Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth president of the United States of America, opposed slavery; but it was not a simple issue to him. To Lincoln, holding the United States together was of paramount importance, and ending slavery or causing its extinction was second behind preventing secession.
To placate the truculent southerners and prevent their secession Lincoln said at his first Inaugural Address, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with slavery in the United States where it exits.” These words were carefully chosen though. Lincoln, did in fact, intend to prevent the spread of slavery into new territories, thereby strangling it. Southerners desperately wanted and needed to expand slavery into new territories because they were wearing out the land they were currently growing cotton on. This is because, to keep soil nutrients from depleting, the proper practice was to rotate which crop is planted each season, but cotton became so profitable that most southerners relied on it exclusively, leading the land to become exhausted.
In another statement, a letter to Horace Greeley, Lincoln said “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.” But again, he said that not because he didn’t care about ending slavery, but because holding the union together was his top priority. Notice that among the options Lincoln mentioned, allowing slavery to expand into new territories and gain new life was not one of them.
The worst you could say about Lincoln is that he valued maintaining the union most, and abolishing slavery was number two on his list of most important goals. Compare this to John C. Calhoun who, far from seeing slavery as bad at all, said slavery was a “positive good.” The vice president of the confederacy said that slavery was “its cornerstone [which] rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.
Expanding slavery became almost a fanatical desire for southerners. The president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis believed in invading new territories like Cuba in order to “increase the number of slaveholding constituencies.” His associate, Senator Albert Gallatin Brown said, “I want Tamaulipas, Poltosi, and one or two other Mexican States; I want them all for the same reason—for the planting and spreading of slavery.“
In other words, the southerners themselves too knew that restricting slavery to where it existed would spell the doom of the institution.
How do we know what Lincoln personally thought of slavery?
There are many examples of things Lincoln had said and done which demonstrate his consistent opposition to slavery.
- Lincoln had long supported free labor over slavery, saying that it “opens the way for all—gives hope to all, and energy, and progress, and improvement of condition to all.” Like many, he believed slavery was degrading both for slave-holder and slave alike, and that free labor was both more humane and more efficient. Specifically, he said slavery was “an unqualified evil to the negro, the white man, and the State.”
- In the summer of 1862, when Lincoln was grappling with what to do about slavery, he checked out a certain book from the Library of Congress, A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a followup to Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe containing documentation on which Stowe had based her damning depiction of slavery. Lincoln even personally met Stowe later that year. Needless to say, this is a far cry from Lincoln having an interest in pro-slavery literature.
- Addressing his opponent Stephen A. Douglass, Lincoln asserted that even the founding fathers who owned slaves acknowledged it as evil, and tolerated it only temporarily in practice. He said that is why they avoided the words “slave” or “slavery,” and instead used “persons held to service.” “Thus, the thing is hid away, in the constitution… just as an afflicted man hides away a wen or a cancer, which he dares not cut out at once, lest he bleed to death; with the promise, nevertheless, that the cutting may begin at the end of a given time.”
Lincoln continued and said it was unequivocally false “that there can be moral right in the enslaving of one man by another.” Historian Jon Meacham talks about Lincoln’s reference to the founding fathers and slavery.
The moment gave Lincoln the chance… to link Jefferson to the cause of freedom in an hour of danger for the Union. ‘ The principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society,’ Lincoln wrote. ‘And yet they are denied, and evaded, with no small show of success…. Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves; and, under a just God, cannot long retain it.’ The slave owner was thus being drafted to serve as an emblem of liberty not only for white men but for blacks. Such, in Lincoln’s view, was the core of the Jefferson vision….Jon Meacham
- The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 essentially repealed the Missouri Compromise and was to allow slavery into states where it was previously blocked from. Lincoln considered this act a “moral wrong and injustice” that put the institution of slavery “on the high road to extension and perpetuity.” Lincoln went on to call it a “covert real zeal for the spread of … the monstrous injustice of slavery.”
In 1854, Lincoln wrote about the logic behind his anti-slavery position:
If A. can prove, however conclusively, that he may, of right, enslave B. — why may not B. snatch the same argument, and prove equally, that he may enslave A?–
You say A. is white, and B. is black. It is color, then; the lighter, having the right to enslave the darker? Take care. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with a fairer skin than your own.
You do not mean color exactly?–You mean the whites are intellectually the superiors of the blacks, and, therefore have the right to enslave them? Take care again. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with an intellect superior to your own.
But, say you, it is a question of interest; and, if you can make it your interest, you have the right to enslave another. Very well. And if he can make it his interest, he has the right to enslave you.
As president, Lincoln filled his cabinet up with mostly people who had been known for fiercely opposing slavery. For example, Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Henry Seward was notorious for a speech against slavery; his Higher Law speech.” In it he said that the present crisis “embraces the fearful issue of whether the Union shall stand, and slavery, under the steady, peaceful action of moral, social, and political causes, be removed by gradual voluntary effort, and with compensation; or whether the Union shall be dissolved and civil war ensue, bringing on violent but complete and immediate emancipation,” that one way or another slavery must end because “you cannot roll back the tide of social progress.“
But didn’t Lincoln want to deport the slaves back to Africa or somewhere else?
Early on Lincoln believed that most white Americans were so hateful and prejudiced against African slaves that even if they were emancipated, their lives would be just as miserable because of the way whites would continue to treat them. Because of this, Lincoln briefly considered deporting the slaves. He quickly ruled that consideration out however, as impracticable.
It is no surprise Lincoln thought the hate of the whites would be so torturous even to emancipated blacks, after reading news articles complaining that you would be voting “cheek by jowl with a large ‘buck nigger‘” if they were emancipated.
Lincoln’s position on deportation can probably be explained best by a historian:
Old Abe did indeed advocate colonization in 1862… He believed that support for colonization was the best way to defuse much of the anti-emancipation sentiment that might otherwise sink the Republicans in the 1862 elections…
[Lincoln said] Slavery was “the greatest wrong inflicted on any people…” But even if slavery were abolished, racial differences and prejudices would remain. “Your race suffer very greatly, many of them, by living among us, while ours suffer from your presence.” Blacks had little chance to achieve equality in the United States. “There is an unwillingness on the part of our people, harsh as it may be, for you free colored people to remain among us… I cannot alter it if I would.” This fact, said Lincoln, made it necessary for black people to emigrate to another land where they would have better opportunities…
Most black spokesmen in the North ridiculed Lincoln’s proposal and denounced its author. “This is our country as much as it is yours,” a Philadelphia Negro told the president, “and we will not leave it. ” Frederick Douglass accused Lincoln of “contempt for negroes” and “canting hypocrisy…” Abolitionists and many radical Republicans continued to oppose colonization as racist and inhumane.
He had moved steadily leftward during the war, from [containing slavery but with] no emancipation to limited emancipation with colonization and then to universal emancipation with limited suffrage.
~ James McPherson, Battlecry of Freedom
But didn’t the Emancipation Proclamation only abolish slavery in the rebelling states?
That is correct, and not surprising. The last thing the North wanted to do was alienate allied states in the middle of the bloodiest conflict on American soil. Least of all, over an issue which could be more conclusively resolved after the war was virtually won; which they did. The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was passed in 1865, banning slavery. If northern leaders were only using the issue of slavery as a tool to win the Civil War, it makes no sense that they banned it after the war had already been virtually won.
But Lincoln said some pretty racist things during the Douglass debates
Yes he did. You can identify flaws about a historical character without casting an ultimate judgement on them. People act almost as if they have a soul that can spontaneously overcome the biological shortcomings in human neurochemistry and developmental environment. They think “if I was born back then I wouldn’t be like that.” Yes, you would be like that, you most likely would be. If feel historical characters can be more reasonably judged in proportion to the amount their developmental environment was identical to yours and by comparing them to their contemporaries, not comparing them directly to modern morals. People from the 1800s had an environment far more dissimilar than alike to any of us.
Lincoln was center-Left of the Overton window of his day, and he was a presidential candidate trying to placate potential voters to the right of him by saying that he wouldn’t actively oppose or attack what they believed regarding those points, in some cases suggesting he sympathized with them.
Most importantly, if we’re asking what Lincoln personally believed, his personal notes to himself are probably more reflective of that than a politically crafted speech he made specifically to appease the more racist people of his constituency whose votes he felt he could not win without. The aforementioned 1854 note he wrote to himself well before his debates with Stephen A. Douglass are probably more indicative of his personal beliefs, especially considering what actions he put into practice before all was said and done.
Additionally, his actions matter. Actions such as meeting the writer of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and consulting those books to help decide how to approach the topic of slavery. Actions like approving voicing public support for the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery just after being elected a second time.
The South was for liberty? Nope
I mean, this is already obvious considering that they wanted to continue owning other human beings as chattel. But in addition to that, they had no problem silencing freedom of speech by banning anti slavery books like Hinton Rowan Helper’s The Impending Crisis of the South, or Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
They didn’t even really care about state’s rights. Proof of this can be seen in the 1860 election, where there were two Democrats running against Lincoln and his “black Republicans,” Stephen A. Douglas, and John C. Breckinridge. The main difference between the two was that Douglas supported popular sovereignty—the principle that it should be left up to individual states to vote whether they wanted slavery. Breckinridge on the other hand wanted a federal slave code that forced all states to allow slavery. If the South was just interested in state’s rights they would have voted for Douglas, but they didn’t, they almost universally voted for Breckinridge and slave authoritarianism. Makes you wonder why people who call themselves “libertarians” so often mythologize the South.
No, Lincoln wasn’t a staunch abolitionist, but he did oppose slavery and he saw it as a heinous institution that needed to end. As a pragmatist, he sought to end slavery in a way which he though would prevent the US from being torn apart by secessionists. In the end, even restricting slavery to where it existed was unacceptable to the South, and they seceded anyway. Thus, one of the grossest misrepresentations you could make is to claim that Lincoln didn’t oppose slavery.