President Abraham Lincoln
Slavery, Emancipation, Black
Lincoln on Emancipation of the Black Race
Many of Abraham Lincoln's public anti-slavery sentiments were shown in the
seven Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 between Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, his opponent who defeated him in the Senate race.
Douglas criticized Lincoln as being inconsistent, saying he altered his message and position on slavery and on the political
rights of freed blacks in order to appeal to the audience before him, as northern Illinois was more hostile to slavery than
Lincoln wrote to Joshua Speed in 1855:
How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of
degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring
that "all men are created equal." We now practically read it "all men are created equal, except negroes." When the Know-Nothings
get control, it will read "all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics." When it comes to this
I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance,
where despotism can be take pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy [sic].
The Republican Party was committed to restricting the growth of slavery,
and its victory in the election of 1860 was the trigger for secession acts by Southern states. The debate before 1860 was
mainly focused on the Western territories, especially Kansas and the popular sovereignty controversy.
Though he thought it was essentially a reaffirmation of terms already in
the Constitution, Lincoln was a driving force in 1861 for the Corwin Amendment. (It was passed by Congress and two states,
but was abandoned once the Civil War began.) It would have explicitly prohibited congressional interference with slavery in
states where it already existed. The Corwin Amendment was a late attempt at reconciliation, but it also was a measure of reassurance
to the slave-holding border states that the federal government was not intent on taking away their powers.
At the beginning of the Civil War, Lincoln prohibited his generals from
freeing slaves even in captured territories. On August 30, 1861, Major General John C. Frémont, the commander of the Union
Army in St. Louis, proclaimed that all slaves owned by Confederates in Missouri were free. Lincoln, however, opposed
allowing military leaders take executive actions that were not authorized by the government, and realized that such actions
could induce slaveowners in border states to oppose the Union or even start supporting the enemy. Lincoln demanded Frémont
modify his order and free only slaves owned by Missourians actively working for the South. When Frémont refused, he was replaced
by the conservative General Henry Wager Halleck.
Radical Republicans such as William P. Fessenden (Maine) and Charles
Sumner (Massachusetts) supported Frémont. Fessenden described Lincoln's action as "a weak and unjustifiable concession to
the Union men of the border states" and Sumner writing in a letter to Lincoln how sad it was "to have the power of a god and
not use it godlike."
The situation was repeated in May 1862, when Union General David Hunter
began enlisting black soldiers in the occupied district under his control. Hunter, subsequently, issued a statement that all
slaves owned by Confederates in Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina were free. Despite the pleas of Treasury Secretary Salmon
P. Chase, Lincoln ordered Hunter to disband the 1st South Carolina (Colored) Regiment and to retract his proclamation.
At all times Lincoln insisted that he controlled the issue—only he had the war powers.
Lincoln made it clear that the North was fighting the war to preserve the
Union. On August 22, 1862, just a few weeks before signing the Emancipation Proclamation and after he had already discussed
a draft of it with his cabinet in July, he wrote a letter in response to an editorial by Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune
which had urged complete abolition:
I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution.
The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be "the Union as it was." If there be those who
would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who
would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. 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 slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save 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. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they
shall appear to be true views. I have here stated my purpose according
to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could
Just one month after writing this letter, Lincoln issued his first Emancipation
Proclamation, which announced that at the beginning of 1863, he would use his war powers to free all slaves in states still
in rebellion (as they came under Union control).
Also revealing was his letter a year later to James C. Conkling of August
26, 1863, which included the following excerpt:
There was more than a year and a half of trial to suppress the rebellion
before the proclamation issued, the last one hundred days of which passed under an explicit notice that it was coming, unless
averted by those in revolt, returning to their allegiance. The war has certainly progressed as favorably for us, since the
issue of proclamation as before. I know, as fully as one can know the opinions of others, that some of the commanders of our
armies in the field who have given us our most important successes believe the emancipation policy and the use of the colored
troops constitute the heaviest blow yet dealt to the Rebellion, and that at least one of these important successes could not
have been achieved when it was but for the aid of black soldiers. Among the commanders holding these views are some who have
never had any affinity with what is called abolitionism or with the Republican party policies but who held them purely as
military opinions. I submit these opinions as being entitled to some weight against the objections often urged that emancipation
and arming the blacks are unwise as military measures and were not adopted as such in good faith. You
say you will not fight to free negroes. Some of them seem willing to fight for you; but, no matter. Fight you, then exclusively
to save the Union. I issued the proclamation on purpose to aid you in saving the Union. Whenever you shall have conquered
all resistance to the Union, if I shall urge you to continue fighting, it will be an apt time, then, for you to declare you
will not fight to free negroes. I thought that in your struggle for the
Union, to whatever extent the negroes should cease helping the enemy, to that extent it weakened the enemy in his resistance
to you. Do you think differently? I thought that whatever negroes can be got to do as soldiers, leaves just so much less for
white soldiers to do, in saving the Union. Does it appear otherwise to you? But negroes, like other people, act upon motives.
Why should they do any thing for us, if we will do nothing for them? If they stake their lives for us, they must be prompted
by the strongest motive—even the promise of freedom. And the promise being made, must be kept.
Lincoln addresses the issue of his consistency (or lack thereof) between his
earlier position and his later position of emancipation in an 1864 letter to Albert G. Hodges. In that letter, Lincoln states
his ethical opposition to slavery, that he did not think he had the constitutional power to abolish it everywhere initially,
and that emancipation became [absolutely] necessary for the preservation of the Union.
Lincoln on Colonization of Blacks
Since the 1840s, Lincoln had been an advocate of the American Colonization
Society* program of colonizing blacks in Liberia, Africa. Lincoln, in a speech in Peoria, Illinois, on October 16, 1854, transcribed
after the fact by Lincoln himself, exclaims the immense difficulties of such a task are an obstacle to finding an
easy way to quickly end slavery.
My first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia,—to
their own native land. But a moment’s reflection would convince me that whatever of high hope (as I think there is)
there may be in this, in the long run, its sudden execution is impossible.
Lincoln mentioned colonization favorably in his first Emancipation Proclamation,
and continued to support efforts at colonization throughout his presidency. As late as February 1865, Congress
was debating funding to ship blacks to Africa (Congression Record Feb 1865).
*Liberia was established by the American Colonization Society as a
colony for former American slaves. The motto of Liberia is "the love of liberty brought us here," its official language is
English, and the name Liberia means "liberty." Sierra Leone was created by Great Britain for the same
Lincoln on Citizenship and Voting Rights for Blacks
stated that Negroes had the rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" in the first of the Lincoln-Douglas
debates. Publicly, Lincoln said he was not advocating Negro suffrage in his speech in Columbus, Ohio, on September
This might have been a strategy speech used to gain voters, as Douglas had
accused Lincoln of favoring Negroes too much as well.
In his second term as president, on April 11, 1865, Lincoln gave a speech
supporting a form of limited suffrage extended to what Lincoln described as the more "intelligent" blacks and those blacks
who had rendered special services to the nation. In analyzing Lincoln's position historian Eugene H. Berwanger notes:
During his presidency, Lincoln took a reasoned course which helped the
federal government both destroy slavery and advance the cause of black suffrage. For a man who had denied both reforms four
years earlier, Lincoln's change in attitude was rapid and decisive. He was both open-minded and perceptive to the needs of
his nation in a postwar era. Once committed to a principle, Lincoln moved toward it with steady, determined progress.
(Sources listed at bottom of page.)
Recommended Reading: Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln's White Dream,
by Lerone Bennett. Description: Beginning with the argument that the Emancipation Proclamation did not actually free African
American slaves, this dissenting view of Lincoln's greatness surveys the president's policies, speeches, and private utterances
and concludes that he had little real interest in abolition. Pointing to Lincoln's support for the fugitive slave laws, his
friendship with slave-owning senator Henry Clay, and conversations in which he entertained the idea of deporting slaves in
order to create an all-white nation, the book, concludes that the president was a racist at heart—and that the tragedies
of Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era were the legacy of his shallow moral vision. Continued below...
About the Author: Lerone Bennett Jr. is the executive editor emeritus of Ebony magazine and the author of
10 books, including Before the Mayflower, Great Moments in Black History, Pioneers in Protest, The Shaping of Black America,
and What Manner of Man, a biography of Martin Luther King. He lives in Chicago.
Recommended Reading: Lincoln on Race and Slavery [ILLUSTRATED]
(Hardcover), by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Editor, Introduction), Donald Yacovone (Editor). Description: Generations of Americans
have debated the meaning of Abraham Lincoln's views on race and slavery. He issued the Emancipation Proclamation, authorized
the use of black troops during the Civil War, supported a constitutional amendment to outlaw slavery, and eventually advocated
giving the vote to black veterans and to what he referred to as "very intelligent negroes." Continued below...
But he also harbored grave doubts about the intellectual capacity of African
Americans, publicly used the n-word until at least 1862, enjoyed "darky" jokes and black-faced minstrel shows, and long favored
permanent racial segregation and the voluntary "colonization" of freed slaves in Africa, the Caribbean, or South America.
In this book--the first complete collection of Lincoln's important writings on both race and slavery--readers can explore
these contradictions through Lincoln's own words. Acclaimed Harvard scholar and documentary filmmaker Henry Louis Gates, Jr.,
presents the full range of Lincoln's views, gathered from his private letters, speeches, official documents, and even race
jokes, arranged chronologically from the late 1830s to the 1860s. Complete with definitive texts, rich historical notes, and
Gates's original introduction, this book charts the progress of a war within Lincoln himself. We witness his struggles with
conflicting aims and ideas--a hatred of slavery and a belief in the political equality of all men, but also anti-black prejudices
and a determination to preserve the Union even at the cost of preserving slavery. We also watch the evolution of his racial
views, especially in reaction to the heroic fighting of black Union troops. At turns inspiring and disturbing, Lincoln on
Race and Slavery is indispensable for understanding what Lincoln's views meant for his generation--and what they mean for
Recommended Reading: Big Enough to Be Inconsistent:
Abraham Lincoln Confronts Slavery and Race (The W. E. B. Du Bois Lectures). Description: “Cruel,
merciful; peace-loving, a fighter; despising Negroes and letting them fight and vote; protecting slavery and freeing slaves.”
Abraham Lincoln was, W. E. B. Du Bois declared, “big enough to be inconsistent.” Big enough, indeed, for every
generation to have its own Lincoln—unifier or emancipator, egalitarian or racist. In an effort to reconcile these views,
and to offer a more complex and nuanced account of a figure so central to American history, this book focuses on the most
controversial aspect of Lincoln’s thought and politics—his attitudes and actions regarding slavery and race. Continued
Drawing attention to the limitations of Lincoln’s judgment and
policies without denying his magnitude, the book provides the most comprehensive and even-handed account available of Lincoln’s
contradictory treatment of black Americans in matters of slavery in the South and basic civil rights in the North. George
Fredrickson shows how Lincoln’s antislavery convictions, however genuine and strong, were held in check by an equally
strong commitment to the rights of the states and the limitations of federal power. He explores how Lincoln’s beliefs
about racial equality in civil rights, stirred and strengthened by the African American contribution to the northern war effort,
were countered by his conservative constitutional philosophy, which left this matter to the states. The Lincoln who emerges
from these pages is far more comprehensible and credible in his inconsistencies, and in the abiding beliefs and evolving principles
from which they arose. Deeply principled but nonetheless flawed, all-too-human yet undeniably heroic, he is a Lincoln for
Recommended Reading: Lincoln Unmasked: What You're Not Supposed
to Know About Dishonest Abe. Description: While many
view our 16th president as the nation’s greatest president and hero, Tom Dilorenzo, The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War, through his scholarly research, exposes the many unconstitutional decisions of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln
Unmasked, a best-seller, reveals that ‘other side’ – the inglorious character – of the nation’s
greatest tyrant and totalitarian. Continued below...
Recommended Reading: The Real Lincoln:
A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War. Description:
It hardly seems possible that there is more to say about someone who has been subjected to such minute scrutiny in thousands
of books and articles. Yet, Thomas J. DiLorenzo’s The Real Lincoln manages to raise fresh and morally probing
questions, challenging the image of the martyred 16th president that has been fashioned carefully in marble and bronze, sentimentalism
and myth. In doing so, DiLorenzo does not follow the lead of M. E. Bradford or other Southern agrarians. He writes primarily
not as a defender of the Old South and its institutions, culture, and traditions, but as a libertarian enemy of the Leviathan
state. Continued below...
DiLorenzo holds Lincoln and his war responsible for the triumph of "big
government" and the birth of the ubiquitous, suffocating modern U.S. state. He seeks to replace the nation’s memory
of Lincoln as the “Great Emancipator” with the record of Lincoln as the “Great Centralizer.”
Recommended Reading: Lincoln and Douglas:
The Debates that Defined America (Simon & Schuster). Description: In 1858, Abraham Lincoln was known
as a successful Illinois lawyer who had achieved some prominence in state politics as a leader in the new Republican Party.
Two years later, he was elected president and was on his way to becoming the greatest chief executive in American history.
What carried this one-term congressman from obscurity to fame was the campaign he mounted for the United States Senate against
the country's most formidable politician, Stephen A. Douglas, in the summer and fall of 1858. Lincoln challenged Douglas directly
in one of his greatest speeches -- "A house divided against itself cannot stand" -- and confronted Douglas on the questions
of slavery and the inviolability of the Union in seven fierce debates. As this brilliant narrative by the prize-winning Lincoln
scholar Allen Guelzo dramatizes, Lincoln would emerge a predominant national figure, the leader of his party, the man who
would bear the burden of the national confrontation. Continued below...
Of course, the great issue between Lincoln and Douglas was slavery. Douglas was the champion of "popular sovereignty,"
of letting states and territories decide for themselves whether to legalize slavery. Lincoln
drew a moral line, arguing that slavery was a violation both of natural law and of the principles expressed in the Declaration
of Independence. No majority could ever make slavery right, he argued. Lincoln lost that Senate
race to Douglas, though he came close to toppling the "Little Giant," whom almost everyone
thought was unbeatable. Guelzo's Lincoln and Douglas brings alive their debates and this whole year of campaigns and underscores
their centrality in the greatest conflict in American history. The encounters between Lincoln and Douglas engage a key question
in American political life: What is democracy's purpose? Is it to satisfy the desires of the majority? Or is it to achieve
a just and moral public order? These were the real questions in 1858 that led to the Civil War. They remain questions for
Sources: Herman Belz;
Abraham Lincoln, Constitutionalism, and Equal Rights in the Civil War Era 1998; David Donald, Lincoln (1995); William E. Gienapp;
Abraham Lincoln and Civil War America: A Biography (2002); Guelzo, Allen C.: Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President. 1999, Defending
Emancipation: Abraham Lincoln and the Conkling Letter, 1863. 2002, "How Abe Lincoln Lost the Black Vote: Lincoln and Emancipation
in the African American Mind". Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association. 15 September 2008;
William C. Harris. With Charity for All: Lincoln and the Restoration of the Union 1997; Howard Jones; Abraham Lincoln and
a New Birth of Freedom: The Union and Slavery in the Diplomacy of the Civil War 1999; William K. Klingaman. Final Freedom:
The Civil War, Abraham Lincoln and the Road to Emancipation, 1861-1865 (2001)* James M. McPherson; Abraham Lincoln and the
Second American Revolution 1992; James A. Rawley, Abraham Lincoln and a Nation Worth Fighting For (Harlan-Davidson, 1996);
Michael Vorenberg. Final Freedom: The Civil War, the Abolition of Slavery, and the Thirteenth Amendment (2001); National Archives;
Library of Congress; National Park Service; Allen, Richard, "Freedom's prophet", NYU Press, New York, 2008; Barton, Seth,
"Remarks on the colonization of the western coast of Africa", Cornell University Library, 1850; Boley, G.E. Saigbe, "Liberia:
The Rise and Fall of the First Republic", Macmillan Publishers, London, 1983; Burin, Eric. Slavery and the Peculiar Solution:
A History of the American Colonization Society. University Press of Florida, 2005; Cassell, Dr. C. Abayomi, "Liberia: History
of the First African Republic", Fountainhead Publishers Inc., New York, 1970; Egerton, Douglas R. Charles Fenton Mercer and
the Trial of National Conservatism. University Press of Mississippi, 1989; Jenkins, David, "Black Zion: The Return of Afro-Americans
and West Indians to Africa", Wildwood House, London, 1975; Johnson, Charles S., "Bitter Canaan: The Story of the Negro Republic",
Transaction Books, New Brunswick, NJ, 1987; Liebenow, J. Gus, "Liberia: The Evolution of Privilege", Cornell University Press,
Ithaca, NY, 1969; Miller, Floyd J., "The Search for a Black Nationality: Black Emigration and Colonization, 1787–1863",
University of Illinois Press, Urbana, Illinois, 1975; Thomas, Lamont D. Paul Cuffe: Black Entrepreneur and Pan-Africanist
(Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988); West, Richard, "Back to Africa", Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, Inc.,
New York, 1970; Yarema, Allan E., "American Colonization Society: an avenue to freedom?", University Press of America, 2006.