The Crooked Path to Abolition: Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery Constitution

The Crooked Path to Abolition: Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery Constitution

The long and turning path to the abolition of American slavery has often been attributed to the equivocations and inconsistencies of antislavery leaders, including Lincoln himself. But James Oakes’s brilliant history of Lincoln’s antislavery strategies reveals a striking consistency and commitment extending over many years. The linchpin of antislavery for Lincoln was the Constitution of the United States.


Lincoln adopted the antislavery view that the Constitution made freedom the rule in the United States, slavery the exception. Where federal power prevailed, so did freedom. Where state power prevailed, that state determined the status of slavery, and the federal government could not interfere. It would take state action to achieve the final abolition of American slavery. With this understanding, Lincoln and his antislavery allies used every tool available to undermine the institution. Wherever the Constitution empowered direct federal action—in the western territories, in the District of Columbia, over the slave trade—they intervened. As a congressman in 1849 Lincoln sponsored a bill to abolish slavery in Washington, DC. He reentered politics in 1854 to oppose what he considered the unconstitutional opening of the territories to slavery by the Kansas–Nebraska Act. He attempted to persuade states to abolish slavery by supporting gradual abolition with compensation for slaveholders and the colonization of free Blacks abroad.


President Lincoln took full advantage of the antislavery options opened by the Civil War. Enslaved people who escaped to Union lines were declared free. The Emancipation Proclamation, a military order of the president, undermined slavery across the South. It led to abolition by six slave states, which then joined the coalition to affect what Lincoln called the "King’s cure": state ratification of the constitutional amendment that in 1865 finally abolished slavery.

Title:The Crooked Path to Abolition: Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery Constitution
ISBN:9781324005858
Format Type:

    The Crooked Path to Abolition: Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery Constitution Reviews

  • Stacey

    Thank you to NetGalley for providing a copy of "The Crooked Path to Abolition" in exchange for an honest review. I am really interested in Abraham Lincoln and anything pertaining to his history. There...

  • Socraticgadfly

    This is good overall, but it loses a star on Lincoln and colonization. With Oakes, it's more a throwaway than a full-throttled claim like that of David S. Reynolds in "Abe-Abraham Lincoln and His Time...

  • Bob

    Summary: A historical account of how Abraham Lincoln, although not a traditional abolitionist, strongly supported and implemented the antislavery portions of the Constitution to pursue the end of slav...

  • Ernest Spoon

    A slim volume dense volume with ideas centered on the evolution of Abraham Lincoln's thoughts on ending slavery in the United States. Today it is fashionable to denigrate Lincoln as insufficiently abo...

  • N

    I got this book as an e-arc from the publisher.This was a fascinating book. I learned a lot. The tone changed pretty abruptly on page 186 to more personal and conversational, which was a much better t...

  • Zachary

    3.5Oakes discussion of whether the constitution was fundamentally a slavery or antislavery constitution was very interesting to me as a lawyer and historian, I think it is an important part of our cou...

  • Naim Peress

    This book was brilliant and enjoyable. Though the preface was overlong, Crooked Path gives an excellent explanation of the pro and anti-slavery views of the Constitution. Oakes clearly and intelligent...

  • Jenny Taylor

    Informative, yet dry and repetitive. Very little analysis. Oakes does not come into his own voice until the final chapter, which is too little, too late. An explanation in the acknowledgment that the ...

  • Susan Berchiolli

    interesting, illuminates lincoln's gradual awakening, not hiding his ambiguity...

  • Dan Cotter

    Interesting book about Lincoln and the Antislavery constitution. Decent read and thoughtful, only complaint being the timeline jumps a bit. ...