opinion on the issue of emancipation as a military necessity.

The Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was issued following Union success at Antietam.

Much of Craig’s discussion on this thought evolution took place across the street from an H Street residence, the first Washington home of Frederick Douglass, and shown in the picture to the left.

Here too he described the Lincoln-Douglass relationship and Douglass himself, an international celebrity. (As an aside, he mentioned that the house itself had made history. Now renovated to include another dwelling, the site sold at the highest price for a single residence in the city’s history. Wonder what Mr. Douglass would think of that!)

The tour then proceeded to its final destination - Lincoln Park and the Emancipation Memorial, the subject of so much controversy in recent years. Here we heard the story of Charlotte Scott, the formerly enslaved woman, who spearheaded the funding effort for the statue and of the words spoken at the dedication ceremony for the memorial.

Once again Craig had provided Lincoln Group members with a tour appropriate to the occasion, this time being Juneteenth. Craig did a masterful job of telling how Lincoln arrived at emancipation, examining many of the pivotal moments of that process through the sites we visited on Capitol Hill.

As for the participants, most retired at tour’s end to a nearby location for nourishment, rehydration and the opportunity to compare notes on the tour – and to discuss possible ideas for future group adventures of this nature. Good history and good fellowship – what better way to commemorate Juneteenth and remember Lincoln’s journey to emancipation!

As for the story of the Emancipation Memorial, more on that will be told later this year. At our September meeting, we will relive that the history of the memorial through the narration of Charlotte Scott herself, as portrayed by Marcia Cole. Be sure to join us in September for what promises to be a special event indeed. Information on the dinner will be available soon on the “Events” page of this website.

(Photo credit: Wendy Swanson)


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