Was Abraham Lincoln the Great Emancipator?

On September 22 1862, Abraham Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, in which he declared that as of January 1, 1863, all slaves in states in rebellion against the Union "shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free." To commemorate the occasion, we invite you to consider some surprising facts about Lincoln's views on slavery, and the complex process that led him to issue the document he later called "the central act of my administration, and the greatest event of the 19th century."

1. Lincoln wasn’t an abolitionist.

Lincoln did believe that slavery was morally wrong, but there was one big problem: It was sanctioned by the highest law in the land, the Constitution. The nation’s founding fathers, who also struggled with how to address slavery, did not explicitly write the word “slavery” in the Constitution, but they did include key clauses protecting the institution, including a fugitive slave clause and the three-fifths clause, which allowed Southern states to count slaves for the purposes of representation in the federal government. In a three-hour speech in Peoria, Illinois, in the fall of 1854, Lincoln presented more clearly than ever his moral, legal and economic opposition to slavery—and then admitted he didn’t know exactly what should be done about it within the current political system.

Abolitionists, by contrast, knew exactly what should be done about it: Slavery should be immediately abolished, and freed slaves should be incorporated as equal members of society. They didn’t care about working within the existing political system, or under the Constitution, which they saw as unjustly protecting slavery and slave owners. Leading abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison called the Constitution “a covenant with death and an agreement with Hell,” and went so far as to burn a copy at a Massachusetts rally in 1854. Though Lincoln saw himself as working alongside the abolitionists on behalf of a common anti-slavery cause, he did not count himself among them. Only with emancipation, and with his support of the eventual 13th Amendment, would Lincoln finally win over the most committed abolitionists.

2. Lincoln didn’t believe blacks should have the same rights as whites.

Though Lincoln argued that the founding fathers’ phrase “All men are created equal” applied to blacks and whites alike, this did not mean he thought they should have the same social and political rights. His views became clear during an 1858 series of debates with his opponent in the Illinois race for U.S. Senate, Stephen Douglas, who had accused him of supporting “negro equality.” In their fourth debate, at Charleston, Illinois, on September 18, 1858, Lincoln made his position clear. “I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races,” he began, going on to say that he opposed blacks having the right to vote, to serve on juries, to hold office and to intermarry with whites. What he did believe was that, like all men, blacks had the right to improve their condition in society and to enjoy the fruits of their labor. In this way they were equal to white men, and for this reason slavery was inherently unjust.

Like his views on emancipation, Lincoln’s position on social and political equality for African-Americans would evolve over the course of his presidency. In the last speech of his life, delivered on April 11, 1865, he argued for limited black suffrage, saying that any black man who had served the Union during the Civil War should have the right to vote.

3. Lincoln thought colonization could resolve the issue of slavery.

For much of his career, Lincoln believed that colonization—or the idea that a majority of the African-American population should leave the United States and settle in Africa or Central America—was the best way to confront the problem of slavery. His two great political heroes, Henry Clay and Thomas Jefferson, had both favored colonization; both were slave owners who took issue with aspects of slavery but saw no way that blacks and whites could live together peaceably. Lincoln first publicly advocated for colonization in 1852, and in 1854 said that his first instinct would be “to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia” (the African state founded by the American Colonization Society in 1821).

Nearly a decade later, even as he edited the draft of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in August of 1862, Lincoln hosted a delegation of freed slaves at the White House in the hopes of getting their support on a plan for colonization in Central America. Given the “differences” between the two races and the hostile attitudes of whites towards blacks, Lincoln argued, it would be “better for us both, therefore, to be separated.” Lincoln’s support of colonization provoked great anger among black leaders and abolitionists, who argued that African-Americans were as much natives of the country as whites, and thus deserved the same rights. After he issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln never again publicly mentioned colonization, and a mention of it in an earlier draft was deleted by the time the final proclamation was issued in January 1863.

4. Emancipation was a military policy.

As much as he hated the institution of slavery, Lincoln didn’t see the Civil War as a struggle to free the nation’s 4 million slaves from bondage. Emancipation, when it came, would have to be gradual, and the important thing to do was to prevent the Southern rebellion from severing the Union permanently in two. But as the Civil War entered its second summer in 1862, thousands of slaves had fled Southern plantations to Union lines, and the federal government didn’t have a clear policy on how to deal with them. Emancipation, Lincoln saw, would further undermine the Confederacy while providing the Union with a new source of manpower to crush the rebellion.

In July 1862 the president presented his draft of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet. Secretary of State William Seward urged him to wait until things were going better for the Union on the field of battle, or emancipation might look like the last gasp of a nation on the brink of defeat. Lincoln agreed and returned to edit the draft over the summer. On September 17 the bloody Battle of Antietam gave Lincoln the opportunity he needed. He issued the preliminary proclamation to his cabinet on September 22, and it was published the following day. As a cheering crowd gathered at the White House, Lincoln addressed them from a balcony: “I can only trust in God I have made no mistake … It is now for the country and the world to pass judgment on it.”

5. The Emancipation Proclamation didn’t actually free all of the slaves.

Since Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation as a military measure, it didn’t apply to border slave states like Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri, all of which had remained loyal to the Union. Lincoln also exempted selected areas of the Confederacy that had already come under Union control in hopes of gaining the loyalty of whites in those states. In practice, then, the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t immediately free a single slave, as the only places it applied were places where the federal government had no control, the Southern states currently fighting against the Union.

Despite its limitations, Lincoln’s proclamation marked a crucial turning point in the evolution of Lincoln’s views of slavery, as well as a turning point in the Civil War itself. By war’s end, some 200,000 black men would serve in the Union Army and Navy, striking a mortal blow against the institution of slavery and paving the way for its eventual abolition by the 13th Amendment.

Lincoln stated, "As Old Line Whig. I have always hated it, but I have always been quiet about it until this new era of the introduction of the Nebraska Bill began. I always believed that everybody was against it, and that it was in course of ultimate extinction.

I have said a hundred times, and I have now no inclination to take it back, that I believe there is no right, and ought to be no inclination in the people of the free States to enter into the slave States, and interfere with the question of slavery at all."

Almost to the end of his life, Lincoln maintained that the Constitution provided no authority for the federal government to abolish slavery in the states where it had long existed.

But, in the middle and late 1850's, as Lincoln shifted from the Whigs to the newly formed Republican Party, slavery became much more central to Lincoln and the years being “quiet about it” ended.

Republicans were also not abolitionists, but the party coalesced around the idea that, although slavery could not be ended in any fixed or short time frame, it could be set on a path toward “ultimate extinction.” And that was Lincoln’s position.

There were several measures that could combine to plow that path and Lincoln favored all of them. He favored gradual, voluntary, compensated emancipation of slaves tied to a plan for colonization.

“Voluntary” meant that individual slave owners could voluntarily free their slaves or, more importantly, individual slave states could choose to participate in a plan for ending slavery within its borders.

“Compensated” meant that public funds could be offered to the slave owners of such a state in payment for the loss of their slaves. Even in the middle of the Civil War, President Lincoln conspired to get Delaware, a slave state north of the Mason-Dixon Line with relatively few slaves that had not seceded, to accept such a plan. However, the Delaware Legislature defeated it.

“Colonization” referred to the assumption that most of the freed slaves would not remain in the United States but would agree to be resettled in Africa or several sites that were under consideration for such purpose in the Caribbean or in Latin America. (The African nation of Liberia was created under this plan in the 1820's.) Lincoln was definitely interested in and enthusiastic about this idea, and somewhat deluded about how many freed slaves would want to emigrate. In his 1861 message to Congress, he asked for funds to finance colonization efforts.

Even late in the Civil War, he held a meeting with African-American leaders to urge them to get behind the colonization idea (and even suggested that since it was the presence of blacks in the United States that had caused the Civil War, they were under some obligation to cooperate). To Lincoln’s credit, unlike some who favored mandatory colonization, Lincoln always insisted that it be voluntary.

Anyway, as you know, during the Civil War, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. He hadn’t changed his position about the underlying constitutional issue, but he justified the proclamation as a war measure, necessary to weaken the Confederacy’s ability to continue the war.

The proclamation didn’t end slavery because it didn’t affect the border slave states that weren’t in rebellion, and it had no immediate effect in most of the deep South because, at least on the day it was issued, the slaves were in territory still controlled by the Confederacy. Such a proclamation would have been political suicide earlier, but by 1863, the North had lost sympathy for the property rights of slave owners in the rebel states.  

As the war was ending, Lincoln spent considerable energy and political capital in the last weeks of his life pushing the 13th Amendment through Congress. That was perhaps his greatest contribution to the end of slavery.

But in 1857, when Lincoln was a mere former one-term congressman and unsuccessful candidate for the Senate, the Dred Scott ruling in some sense catapulted Lincoln toward his Great Emancipator destiny.

In the past, when I read about the Dred Scott case, I was mostly impressed by the staggering racism of it. Chief Justice Roger Taney and his allies on the court could have chosen narrower, technical ways to deny Scott’s bid for freedom. The “once free, always free” doctrine on which Scott’s legal team was relying with the argument that a slave who had been taken by his owner into a free state had become a permanently free man seemed strange and pretty aggressive at first hearing.

But Taney had gone rhetorically wild. He ruled that had Dred and Harriet Scott not been emancipated by their multi-year sojourn into the free state of Illinois or the federally administered territory (that would later become the state of Minnesota). The Scott's lacked standing to file a federal lawsuit because, as slaves, they were not citizens of the United States, Taney ruled. But, he made clear, even free blacks in free states, even in free states that decided to treat them as citizens of the state, could never be citizens of the United States. As Taney read the Constitution (which, actually, makes no reference to race nor any explicit reference to slavery), the Framers viewed all blacks as “being of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race… and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

In 1857, abolitionism was still a radical movement and the idea of full equality for blacks was a fringe idea. Lincoln went to great lengths to explicitly deny that he harbored any such notion. But Taney’s racist rant also had a radicalizing effect. Taney didn’t just deny Dred and Harriet Scott their freedom, he denied that the federal government had the authority to prohibit slavery in the territories it ruled directly. And he rejected the idea that free states could bestow freedom on those within their own borders who had come in as slaves.