Lincoln and Slavery
Though he was only nationally prominent for less than a decade, more books and scholarly articles have been written
about Abraham Lincoln than about any other historical figure except, perhaps, Jesus Christ. Overwhelmingly these
writings have lauded aspects of Lincoln’s greatness. Every minute aspect of his life, from his lawyer days, to the Lincoln-
Douglas debates, and, especially, his four-year presidency have been mined exhaustively.
The insatiable Lincolniana market has prompted a few purported scholars to write diatribes intended to debunk
Lincoln in his entirety. Lincoln Unmasked: What You’re Not Supposed to Know About Dishonest Abe is a recent
example. More serious critical analysis focuses on Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War (over
15,000 citizens were at least temporarily jailed in violation of their constitutional rights) and on his complex and, at
times, pragmatic approach towards slavery.
Much of this hindsight analysis of Lincoln’s attitudes and actions towards slavery has occurred since the high tide of
the Civil Rights movement. Lincoln’s political debates with Senator Stephen Douglas during the 1858 Illinois senatorial
campaign and his 1860 presidential campaign, in which he was endeavoring to keep a divided nation from splintering,
provide a treasure trove of Lincoln slavery source materials. Lincoln’s presidential pragmatism towards ‘the slave issue,’
during a Civil War in which his overriding objective was to reunite seceding states within the Union , is rich material for
those who seek to prove that Lincoln was wobbly on slavery.
Frequently, when historians research the lives of great men, they uncover aspects that cause them to exclaim “Oh
no!” This certainly is true with Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt. In identifying Lincoln’s evolving views on
slavery, on occasion I had the same reaction. In part this reflects a contemporary assessment of prevailing moods of an
earlier period. Political expediency often is a significant factor. Great men have the capacity to learn from and rethink
their earlier views. The true measure of greatness is in the final reckoning. You will find aspects of all these elements in
experiencing how Lincoln dealt with slavery at different stages of his political life.
I wish briefly to examine with you highlights of how Lincoln addressed ‘the slave issue’ during the years immediately
before the country split asunder in civil war, then during his presidency. The Civil War obliged Lincoln to struggle with
twin pragmatic imperatives: keeping the border slave states of Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri within the
Union and preventing British and French recognition of the ‘rebel insurgency.’ As Lincoln phrased it: ‘I would like to
have God on my side, but I must have the border states.”
In the deification of Abraham Lincoln, some writers ignore that he was intensely political from an early age. Lincoln’s
passion for reading more than offset his scanty formal education. He was a cautious, pragmatic, and, often, a highly
ambitious politician. He honed his verbal skills during hundreds of courtroom appearances. On occasion his humor and
homespun examples enabled him to win cases where his evidence was weak.
Lincoln’s nature was to avoid direct confrontation whenever possible. He once described his role, in dealing with
difficult situations, as ‘balancing two pumpkins on my shoulders.’ When possible, he sought a middle road. One
exception was when he publicly opposed the United States war against Mexico. Another exception was when he
unequivocally rejected the 1854 Kansas Nebraska Act which, in his opinion, would provide an opportunity for slavery to
be established in any new American state. He also rejected, in well-parsed words, the U. S. Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred
Scott decision, which included the observation that, under the Constitution, a Negro was not an American citizen.
Until the early 1850s Lincoln had little knowledge of slavery. His few public comments reflected a lack of serious
personal study of the complexities of the slavery issue. This was revealed in his 1852 eulogy for Senator Henry Clay of
whom he was a great admirer. He agreed with Clay’s opposition to slavery, his recognition that it could not be “at once”
eradicated, without producing a greater evil, and his luke-warm favoring of the transport of African Americans back to
As the Whig Party was breaking up and a nascent Republican Party was being created, Lincoln made his first major
speech on slavery in Peoria on October 16, 1854. He expressed hate for the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. He
deplored that the existence of slavery caused the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity. He dismissed the
freeing of slaves and sending them to “Liberia—to their own native land” [in fact, African slaves came from many areas
of West Africa] as impractical. He concluded with “What next? Free them, and make them politically and socially our
equals? My own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white
people will not.”
The following year Lincoln, in a letter to his friend Joshua Speed, expressed his dislike for slavery. He acknowledged
that, under the Constitution, Mr. Speed had a right to own slaves. Lincoln concluded that “I do oppose the extension of
slavery, because my judgment and feelings so prompt me.” The possible extension of slavery galvanized Lincoln into
seriously addressing the ‘slavery issue’ for the first time. The trigger had been the Kansas Nebraska Act of 1854 that,
with the support of Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, threatened to shatter the Compromise of 1850 in which the
extension of slavery to new territories appeared to be severely restricted.
Abolitionist groups were pressing for the abolition of slavery. Lincoln viewed this as a short-term impracticality.
Constitutionally it would impossible to accomplish. Politically it was likely to split the South from the North.
Pragmatically, Lincoln sought a ‘middle road’ that, over time, might resolve an issue that had the potential to destroy the
This he described in his 1858 acceptance speech as the Republican candidate for the U. S. Senate. Employing the
Biblical phrase A house divided against itself cannot stand, candidate Lincoln continued:
I believe that government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be
dissolved; I do not expect the house to fall; but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all
the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest
in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction, or its advocates will push it forward till it shall become alike
lawful in all the States, old as well as new, North as well as South.
This is marvelous political rhetoric, but what specifically does it mean? The clear implication is that, were slavery
prohibited from expanding into new American states, ultimately slavery would wither as an institution in the South.
Southerners at that time expressed fear that the prohibition of slavery in new territories could eventually provide a
political impetus to curb, then ultimate eliminate, slavery where it then existed. In practical terms, this seemed highly
unlikely to occur for decades or even generations. What it provided Lincoln was a platform on which he could debate
Senator Douglas, who proposed ‘popular sovereignty’ in new territories.
The Lincoln-Douglas debates accorded Lincoln national attention. Senator Douglas was the leading candidate for the
1860 Democratic presidential nomination. Seven debates were scheduled throughout Illinois. Prior to these debates,
Lincoln stated: “As I would not be a slave, I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever
differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.” Such a platitude would not survive a withering
Douglas cross examination. Instead, Lincoln had to craft a series of arguments that would garner him votes in the
northern parts of Illinois, which tended to oppose slavery, as well in southern Illinois, with its pro-slavery sympathies.
Lincoln’s diverse messages reflected that ‘latitude affected attitude.’ What would resound well with a northern Illinois
audience would play badly in southern Illinois.
In the second debate, Douglas attacked Lincoln for his ‘house divided’ position, claiming that this made him an
abolitionist who would promote racial equality. Lincoln responded:
I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races….There is a physical
difference between the two, which, in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of
perfect equality; and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a difference, I, as well as Judge Douglas, am
in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position….But there is no reason in the world why the Negro is
not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence—the right to life, liberty, and the
pursuit of happiness.
Read today these seem strange words from a person soon to be called The Great Emancipator. To what degree do
these words express Lincoln’s personal beliefs and to what extent are they crafted for political expediency? No one has
the definitive answer. I choose to surmise that Lincoln, when politically pressed on the issue of ‘racial equality,’ chose
not to provide Douglas an opening that could be exploited. Here, and elsewhere, Lincoln did declare that Negroes had
equal rights under the Declaration of Independence as well as a right to earn a living. He also continually pressed
Douglas to agree with him that slavery was ‘morally wrong.’
Although Republicans, in part because of Lincoln’s debates, garnered more Illinois statewide votes than the
Democrats, because of the 1850 legislative reapportionment Douglas was returned to the U. S. Senate. Lincoln was
considered a dark horse candidate for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination. He set out on a speaking tour in the
East to expand his visibility. His February 27, 1860 speech at Cooper Union in New York City greatly enhanced his
presidential candidacy. He spoke forcefully and carefully, with the clear intention of presenting himself as a moderate
alternative to abolitionist frontrunner William Seward. Regarding slavery he played his card cautiously:
Thinking [slavery] right as they [Southerners] do, they are not to blame for desiring its full recognition, as being right;
but, thinking it wrong, as we do, can we yield to them? Can we cast our votes with their view, and against our own?...Let
us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.
At the Chicago Republican presidential convention Lincoln was nominated on the third ballot. The party platform
called for an end to slavery in the territories, but upheld slavery in the South. In a four-way 1860 presidential race
Lincoln won 40% of the popular vote and nearly 60% of the Electoral College vote. He carried the North, the Middle
West, and the Far West, while losing all of the southern states. By the time Lincoln assumed office on March 4, 1861,
seven of the Deep South states had seceded from the Union.
In his inaugural address Lincoln declared that I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution
of slavery in the states where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so….One
section of our country believes slavery is right, and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought
not be extended. This is the only substantial dispute.
The April 12th Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter touched off the Civil War. Almost immediately four more
Upper South states joined the Confederacy. Lincoln launched desperate initiatives to retain the four border slave states,
which, if lost to the Confederacy, would virtually assure the secession’s success. From the outset Lincoln sought to
sustain the legal fiction that the war was an “insurrection” of individuals in the southern states. At times he called it a
‘rebellion,’ staunchly refusing to acknowledge that any of the southern states had the constitutional right to secede
from the Union. This led to awkward ‘two-pumpkins’ situations where the Union was blockading itself, at the same time
that Washington told foreign countries that a state of belligerency did not exist. It also required President Lincoln to pay
lip service to the Constitution when dealing with the southern secessionists.
The Union defeat at the first battle of Bull Run sobered Washington into realizing that the Union was in for a long and
bloody war. It also prompted Congress to pass an almost unanimous resolution declaring: that the war is not waged…for
any purpose of conquest or subjugation, nor purpose of overthrowing…established institutions [meaning slavery]…but to
defend…the Constitution and to preserve the Union. This reaffirmed Lincoln’s inaugural pledge not to interfere with
slavery within the states.
From the outset of the Civil War the status of slaves was a prickly thorn for Lincoln. In his inaugural address Lincoln
pledged adherence to the constitutional provision that No person held to service or labor in one state, under the laws
thereof, escaping into another, shall in consequence of any law or regulation therein be discharged from such service or
labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due. This was spelled out with
specific details in the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Clearly President Lincoln was constitutionally required to return to the
South any fugitive slaves who fled across Union lines.
Initially several area commanders sought to ignore this law. Ultimately President Lincoln endorsed a subterfuge where
by escaping slaves were designated ‘contraband’ and, thus, not subject to return under the Fugitive Slave Act. As the
war progressed, increasing thousands of slaves fled to the North or were liberated by Union armies operating below the
Mason-Dixon Line. From the outset abolitionists demanded that fugitive slaves be granted their freedom. President
Lincoln spent months seeking some satisfactory accommodation of this political and constitutional Pandora’s Box.
Gradually the large numbers of fleeing slaves and the prospect of a prolonged war that required ever-increasing military
manpower led him reluctantly to agree to the recruitment of African Americans, both free and former slaves, into the
Union Army and Navy.
This was not a smoothly managed initiative. Some white officers failed to act with professional propriety. For many
months, despite official promises, African-American recruits were paid at a rate significantly below that offered to their
white comrades. President Lincoln was obliged to react severely against southern failure to recognize African-American
soldiers as prisoners of war. Later General Grant suspended an ongoing Union-Confederacy prisoner exchange program
because of the mistreatment accorded African-American prisoners. By war’s end, about 275,000 African Americans had
served in the Union military.
President Lincoln, as the war dragged on, was extremely concerned that England and France might formally recognize
the Confederate ‘belligerency,’ then break the Union blockade that was severely curtailing the South’s ability to import
foreign military supplies and to export their cotton crop. A possible ace in Lincoln’s hand was the issue of slavery. Great
Britain had abolished slavery in the 1830s. Though some members of the British aristocracy were equivocal on the slave
issue, important segments of the British population agreed that slavery was morally wrong. Lincoln sought a way to
trump southern diplomatic initiatives with Britain and France by playing his anti-slavery card.
He pondered how the vital slave border states might be accommodated on this. Moreover, he was aware of racist
sentiments in much of the North and was uncertain as to how residents and soldiers in some of the more southern of
the northern states might react to an abolitionist initiative. Lincoln floated the idea of compensating slave holders in the
border states. The most detailed discussions were held with Delaware, the smallest of the slave-holding border states.
These discussions proved fruitless.
The publication of President Lincoln’s August, 1862 response to a letter from Horace Greeley, the Radical Republican
editor of the New York Tribune, provoked a firestorm reaction from abolitionists and from Radical Republicans in
Congress. In it Lincoln stated:
My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save
the Union without freeing any slaves, I would do it; and if I could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would
also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I
forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I
am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause
Lincoln, the master politician, quietly absorbed the vitriolic press attacks for his ‘equivocation’ on the slavery issue.
What Lincoln chose not to reveal was that, the previous month, he had presented to his cabinet a draft Emancipation
Proclamation. This document was carefully crafted around the constitutional constraint that President Lincoln had no
legal right to free slaves. (Lincoln assumed the right to free slaves who had already escaped to the Union side.) It would
not free any slaves of the border states or slaves in any part of a southern state already under Union control. It declared
the freedom of all slaves in any state of the Confederate States of America that did not return to Union control by
January 1, 1863.
Lincoln had wrestled with the knotty issues of emancipation for some months. Finally, in July, 1862, he told Secretary
of State Seward and Navy Secretary Sumner Welles that emancipation was a “military necessity, absolutely essential to
the preservation of the Union. We must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued.” Lincoln brushed aside questions of
constitutionality. On July 22nd Lincoln informed his cabinet of his intention to issue a ‘proclamation of freedom.’ One
cabinet member dissented, stating that this edict would cost the Republicans control of Congress in the fall elections.
The other cabinet members assented, with the suggestion that issuance await a Union military victory. Following the
battle of Antietam, the Emancipation Proclamation was published on September 22nd. A January 1, 1863 addition
named the specific states where it applied.
President Lincoln and others were concerned that the Emancipation Proclamation could be seen as a temporary war
measure. He strongly supported Congress’s approval of the Thirteenth Amendment:
Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime where of the party shall have
been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
Section 2. Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
President Lincoln was proud that Illinois was the first state to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment. The amendment was
adopted on December 6, 1865.
In his last public address, on April 11, 1865, Lincoln stated that It is also unsatisfactory to some that the elective
franchise is not given to the colored man. I would myself prefer that it were now conferred on the very intelligent, and on
those who serve our cause as soldiers. Three days later President Lincoln was assassinated.
Historians rank two individuals as the greatest American Civil Rights presidents: Lyndon Johnson and Abraham
Lincoln. Johnson, in his early years, seemed a most improbable candidate for this accolade. Even during his vice
presidency, who could have imagined that this southerner would conclude a joint session of Congress with We shall
overcome? Similarly who could have imagined that the Lincoln of the Lincoln-Douglas debates would, a few years later,
become The Great Emancipator.
Lincoln set the stage for Johnson a century later. If the South had successfully seceded and the slaves had not be
freed, there would have been no Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 1965. I believe that Lincoln and Johnson deserve to share
the title of greatest American Civil Rights president. Personally I consider Lincoln to be our greatest American president.
Adjunct History Professor
Raritan Valley Community College
February 12, 2009