Dean of Academic Affairs and Professor at The Institute of World Politics, Dr. Mackubin Thomas Owens, gave a lecture on Thursday, February 11th on President Abraham Lincoln in celebration of Lincoln’s Birthday (February 12).
Dr. Owens’ lecture, “Lincoln, Prudence, and the Presidency: Saving the Union and Ending Slavery” touched upon many points made in his 2009 FPRI monograph, “Abraham Lincoln: Leadership in Wartime.” Dr. Owens first pointed out that Lincoln was condemned by the radical Republicans for not abolishing slavery expeditiously, yet in 1860, Lincoln had no actual power to end slavery on his own. Unlike presidents today, President Lincoln did not use executive overreach; he attempted to work within the political, economic and constitutional realities of his time–the highest kind of prudence.
Additionally, Dr. Owens highlighted the fact that despite defending the practice of slavery, the Confederacy functioned as a republic in a way similar to the Union. In other words, concern on the part of white southerners for a limited government ran just as deep as with individuals in the North. Moreover, while the issue of slavery had political salience in the South, in economic terms, surprisingly few southerners intensively or even directly participated in the plantation economy: only five percent of southerners owned twenty or more slaves.
Slavery was, in this sense, less a moral concern in the South and more one of political import. Reflecting this reality, and according to Dr. Owens, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation should be construed as a strategic gambit geared towards depriving the South of labor and constricting its economic bandwidth.
That is not to say, however, that Lincoln was agnostic on the issue of slavery. More to the point, as Dr. Owens points out, nor were our founding fathers; they never sought to philosophically defend slavery. Instead, what sustained the institution was the force of social custom and economic incentive.
President Lincoln set the precedent for leadership in times of war, and to this day, successive presidents look to follow in Lincoln’s footsteps in times of crisis. This has birthed an ongoing debate as to who has followed in his footsteps and who has not.
Dr. Owens is Senior Fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia, and editor of Orbis, FPRI’s quarterly journal. Dr. Owens was also Editor-in-Chief of the quarterly defense journal Strategic Review and Adjunct Professor of International Relations at Boston. He has taught at the University of Rhode Island, the University of Dallas, Catholic University, Ashland University of Ohio, and the Marine Corps’ School of Advanced Warfighting (SAW).