Abraham Lincoln is remembered today as “The Great Emancipator.” Like many of his day,
Lincoln’s own views on slavery were complex and even somewhat incompatible with our knowledge of the 16th president. This is an exploration of Honest Abe’s changing position on the fate of slavery in the United States.
In the 1840s, Lincoln’s own thoughts on slavery were mixed. He thought it immoral and was raised in a family without any slaves. As a member of the Whig, soon to be Republican Party, Lincoln believed that the extension of slavery westward would lessen the integrity of the nation and would only further divide North and South. By confining slavery to the states where it already existed, Lincoln and many others hoped it would die out eventually, or if it did expand westward, that it would grow so unprofitable that people would abandon it completely.
By 1858, Lincoln was running for an Illinois senate seat. The race would make two of the nation’s most skilled orators argue over the issue of slavery in seven events later to be known as the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. Stephen Douglas believed in the expansion of slavery and the right to popular sovereignty in the U.S. territories to decide whether they would allow slavery or not. Lincoln believed in the elimination of slavery, but his position was not for total equality of the races. In Charleston, Illinois on September 18th, 1858, Lincoln did indeed state, “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.”
Not the same caliber as the Gettysburg Address to say the least. However, Lincoln six days later in Quincy, Illinois said that “in the right to eat the bread without the leave of anybody else which his own hand earns, he [the black man] is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every other man,” echoing the sentiment of the Declaration of Independence. This conflict within Lincoln between being purely anti slavery and being an abolitionist would persist even into his presidency.
When Lincoln was elected president in 1860, he was still a firm believer in limiting the expansion of slavery but didn’t believe in taking away any of the slaves in the southern states where it was legally protected by the Constitution. Many radical Republicans disliked this moderate stance taken by their president. Democrats and southerners saw Lincoln as a dangerous abolitionist figure regardless of his promise to not interfere with their institution. The President-Elect opened his inaugural speech by addressing the white elephant in the room directly: “Apprehension seems to exist among the people of the Southern States that by the accession of a Republican Administration their property and their peace and personal security are to be endangered. There has never been any reasonable cause for such apprehension. Indeed, the most ample evidence to the contrary has all the while existed and been open to their inspection. It is found in nearly all the published speeches of him who now addresses you. I do but quote from one of those speeches when I declare 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.’” By the time Lincoln delivered this address on March 4th, 1861, seven southern states had already seceded from the Union. Four more would follow.
Two months later, Major General Benjamin Butler decreed all slaves used for the purposes of warfare against the United States would be captured as contraband of war. Lincoln didn’t immediately approve of this decision because he thought it went beyond the scope of the powers enumerated in the Constitution and feared that it would hurt the Northern war effort rather than help. Congress followed up on the decision by passing the first Confiscation Act in August of 1861 which nullified any southern slave owner’s claim to protection under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and authorized northern forces to capture any property (slaves) used directly for the war effort.
Three months after this episode, Lincoln was forced further when another general, John C. Fremont, declared martial law in Missouri in order to free all slaves in the border state. Lincoln asked Fremont to repeal, or at the very least change, his orders so as not to exceed federal laws regarding emancipation. Fremont refused and was swiftly removed from command. It was an unpopular move to many Republicans, but Lincoln defended his action by saying Fremont had acted outside of military law and necessity.
The matter simply was Lincoln’s own position still clashed with his radical abolitionist advisors and generals. He didn’t want the border states (Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri) to react to any subordinate proclamations of abolition by exiting the Union, too. He also didn’t want any federal soldiers deserting over the issue (a fear generated by an episode in Kentucky). Lincoln maintained that the honest effort was to preserve the United States as one whole nation whether it included slavery or not. If slavery were to be abolished, it would have to be gradual and slave owners would have to be compensated financially for it to work.
On April 9th, 1862, Lincoln was yet again forced to respond to a subordinate action involving the emancipation of slaves. This time General David Hunter had declared all slaves in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida free without the authorization of Lincoln or Congress. Ten days after Hunter’s action, Lincoln publicly issued an order nullifying the edict, just as he had with Fremont, and urged the border states to embrace his own idea of compensated emancipation.
Increasing pressure from his party and cabinet built up and the war seemed to go from bad to worse. Few military victories had been enjoyed by the north. Public support seemed to be draining. By mid-1862, another Confiscation Act had been passed and Lincoln himself was beginning to shift on his position. He thought that the initial cause of preserving the Union was waning. Maybe by superimposing a secondary cause of the war would bring new enthusiasm. He began tossing around an idea of an Emancipation Proclamation that would in fact free all slaves forever and abolish the institution that had haunted debates since the very founding of the nation. Lincoln’s new war strategy would be starving the South of its economic base therefore making it unable to sustain the bloody insurrection. He had already successfully blockaded southern ports and prevented most European intervention. Now all that had to happen was to take away what sustained the economic livelihood of the South. Lincoln decided it was time to emancipate the slaves.
While most of his cabinet members agreed it was time to abolish slavery, even a supporter like Secretary of State William Seward believed that only after a military victory should such a proclamation be issued to avoid the appearance of a desperate and exhausted federal government. Lincoln agreed and waited for such a victory to occur. The closest they were going to get was the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest single day in American history that was, in the end, a military draw.
From the first drafting of the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln now embraced the abolitionist cause to secure complete and total victory for the Union. Through the completion of his first term and his successful reelection in 1864, Lincoln found new reasons to continue the fight and finally decide the fate of slavery in the United States.
By: Will Sullivan