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Abraham Lincoln and slavery

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Abraham Lincoln's position on slavery in the United States is one of the most discussed aspects of his life. Lincoln often expressed moral opposition to slavery in public and private.[1] "If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong", he stated in a now-famous quote. "I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel."[2] However, the question of what to do about it and how to end it, given that it was so firmly embedded in the nation's constitutional framework and in the economy of much of the country, was complex and politically challenging.

As early as the 1850s, Lincoln was attacked as an abolitionist. But while many abolitionists emphasized the sinfulness of individual owners, Lincoln did not. Lincoln was married to Mary Todd Lincoln, the daughter of a slaveowner from Kentucky. While William Lloyd Garrison in The Liberator newspaper, and a small but growing group of abolitionists called for total, immediate abolition of slavery ("immediatism"), Lincoln instead focused on the goal of preventing the creation of new slave states and specifically blocking the expansion of slavery into the new Western territories. Lincoln's 1850s activism on that issue started in reaction to the 1854 Kansas–Nebraska Act, designed by his great rival, Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas. The Act allowed settlers to decide on slavery in their territories. Lincoln worried that the extension of slavery into new western lands could block free labor on free soil when rich slaveowners bought up all the best lands.

Lincoln, with partial compensation to owners, ended slavery in the District of Columbia in 1862; the abolitionist goal became possible after decades with the departure of the Southern members of Congress at the beginning of the Civil War. In 1861 and 1862, Lincoln tried unsuccessfully to get the loyal border states of Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri to do likewise. He repeatedly stated that his goal was the preservation of the Union, not the ending of slavery in those states in which it still existed, but throughout the war he encouraged states to abolish slavery. State abolition plans were adopted in Maryland, Missouri, West Virginia, Tennessee, Louisiana, and Arkansas before the end of the war.

In a highly significant departure, Lincoln used his role as commander-in-chief to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, effective January 1, 1863. Under the guise of a military measure, it made all slaves in Confederate areas forever free under US law as soon as the US Army reached them, which was completed by June 1865. On its first day, the proclamation freed tens of thousands of slaves. Week by week, as the Union army advanced, slaves were liberated. The last were freed in Texas on "Juneteenth" (June 19, 1865).[3] The abolition of slavery in two of the border states was effected only by the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, which Lincoln had vigorously promoted.

Early years

Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809, in Hardin County, Kentucky.[4] His family attended a Separate Baptists church, which had strict moral standards and opposed alcohol, dancing, and slavery.[5] The family moved north across the Ohio River to Indiana, where slavery was not allowed, and made a new start in then Perry, now Spencer County, Indiana. Lincoln later noted that this move was "partly on account of slavery" but mainly due to land title difficulties.[6] As a young man, he moved west to the free state of Illinois.


Legal and political

Lincoln, the leader most associated with the end of slavery in the United States, came to national prominence in the 1850s, following the advent of the Republican Party, whose official position was that freedom was "national," the natural condition of all areas under the direct sovereignty of the Constitution, whereas slavery was "exceptional" and sectional. Earlier, as a member of the Whig Party in the Illinois General Assembly, Lincoln issued a written protest of the Assembly's passage of a resolution stating that slavery should not be abolished in the District of Columbia.[7][8] In 1841, he won a court case (Bailey v. Cromwell), representing a black woman, Nance Legins-Costley, and her children who claimed she had already been freed and could not be sold as a slave.[9]

One of the earliest examples of Lincoln's written views on slavery comes from an 1845 letter Lincoln wrote to his friend Williamson Durley, concerning the annexation of Texas. In it, Lincoln said he took no position on annexation, but he added "It is possibly true, to some extent, that with annexation, some slaves may be sent to Texas and continued in slavery, that otherwise might have been liberated. To whatever extent this may be true, I think annexation an evil." He then explained "I hold it to be a paramount duty of us in the free states, due to the Union of the states, and perhaps to liberty itself (paradox though it may seem) to let the slavery of the other states alone; while, on the other hand, I hold it to be equally clear, that we should never knowingly lend ourselves directly or indirectly, to prevent that slavery from dying a natural death---to find new places for it to live in, when it can no longer exist in the old."[10] This view, that slavery would be most efficiently curtailed by preventing its expansion rather than direct abolition, would be consistent for Lincoln throughout his political career leading up to his election as President in 1860.

In 1845, he successfully defended Marvin Pond (People v. Pond)[11] for harboring the fugitive slave John Hauley. In 1847, he lost a case (Matson v. Rutherford) representing a slave owner (Robert Matson) claiming return of fugitive slaves. While a congressman from Illinois in 1846 to 1848, Lincoln supported the Wilmot Proviso, which, if it had been adopted, would have banned slavery in any U.S. territory won from Mexico.[12] Lincoln, in collaboration with abolitionist Congressman Joshua R. Giddings, wrote a bill to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia with compensation for the owners, enforcement to capture fugitive slaves, and a popular vote on the matter.[13][14] (Slavery in the District of Columbia was not ended until 1862, when Lincoln was president and there were no Southern senators.)

After leaving Congress in 1849 Lincoln largely ignored politics to concentrate on his law practice. He was drawn back by the firestorm over the Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854, which reversed a longstanding compromise and allowed territories to decide for themselves whether they would allow slavery. Lincoln was morally opposed to slavery and politically opposed to any expansion of it. At issue was extension into the western territories.[1] On October 16, 1854, in his "Peoria Speech", Lincoln declared his opposition to slavery, which he repeated in his route to presidency.[15] Speaking in his Kentucky accent, with a very powerful voice,[16] he said the Kansas Act had a "declared indifference, but as I must think, a covert real zeal for the spread of slavery. I cannot but hate it. I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world..."[17]

In 1857, the United States Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford appalled Lincoln. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney in the decision wrote that blacks were not citizens and derived no rights from the Constitution. While its author hoped that Dred Scott would end all disputes over slavery, the decision sparked further outrage in the North.[18] Lincoln denounced it as the product of a conspiracy to support the Slave Power.[19] He argued the decision was at variance with the Declaration of Independence; he said that while the founding fathers did not believe all men equal in every respect, they believed all men were equal “in certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness".[20]

Impressed by the strength of anti-black racism, especially in his home states of Indiana, Illinois, and Kentucky, Lincoln concluded because whites would never allow blacks to live in America as equals, they would be better off migrating voluntarily to a colony outside the United States, ideally in Central America or the Caribbean.[21] He had little faith in the program of the American Colonization Society, whose goal was to colonize American blacks in Liberia, on the West African coast. In a speech at Peoria, Illinois[22] (transcribed after the fact by Lincoln himself),[21]:b Lincoln pointed out the immense difficulties of such a task are an obstacle to finding an easy way to quickly end slavery.[21]:c [23] In a debate in August 1858, he said:[24][25]

If all earthly power were given to me [...] 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.

According to historian Paul Escott, Lincoln thus favored a system of gradual emancipation that would allow for controlled management of free Negroes.[25]

Letter to Joshua Speed

In 1855, Lincoln wrote to Joshua Speed, a personal friend and slave owner in Kentucky:[26]

You know I dislike slavery; and you fully admit the abstract wrong of it... I also acknowledge your rights and my obligations, under the constitution, in regard to your slaves. I confess I hate to see the poor creatures hunted down, and caught, and carried back to their stripes, and unrewarded toils; but I bite my lip and keep quiet. In 1841 you and I had together a tedious low-water trip, on a Steam Boat from Louisville to St. Louis. You may remember, as I well do, that from Louisville to the mouth of the Ohio, there were, on board, ten or a dozen slaves, shackled together with irons. That sight was a continued torment to me; and I see something like it every time I touch the Ohio, or any other slave-border. It is hardly fair for you to assume, that I have no interest in a thing which has, and continually exercises, the power of making me miserable. You ought rather to appreciate how much the great body of the Northern people do crucify their feelings, in order to maintain their loyalty to the Constitution and the Union. … 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 taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.

Lincoln–Douglas debates, 1858

Many of Lincoln's public anti-slavery sentiments were presented in the seven Lincoln–Douglas debates of 1858 against his opponent, Stephen Douglas, during Lincoln's unsuccessful campaign for a seat in the U.S. Senate (which was decided by the Illinois legislature). Douglas advocated "popular sovereignty" and self-government, which would give the citizens of a territory the right to decide if slavery would be legal there.[27] 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 southern Illinois.

Lincoln 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's both in Columbus, Ohio on September 16, 1859.[21]:d and in Charleston, Illinois on September 18, 1858 stating on the latter date:[28]

”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, [applause]—that 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 for ever 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.”

This might have been a strategy speech used to gain voters, as Douglas had accused Lincoln of favoring negroes too much as well.[29]

A fragment from Lincoln dated October 1, 1858, refuting theological arguments by Frederick A. Ross in favor of slavery, reads in part, "As a good thing, slavery is strikingly perculiar [sic], in this, that it is the only good thing which no man ever seeks the good of, for himself. Nonsense! Wolves devouring lambs, not because it is good for their own greedy maws, but because it is good for the lambs!!!"[30][31]

1860 Republican presidential nomination

Lincoln being carried by two men on a long board.
"The Rail Candidate": Lincoln's 1860 candidacy is depicted as held up by the slavery issue—a slave on the left and party organization on the right.

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.

Lincoln was nominated as the Republican candidate for president in the election of 1860. Lincoln was opposed to the expansion of slavery into new areas, but agreed with nearly all Americans, including most radical abolitionists, that the federal government was prevented by the Constitution from abolishing slavery in states where it already existed. His plan was to halt the spread of slavery, and to offer monetary compensation to slave-owners in states that agreed to end slavery (see Compensated emancipation). He was considered a moderate within a Republican party that, nevertheless, took the radical position that slavery should be put on a course of "ultimate extinction" with the help of the federal government.

As President-elect in 1860 and 1861

In a letter to Senator Lyman Trumbull on December 10, 1860, Lincoln wrote, "Let there be no compromise on the question of extending slavery."[32][33] In a letter to John A. Gilmer of North Carolina of December 15, 1860, which was soon published in newspapers, Lincoln wrote that the 'only substantial difference' between North and South was that 'You think slavery is right and ought to be extended; we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted.' Lincoln repeated this statement in a letter to Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia on Dec. 22, 1860[34][35][36]

On December 15, 1860, Kentucky Senator John J. Crittenden proposed the Crittenden Compromise, a series of constitutional amendments intended to coax the Confederate states into returning to the Union. President-elect Lincoln rejected the Crittenden Compromise out of hand because it would have permitted the expansion of slavery, stating "I will suffer death before I will consent or will advise my friends to consent to any concession or compromise which looks like buying the privilege of taking possession of this government to which we have a constitutional right."[37]

On February 22, 1861, at a speech in Independence Hall, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Lincoln reconfirmed that his convictions sprang from the sentiment expressed in the Declaration of Independence, which was also the basis of the continued existence of the United States since that time, namely, the "principle or idea" "in that Declaration giving liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time. (Great applause.) It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance. (Cheers.)"[38][39][40]

Presidency (1861–1865)

Corwin amendment

The proposed Corwin amendment was passed by Congress before Lincoln became President and was ratified by two states, but was abandoned once the Civil War began. It would have reaffirmed what historians call the Federal Consensus—the nearly universal belief that under the Constitution the federal government had no power to abolish slavery in a state where it already existed. In his First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861, Lincoln explained that while he had not seen the amendment and took no position on amendments in general, "holding such a provision to now be implied constitutional law, I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable."[41][42] [43] The Corwin amendment was a late attempt at reconciliation but it was doomed to fail because southerners knew that it would not stop the federal government from adopting a host of antislavery policies, without actually violating the Federal Consensus.[44][45]

Building a demand for emancipation

Lincoln's long-term goal was to apply federal pressure on the slave states to get them to abolish slavery on their own, beginning with the four loyal, non-seceding border states of Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri. But he also warned that if the slave states seceded from the Union they would forfeit the constitutional protection of slavery, including any claim to the recovery of their fugitive slaves.

The American Civil War began in April, 1861, and by the end of May the Lincoln administration approved a policy of not returning fugitive slaves who came within Union lines from disloyal states. Such slaves were deemed "contraband of war," or "contrabands." On August 6, 1861, Congress declared the forfeiture of contraband to be permanent by passing the first of the Confiscation Acts, and two days later Lincoln's War Department issued instructions emancipating all the slaves who came within Union lines from disloyal states or owners. By the end of the year thousands of slaves were being emancipated.

So as not to alienate the border states, Lincoln was careful to ensure that his generals followed the letter of the law. He encouraged General James K. Lane in western Missouri to emancipate thousands of slaves of disloyal masters who came voluntarily within his lines. But in eastern Missouri, when General John C. Fremont issued a decree emancipating the slaves of disloyal owners in areas the Union did not control, Lincoln ordered the general to revise his decree to conform with the law. Lincoln promoted Lane to Brigadier General, but would later fire Fremont for corruption and military incompetence. In western Missouri Lincoln replaced Fremont with an abolitionist general, David Hunter. The care Lincoln took to distinguish legal from extra-legal emancipation was reaffirmed in May, 1862, when Hunter issued two emancipation proclamations from the area his troops recently occupied off the coast of Georgia. The first proclamation, which was legal, freed all the slaves who came within his lines. The second proclamation freed all the slaves in states, most of them beyond the reach of the Union Army. That second proclamation, like Fremont's, went beyond the law and Lincoln once again reversed it.

By the end of 1861 tens of thousands of slaves were emancipated as they came into Union lines at Fortress Monroe, Virginia, the Sea Islands off South Carolina, and in western Missouri. In December the Lincoln administration announced its emancipation policy in a series of annual reports by the president as well as several of his cabinet secretaries. By January Lincoln himself declared that no federal authority, civil or military, could legally return fugitive slaves to their owners.[46] By then the sentiment for a more radical approach to emancipation had been building, and in July Congress authorized the president to issue a more general emancipation proclamation, freeing all the slaves in all areas in rebellion. A few days after Lincoln signed the law—known as the Second Confiscation Act—he drafted the first version of what would become his Emancipation Proclamation.

Because the Constitution could sanction emancipation only as one of the war powers, freeing slaves could only be justified as a means of winning the war and suppressing the Southern rebellion. As a result, until the very end of the war Lincoln claimed that the purpose of the war was the restoration of the Union. Southern leaders denounced Lincoln as a bloodthirsty revolutionary whose emancipation policies proved that the secessionists were right all along about those they labeled "Black Republicans." Northern Democrats, meanwhile, denied that emancipation was a "military necessity," as Lincoln and the Republicans claimed it was. But Lincoln never deviated from his official position, that because the Constitution recognized slavery in the states the only constitutional justification for freeing slaves was the restoration of the Union.

All throughout 1862, the Lincoln administration took several direct actions against slavery. On April 16th, Lincoln signed the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act, which abolished slavery in Washington DC. A few months later on June 19, Congress banned slavery in all federal territories, fulfilling Lincoln's 1860 campaign promise to ban the expansion of slavery.[47] On July 17, Congress passed the second of the Confiscation Acts. While the initial act did not make any determination on the final status of escaped slaves who fled to Union lines, the second Confiscation act did, stating escaped or liberated slaves belonging to anyone who participated in or supported the rebellion "shall be deemed captives of war, and shall be forever free of their servitude, and not again held as slaves." The act also prohibited anyone in the military from returning escaped slaves to their masters, even if the slaves had escaped from a Union slave state.[48]

Letter to Greeley

On August 22, 1862 Lincoln published a letter in response to an editorial by Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune, in which the editor asked why Lincoln had not yet issued an emancipation proclamation, as he was authorized to do by the Second Confiscation Act. In his reply Lincoln differentiated between "my view of official duty" — that is, what he can do in his official capacity as President — and his personal views. Officially he must save the Union above all else; personally he wanted to free all the slaves:[49]

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 be free.

Emancipation Proclamation

1864 Reproduction of Emancipation Proclamation
1864 Reproduction of Emancipation Proclamation

Just one month after writing this letter, Lincoln issued his preliminary 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. Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer wrote in this context about Lincoln's letter: "Unknown to Greeley, Lincoln composed this after he had already drafted a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which he had determined to issue after the next Union military victory. Therefore, this letter, was in truth, an attempt to position the impending announcement in terms of saving the Union, not freeing slaves as a humanitarian gesture. It was one of Lincoln's most skillful public relations efforts, even if it has cast longstanding doubt on his sincerity as a liberator."[50] Historian Richard Striner argues that "for years" Lincoln's letter has been misread as "Lincoln only wanted to save the Union."[51] However, within the context of Lincoln's entire career and pronouncements on slavery this interpretation is wrong, according to Striner. Rather, Lincoln was softening the strong Northern white supremacist opposition to his imminent emancipation by tying it to the cause of the Union. This opposition would fight for the Union but not to end slavery, so Lincoln gave them the means and motivation to do both, at the same time.[51] In his 2014 book, Lincoln's Gamble, journalist and historian Todd Brewster asserted that Lincoln's desire to reassert the saving of the Union as his sole war goal was in fact crucial to his claim of legal authority for emancipation. Since slavery was protected by the Constitution, the only way that he could free the slaves was as a tactic of war—not as the mission itself.[52] But that carried the risk that when the war ended, so would the justification for freeing the slaves. Late in 1862, Lincoln asked his Attorney General, Edward Bates, for an opinion as to whether slaves freed through a war-related proclamation of emancipation could be re-enslaved once the war was over. Bates had to work through the language of the Dred Scott decision to arrive at an answer, but he finally concluded that they could indeed remain free. Still, a complete end to slavery would require a constitutional amendment.[53]

But a constitutional amendment has to be ratified by three-fourths of the states. There were too many slave states and not enough free states for a constitutional amendment to be ratified, so even as he was preparing to issue his Emancipation Proclamation he proposed a series of constitutional amendments that would make it easier for the federal government to pressure states to abolish slavery on their own, including compensation, a gradual timetable for abolition, and subsidies for blacks willing to colonize themselves outside the United States. None of those constitutional amendments came close to passage. But by 1863 Lincoln had other ways of pressuring the state to abolish slavery: By refusing to return slaves who escaped from loyal masters in loyal states, and by enlisting slaves from loyal states into the Union Army with the promise of emancipation, the Lincoln administration systematically undermined slavery in many of the southern states.

Lincoln had begun pressuring the Border States to abolish slavery in November, 1861, with no success. In 1862 he began to warn the states that if they did not abolish slavery on their own, the institution would succumb to the "incidents of war" and would be undermined by "mere friction and abrasion." But the abrasive was no mere incident; it was the policy of emancipation. Beginning in mid-1863 Lincoln intensified the pressure on all the slave states, and in early 1864 the policy began to pay off. Between January, 1864, and January, 1865, three slave states abolished slavery, all under intense pressure from the federal government. By the time the House of Representatives sent the Thirteenth Amendment to the states for ratification the ratio of free to slave states was 27: 9, or three-quarters.

West Virginia

Early in the war, several counties in Western Virginia that were loyal to the Union formed the Restored Government of Virginia and applied for statehood into the Union. Lincoln required them to have a plan for gradual emancipation as a condition of statehood. In response, West Virginia passed the "Willey Amendment", which declared "The children of slaves born within the limits of this State after the fourth day of July, eighteen hundred and sixty-three, shall be free; and all slaves within this state who shall, at the time aforesaid, be under the age of ten years, shall be free when they arrive at the age of twenty-one years; and all slaves over ten and under twenty-one years shall be free when they arrive at the age of twenty-five years; and no slave shall be permitted to come into the State for permanent residence therin."[54]. Lincoln considered this satisfactory and West Virginia was granted statehood on June 20, 1863. West Virginia went on to fully abolish slavery on February 3, 1865, roughly three months before the end of the war.[55]

Conkling letter

Lincoln came to appreciate the role that black troops played in this process. In the end some 180,000 blacks served in the Union Army, a disproportionate number of them from the states that ended up abolishing slavery. He made his feeling clear in an eloquent letter a year later to James C. Conkling in August 26, 1863.[56][57]

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....[When peace comes] then, there will be some black men who can remember that, with silent tongue, and clenched teeth, and steady eye, and well-poised bayonet, they have helped mankind on to this great consummation; while, I fear, there will be some white ones, unable to forget that, with malignant heart, and deceitful speech, they strove to hinder it.

The timing of the Conkling letter came in August 1863, the month after two great Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, but also at a time when Americans were reading the first reports of black troops fighting courageously in battles at Milliken's Bend and Battery Wagner. It was also in the summer of 1863 that Lincoln initiated his intensified effort to get various slave states to abolish slavery on their own.

Lincoln addresses the changes to his positions and actions regarding emancipation in an 1864 letter to Albert G. Hodges.[58][59] In that letter, Lincoln states his ethical opposition to slavery, writing, "I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel. ... And yet I have never understood that the Presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act officially upon this judgment and feeling." Lincoln further explained that he had eventually determined that military emancipation and the enlistment of black soldiers were necessary for the preservation of the Union, which was his responsibility as President.

Having won re-election to the presidency in November 1864 on a platform of abolishing slavery, Lincoln and several members of his cabinet embarked on a sustained lobbying effort to get the abolition amendment through the House of Representatives. The amendment abolishing slavery everywhere in the United States was ratified by every state that had abolished slavery during the war, and it became part of the Constitution in December, 1865.


In December 1863, Lincoln used his war powers and issued a "Proclamation for Amnesty and Reconstruction", which offered Southern states a chance to peacefully rejoin the Union if they abolished slavery and collected loyalty oaths from 10% of their voting population.[60] Before the end of the war, Louisiana.[61] Arkansas,[62] Maryland,[63] Missouri,[64] Tennessee,[65] and West Virginia,[66] abolished slavery.[67]

As Lincoln began to be concerned about the 1864 election and the potential for a new administration to stop emancipation, he turned to Frederick Douglass. He asked Douglass to "devis[e] some means of making [slaves in the South] acquainted with [emancipation], and . . . bring[] them into our lines", thereby making emancipation an accomplished fact before a potential next administration could take office.[68]

Thirteenth Amendment

When Lincoln accepted the nomination for the Union party for President in June, 1864, he called for the first time for the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, to immediately abolish slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime. He wrote in his letter of acceptance that "it would make a fitting and necessary conclusion" to the war and would permanently join the causes of "Liberty and Union." He won re-election on this platform in November, and in December, 1864, Lincoln worked to have the House approve the amendment.[69]

When the House passed the 13th amendment on January 31, 1865, Lincoln signed the amendment, although this was not a legal requirement, and said in a speech the next day, "He thought all would bear him witness that he had never shrunk from doing all that he could to eradicate slavery by issuing an emancipation proclamation." He pointed out that the emancipation proclamation did not complete the task of eradicating slavery; "But this amendment is a King's cure for all the evils [of slavery]."[70][71][72][73]

Second inaugural address

Lincoln, having gotten the constitutional amendment to abolish slavery through Congress, began his second term. He discussed slavery throughout his second inaugural address, describing it as not only the cause of the civil war, but that slavery considered as an offence to God, drew God's righteous judgement against the entire nation.[74][75]

One eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war. . . . It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. . . The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!" If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came . . . Fondly do we hope -- fervently do we pray -- that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether"[74]

Compensated emancipation: buy out the slave owners

The thirteenth amendment to abolish slavery, which Lincoln ultimately sent to the states provided no compensation but earlier in his presidency, Lincoln made numerous proposals for "compensated emancipation" in the loyal border states whereby the federal government would purchase all of the slaves and free them. No state government acted on the proposal.

President Lincoln advocated that slave owners be compensated for emancipated slaves.[76] On March 6, 1862 President Lincoln, in a message to the U.S. Congress, stated that emancipating slaves would create economic "inconveniences" and justified compensation to the slave owners. The resolution was adopted by Congress; however, the Southern states refused to comply. On July 12, 1862 President Lincoln, in a conference with Congressmen from Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware, and Missouri, encouraged their respective states to adopt emancipation legislation that gave compensation to the slave owners. On July 14, 1862 President Lincoln sent a bill to Congress that allowed the Treasury to issue bonds at 6% interest to states for slave emancipation compensation to the slave owners. The bill was never voted on by Congress.[77][78]

As late as the Hampton Roads Conference in 1865, Lincoln met with Confederate leaders and proposed a "fair indemnity", possibly $500,000,000, in compensation for emancipated slaves.[79]


One of several failed colonization attempts during Lincoln's presidency was on Île à Vache off the coast of Haiti.
One of several failed colonization attempts during Lincoln's presidency was on Île à Vache off the coast of Haiti.

Colonization of freed slaves was long seen by many as an answer to the problem of slavery. One of President Abraham Lincoln's policies during his administration was the voluntary colonization of African American freedmen; he firmly opposed compulsory colonization,[80][full citation needed] and in one instance ordered the Secretary of War to bring some colonized blacks back to the United States.[81] The Pre-Emancipation Proclamation offered support for the colonization of free blacks outside of the United States. Historians have debated and have remained divided over whether Lincoln's racial views (or merely his acceptance of the political reality) included that African Americans could not live in the same society as white Americans due to racism. Benjamin Butler stated that Lincoln in 1865 firmly denied that "racial harmony" would be possible in the United States.[82] One view (known to scholars as the "lullaby" theory) is that Lincoln adopted colonization for Freedmen in order to make his Emancipation Proclamation politically acceptable.[82] This view has been challenged with new evidence of the Lincoln administration's attempts to colonize freedmen in British Honduras after the Emancipation Proclamation took effect on January 1, 1863.[82]

Bureau of Emigration

President Lincoln supported colonization during the Civil War as a practical response to newly freed slaves. At his urging, Congress included text in the Confiscation Act of 1862 indicating support for Presidential authority to recolonize consenting African Americans.[83] With this authorization, Lincoln created an agency to direct his colonization projects. At the suggestion of Lincoln, in 1862, Congress appointed $600,000 to fund and created the Bureau of Emigration in the U.S. Department of the Interior. To head that office Lincoln appointed the energetic Reverend James Mitchell, a leader of the American Colonization Party.[84][85] Lincoln had known Mitchell since 1853, when Mitchell visited Illinois. Mitchell's Washington D.C.'s office was in charge of implementing Lincoln's voluntary colonization policy of African Americans. In his annual December message to Congress that year (his second "State of the Union" Message), he reiterated his strong support for government expenditure on colonization for those who wanted to go, but he also noted that objections to free blacks remaining in the United States were baseless, "if not sometimes malicious." [86] In 1862, Lincoln mentioned colonization favorably in his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Much concerning the controversial Bureau of Emigration is unknown today, as Mitchell's papers that kept record of the office were lost after his death in 1903.[85]

Chiriqui Improvement Company

President Lincoln first proposed a Panama colony for blacks in October 1861. Several hundred acres of Chiriquí Province in Panama (then a part of Gran Colombia) had in 1855 been granted to the Chiriqui Improvement Company for coal mining. The Company supplied the US Navy with half-price coal during the war, but required more workers.[87] Congress gravitated towards this plan in mid-1862, and Lincoln appointed Kansas Senator Samuel Pomeroy to oversee it. Pomeroy promised 40 acres and a job to willing blacks, and chose 500 of 13,700 who applied.[83] Lincoln signed a contract with businessman Ambrose W. Thompson, the owner of the land, and made plans to send tens of thousands of African Americans. Pomeroy secured $25,000 from Congress to pay for transportation and equipment.[83]

The plan was suspended in early October 1862 before a single ship sailed though, apparently due to diplomatic protests from neighboring Central American governments and the uncertainty raised by the Colombian Civil War (1860–1862). The plan also violated the 1850 Clayton–Bulwer Treaty prohibiting US and UK colonization of Central America.[83] Lincoln hoped to overcome these complications by having Congress make provision for a treaty for African-American emigration, much as he outlined in his Second Annual Message of December 1, 1862, but the Chiriquí plan appears to have died over the New Year of 1863 as revelations of the corrupt interest of his acquaintance Richard W. Thompson and Secretary of the Interior John Palmer Usher likely proved too much to bear in political terms.[88]

Ile à Vache

In December 1862, Lincoln signed a contract with businessman Bernard Kock to establish a colony on the Ile à Vache, an island of Haiti. 453 freed slaves departed for the island from Fort Monroe, Virginia. A government investigation had deemed Kock untrustworthy, and Secretary of State William Seward stopped the plan from going forward after learning of Kock's involvement.[89]

Poor planning, an outbreak of smallpox, and financial mismanagement by Kock left the colonists under-supplied and starving, according to early reports. 292 colonists remained on Ile à Vache in 1865; 73 had moved to Aux Cayes on Haiti.[89] The United States Navy arrived to rescue survivors after less than one year on the island.[90]

British West Indies

In addition to Panama and Haiti, Mitchell's office also oversaw attempts at colonization in British Honduras and elsewhere in the British West Indies. Lincoln believed that by dealing with the comparatively stable British Government, he could avoid some of the problems that plagued his earlier attempts at colonization with private interests.[91]

He signed an agreement on June 13, 1863, with John Hodge of British Honduras that authorized colonial agents to recruit ex-slaves and transport them to Belize from approved ports in Philadelphia, New York City, and Boston.[92] Later that year the Department of the Interior sent John Willis Menard, a free African-American clerk who supported colonization, to investigate the site for the government. British authorities pulled out of the agreement in December, fearing it would disrupt their position of neutrality in the Civil War. No ex-slaves were resettled there.[93]

The question of when Lincoln abandoned colonization, if ever, has aroused debate among historians.[94] The government funded no more colonies after the rescue of the Ile a Vache survivors in early 1864, and Congress repealed most of the colonization funding that July.

Whether Lincoln's opinion had changed is unknown. He left no surviving statements in his own hand on the subject during the last two years of his presidency, although he apparently wrote Attorney General Edward Bates in November 1864 to inquire whether earlier legislation allowed him to continue pursuing colonization and to retain Mitchell's services irrespective of the loss of funding.[95][96] An entry in the diary of presidential secretary John Hay dated July 2, 1864, says that Lincoln had "sloughed off" colonization, though without much elaboration.[97] In a later report, General Benjamin F. Butler claimed that Lincoln approached him in 1865 a few days before his assassination, to talk about reviving colonization in Panama.[98] Historians have long debated the validity of Butler's account, as it was written many years after the fact and Butler was prone to exaggeration of his own exploits as a general.[99] Recently discovered documents prove that Butler and Lincoln did indeed meet on April 11, 1865, though whether and to what extent they talked about colonization is not recorded except in Butler's account.[100] On that same day, Lincoln gave a speech supporting voting-rights for black men who had served in the military, as well as for literate black men.[101]

Much of the present debate revolves around whether to accept Butler's story. If rejected, then it appears that Lincoln "sloughed off" colonization at some point in mid-1864. If it is accepted, then Lincoln remained a colonizationist at the time of his death. This question is compounded by the unclear meaning of Hay's diary, and another article by Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, which suggests that Lincoln intended to revive colonization in his second term. In either case, the implications for understanding Lincoln's views on race and slavery are strong.[102]

Citizenship and limited suffrage

In his second term as president, on April 11, 1865, Lincoln gave a speech in which, for the first time publicly, he promoted voting rights for blacks. John Wilkes Booth, a Southerner and outspoken Confederate sympathizer, attended the speech and became determined to kill Lincoln for supporting citizenship for blacks.[103] Booth is reported to have remarked: "That is the last speech he will make."[104] He shot and killed Lincoln three days later.

In analyzing Lincoln's position historian Eugene H. Berwanger notes:[105]

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.

Views on African Americans

Known as the Great Emancipator, Lincoln was a complicated figure who wrestled with his own views on race.[106] Through changing times, successive generations have interpreted Lincoln's views on African Americans differently. According to Henry Louis Gates Jr.: "To apply 20th century beliefs and standards to an America of 1858 and declare Abraham Lincoln a 'racist' is a faulty formula that unfairly distorts Lincoln's true role in advancing civil and human rights. By the standards of his time, Lincoln's views on race and equality were progressive and truly changed minds, policy and most importantly, hearts for years to come."[106]

Lincoln's primary audience was white voters. Lincoln's views on slavery, race equality, and African American colonization are often intermixed.[106] During the 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas, Lincoln expressed his then view that he believed whites were superior to blacks.[106] Lincoln stated he was against miscegenation and allowing blacks to serve as jurors. While president, as the American Civil War progressed, Lincoln advocated or implemented anti-slavery policies including the Emancipation Proclamation and limited suffrage for African Americans.[106] Former slave and leading abolitionist Frederick Douglass unequivocally regarded Lincoln as sharing "the prejudices of his white fellow-country-men against the Negro",[107] but also observed of Lincoln that "in his company, I was never reminded of my humble origin, or of my unpopular color."[108][full citation needed] Douglass attested to Lincoln's genuine respect for him and other blacks and to the wisdom of Lincoln's course of action in obtaining both the preservation of the Union (his sworn duty as president) and the freeing of the slaves. In an 1876 speech at the unveiling of the Freedmen's Monument in Memory of Abraham Lincoln (later renamed the Emancipation Memorial), he defended Lincoln's actions:[107]

His great mission was to accomplish two things: first, to save his country from dismemberment and ruin; and, second, to free his country from the great crime of slavery. To do one or the other, or both, he must have the earnest sympathy and the powerful cooperation of his loyal fellow-countrymen. Without this primary and essential condition to success his efforts must have been vain and utterly fruitless. Had he put the abolition of slavery before the salvation of the Union, he would have inevitably driven from him a powerful class of the American people and rendered resistance to rebellion impossible.

Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; 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…

Taking him for all in all, measuring the tremendous magnitude of the work before him, considering the necessary means to ends, and surveying the end from the beginning, infinite wisdom has seldom sent any man into the world better fitted for his mission than Abraham Lincoln.

In his past, Lincoln lived in a middle-class, racially mixed neighborhood of Springfield, Illinois; one of his long-time neighbors, Jameson Jenkins (who may have been born a slave), had come from North Carolina and was publicly implicated in the 1850s as a Springfield conductor on the underground railroad, sheltering escaped slaves. In 1861, Lincoln called on Jenkins to give him a ride to the train depot, where Lincoln delivered his farewell address before leaving Springfield for the last time.[109]

See also


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  109. ^ "Lincoln Home – The Underground Railroad in Lincoln's Neighborhood" (PDF). National Park Service – US Dept. of the Interior. February 2008. Retrieved August 25, 2012.

Further reading

Primary sources

External links

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