I am watching the 2012 film "Lincoln" and there was a character Alexander Coffroth. Doing some research on him, it is quite vague whether or not he supported or didn't support slavery. If he did support it, on what instances and what did he do, and if he did not same thing?

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    For those interested, here is a transcript of Coffroth's June 14, 1864, speech to the House of Representatives on the issue of the 13th Amendment. it's a rambling 5+ page mess, which suggests to me that he's dissembling - but that's just my humble opinion. Commented May 8, 2021 at 8:53
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    @rs.29: Coffroth's own words, from the link above: "It proposes to set free four million of ignorant and debased negroes to swarm the country with pestilential effect. it is to carry out the design of the bad and wicked men, whose fanatical teaching has produced the terrible bloodshed and destruction of life through which we are now passing." That's not a moderate position - either today or then. Commented May 8, 2021 at 13:20
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    @PieterGeerkens In simpler terms, idea that Whites and Blacks were equal was not popular even among abolitionists. They simply rejected institution of slavery .
    – rs.29
    Commented May 8, 2021 at 20:49
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    @NeMo Actually, it shows that what is considered to be moral changes over time and place. In other words, we should not try to judge a historical person by our own fickle moral standards. Job of the history is simply to describe circumstances and processes in certain period and place.
    – rs.29
    Commented May 9, 2021 at 6:16
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    One of the things that fascinates me about history is that it is so easy to see issues in retrospect as black/white, based on whether they align with the (now known) outcome. But that erases all the confusion that contemporaries would have experienced, and makes it very difficult to understand "moderates" - people searching for an outcome that isn't yet known (to them). Good question to illuminate this problem
    – MCW
    Commented Jun 10, 2021 at 11:59

1 Answer 1


Coffroth was a moderate

When we talk about American society during and immediately before Civil War, we could roughly divide it into three groups. First were abolitionists, centered among Republicans, especially Radical Republicans and they demanded immediate end of institution of slavery in the Union. It must be said that even more moderate Republicans, like Abraham Lincoln, essentially admitted that house divided cannot stand, i.e. that US cannot continue as a Union with some states and territories allowing slavery and some don't . Since it was practically impossible to introduce slavery into more populous Northern States, this essentially argued that slavery must be abolished. Second group were pro-slavery secessionist. They were reverse side of coin to abolitionists, centered mostly among Southern Democrats. They also agreed that US cannot continue as a Union with with such a difference in legal and generally social system, therefore they concluded that Southern States should secede from the Union.

Third group, most interesting to us since Alexander Hamilton Coffroth belonged to it, is often omitted from historical narrative, but was perhaps most numerous in US population and sadly least organized. These were the people who were not so much interested in slavery, wanted to preserve Union, and above other things wanted to prevent war and to stop it as soon as possible when already started. To understand them, it is enough to simply mention that at least 620 000 soldiers died in US civil war (850 000 total according to some newer research) , roughly 4% of US male population. It was most bloody war in US history, especially in the South, with corresponding economic devastation.

Anyway, Coffroth was Northern Democrat from Pennsylvania. He personally didn't own slaves and didn't lobby for allowing slavery in his home state, but did support right of the Southern States to regulate this question according to their own interests and will. As such, on the eve of the war, he supported Crittenden amendments to US constitution, which would permanently divide US to free and slave states and ban Congress from interfering into institution of slavery. When this failed, and war started, his political work mostly revolved around finding compromise with Southerns and those slave states that remained into Union like Kentucky. Coffroth was mostly concerned about the property rights, and demanded that slave holders be compensated for freed slaves (something that British did when they abolished slavery) .Nevertheless, he did vote for Thirteenth Amendment that abolished slavery.

For his views about the race, he certainly did not view Blacks as equal to Whites

It proposes to set free four million of ignorant and debased negroes to swarm the country with pestilential effect. it is to carry out the design of the bad and wicked men, whose fanatical teaching has produced the terrible bloodshed and destruction of life through which we are now passing.

However, this was not something unusual and uncommon in those days. Even Abraham Lincoln, abolitionist himself, agreed that Blacks are not equal to Whites :

I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied every thing. I do not understand that because I do not want a negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife.

As we can see, idea that all human races are equal was not popular and would be in fact object of ridicule in those days. Even those that wanted to free slaves like Lincoln did not agree that Whites and Blacks are equal. This came much latter, let's say from 1960's . In fact, even after the war most of Americans were quite content that Black slaves were freed, but didn't want them in place of power, despite Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendment that gave full citizen rights to Black freedmen. This later led to Compromise of 1877 and situation in the South that did not much change until Civil Rights movement in already mentioned 1960's.

  • The idea of equality between races was not as ridiculous as you present. In 1804 William Wilberforce wrote "The African Negroes, not inferior to the natives of other countries, under similar circumstances, in intellectual or moral qualities" and before the ravages of the slave trade the Africans were "in general good men, naturally gentle and benevolent," and were "more polite and civilized than most people in the world, not excepting the European."
    – Dave
    Commented Jun 10, 2021 at 15:13
  • @Dave Yes it was. Note "not inferior to the natives of other countries" where natives denotes colonized non-European White population like for example American Indians or for that matter Indians (Hindu) in India. Wilberforce and other abolitionist merely campaigned on idea that Blacks (Negroes) should be set free like other such population, not they should be considered equal to White man, and that institution of slavery is evil. Similar views were of course held by Lincoln and others around him.
    – rs.29
    Commented Jun 11, 2021 at 7:47

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