Lincoln and the slaves

This week's briefing: Historians call Abraham Lincoln the Great Emancipator; what were his actual views of black Americans?

A black man has ascended to the White House 200 years after the birth of the president who ended slavery. History remembers Abraham Lincoln as the Great Emancipator, but what were his actual views of black Americans?

How did Lincoln feel about slavery?
He detested it. Abraham Lincoln considered the South’s peculiar institution, as it was known at the time, “a vast moral evil” and a “monstrous injustice.” As president, he made its “ultimate extinction” a goal of his Republican Party. “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong,” he wrote in 1864. “I cannot remember when I did not so think, and feel.” At the same time, Lincoln held many of the prejudices of his day. He enjoyed minstrel shows, told “darkie” jokes, and like many of his contemporaries would speak of “niggers.”

When did he first encounter slavery?
Probably while growing up in Kentucky. But some historians suspect that Lincoln first became incensed over slavery at age 19, when he witnessed a slave auction in New Orleans, in 1828. Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon, later said Lincoln was repulsed to see “a comely mulatto girl” being examined by buyers “who pinched her flesh and made her trot up and down the room like a horse, to show how she moved.” Lincoln reportedly vowed, “If I ever get a chance to hit that thing [slavery], I’ll hit it hard.”

What explains his passion?
On one level, Lincoln thought slavery a genuine offense against man and God. But he opposed slavery in more concrete terms, too, seeing it as the “theft” of one’s labor. He also felt that slavery interfered with the historic destiny of the United States. Slavery, Lincoln said, “deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world—enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites.”

Did Lincoln believe in racial equality?
Up to a point. “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,” he once said. But as a state legislator and U.S. congressman, Lincoln often failed to honor those words. In 1858, he insisted that he was 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.” Running for president in 1860, he opposed expanding slavery into the territories, but did not call for its abolition.

Why wasn’t he more forceful?
Because Lincoln was a canny politician. He knew that most white voters, including Northerners, would not easily embrace emancipation. So he distanced himself from the fiery cause of abolition. Instead, he couched his antislavery views in terms that the electorate would accept, arguing, for instance, that expanding slavery would deprive whites of jobs.

Did the war change his rhetoric?
Not initially. Lincoln feared that if he were perceived as going to war to free the slaves, he would alienate many Northerners who were fighting only to preserve the Union. He might also push the border states—slave states that hadn’t seceded, including Kentucky, Missouri, and Maryland—into the arms of the Confederacy. Hence, as late as August 1862, more than a year into the war, he declared: “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not either to save or destroy slavery.”

Why did he embrace emancipation?
For tactical reasons. As Union armies began occupying Confederate territory, thousands of slaves fled northward, depriving the Southern economy of badly needed manpower. Lincoln realized that formally freeing the slaves could encourage even more to run away, further sapping the Confederacy. So he quietly began planning for emancipation, waiting for an opportune moment to announce it. When the North prevailed in the Battle of Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862, Lincoln was emboldened to declare, “God has decided this question in favor of the slaves.” Five days later he signed the Emancipation Proclamation. In plain prose, it declared the freedom of all slaves in Confederate states that did not return to Union control by New Year’s Day 1863. It did not, however, free the 750,000 slaves in the border states and areas already under Union control.

Did he ever waver after that?
No. Despite intense pressure, Lincoln refused to rescind or modify the proclamation. If he were to do so, he said, “I should be damned in time and eternity.” If anything, his support for blacks intensified. He promoted the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery throughout the country. And just a few days before his assassination, he endorsed limited suffrage for black veterans and “very intelligent” black men who had been free before the war.

Was he truly the Great Emancipator?
Historians are mixed on that question. While many enshrine him as a color-blind savior, revisionists counter that he freed the slaves only reluctantly, and some scholars condemn him for his half-measures and racist ideas. The consensus is that Lincoln ended slavery as best he could, given the enormous difficulties at the time. “From a genuine abolition point of view, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent,” the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass declared in 1876. “But measuring him by the sentiment of his country—a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult—he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.”

Lincoln’s plan for ex-slaves
For much of his political career, Abraham Lincoln thought that the United States should resettle ex-slaves, not assimilate them. He had plenty of company. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Andrew Jackson, John Marshall, Henry Clay, and many other leaders of the early republic felt that once freed, slaves should be encouraged to colonize another country. In 1854, Lincoln specifically urged that blacks be sent “to Liberia—to their own native land.” Lincoln broached colonization many times, including in two State of the Union addresses. After decades of slavery, he argued, too much enmity had built up between the black and white races for them to live in peaceful freedom side by side. “A universal feeling, whether well or ill-founded,” Lincoln warned, “cannot be safely disregarded.” Eventually, however, he realized the plan was impractical and by late 1862 had abandoned it.


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