Why Did Lincoln Try to Buy a Slave? (One of Lincoln’s More Troublesome Legacies)

Posted on Categories Legacies of Lincoln

The Legacies of Lincoln Conference held on October 1 and 2, 2009 was, as Dean Joseph Kearney reported earlier, a terrifically successful program by any measure – attendance, audience response, and, most certainly, engaging presentations.  Jointly sponsored by the Law School and the History Department, the Conference featured lectures and comments by influential historians and lawyers which will appear later next year in the Marquette Law Review, yet another measure of the Conference’s success.  This is the first in a series of blog posts by Dean Kearney and me that will highlight each of these submissions, together with links to the audio of the Conference itself.

We begin most appropriately with the draft article of the Klement Lecture delivered by the distinguished historian Allen C. Guelzo of Gettysburg College, entitled “Colonel Utley’s Emancipation; or, How Abraham Lincoln Offered to Pay For a Slave.”  The provocative title reveals the subtlety of Guelzo’s analysis and historical judgment. 

On one level we have the apparently simple yet shocking story of Lincoln’s offer to buy a slave from a Kentucky slaveholder in late 1862.  The slave, Adam, had fled to Union troops in Kentucky to escape further brutality at the hands of an “Irishman” who had rented Adam from his legal owner, a Judge Robertson.  When Robertson discovered Adam’s presence among Union troops from Wisconsin, he demanded Adam’s immediate return, a request denied by Colonel Utley, their fearsomely self-righteous commander.  It was after this confrontation, colorfully described by Guelzo, that Lincoln offered to buy Adam from Robertson for not more than $500.  Robertson tersely rejected Lincoln’s offer thereby triggering litigation over the rights to Adam (more properly his lost services) that meandered into the early 1870s. 

Guelzo uses Adam’s story to illuminate two larger themes.  The first is whether Lincoln was a “racist,” as alleged by some historians.  For Guelzo, this incident creates “the most bizarre and most ironic moments in the long see-saw of Lincoln and race.”  The second theme relates to Lincoln’s struggles to bring about emancipation while successfully waging civil war.  The battle over Adam waged by Colonel Utley and Robertson raised for Lincoln a “’devilish vexed question,’” one that he hesitated to answer.  He privately acknowledged that the “time for petting and cosseting slaveholders” had passed. Yet what so vexed Lincoln was the legal authority for emancipation, which rested on the shaky scaffolding of the president’s war powers.  Lincoln offered to buy Adam in the forlorn hope of keeping the case out of the federal court system, which might well rule against Adam’s emancipation in a loyal border state like Kentucky.  In sum, Lincoln’s intent was not to buy a slave as such, but to “move the bomb of the Utley case a safe distance from the federal court system, where someday it could be defused without risk of casualties.”

We invite this blog’s readers not only to read the draft of Guelzo’s article, but to listen to him deliver this paper at the Klement Lecture.  Guelzo’s reading is at once arresting and engaging, bringing to life colorful characters like Utley (“a Methodist” and “perfectionist”), the slave Adam (“’through rents in his clothing could be seen the scars of brutal beating’”), and Robertson the slaveholder (and lawyer, judge, and law professor).

Join the Conversation

We reserve the right not to publish comments based on such concerns as redundancy, incivility, untimeliness, poor writing, etc. All comments must include the first and last name of the author in the NAME field and a valid e-mail address.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.