Abraham Lincoln and Slavery

This was an essay written for a school project by myself concerning the issue of Lincoln as the Great Emancipator.


In January of 1863, Abraham Lincoln, then the sitting President of the United States, of which was embroiled in a vicious civil war, issued the Emancipation Proclamation thereby cementing a legacy as the Great Emancipator. Questions surrounding this legacy confront us today as we as a modern society attempt to come to grips with our past concerning slavery and with race relations in general. No other presidential legacy has garnered as much attention as Abraham Lincoln’s. Admittedly it is in part due to his tenure as president during one of the most bloody and divisive times in American History yet the path the he laid out has played a role in race relations specifically amongst African Americans since that speech in 1863.

Discussing slavery in its totality is impractical in this exercise and almost infinite in scope. Therefore to understand the legacy of Abraham Lincoln as the Great Emancipator we can narrow the focus to his individual thoughts concerning the subject matter. To do this we only really need to draw from his speeches which form a microcosm of internalization on the matter of slavery and its role in society. The first of which is the speech given in Peoria on October 16, 1854.

Prior to this speech, slavery and the issues surrounding it were in and out of the national consciousness typically on a territorial basis. In this case, it was no different as the debate surrounded the Kansas-Nebraska Act that was then under consideration. Lincoln, whose own political career had suffered from ebbs and flows was using this speech as a springboard to the national spotlight addressed many points concerning the institution of slavery but not the abolition of slavery. At this point in his political career and personal views he was arguing against the extension of slavery but not for removing slavery. (Foner, Oct. 12, 2010) If fact, in the Peoria speech Abraham Lincoln specifically stated; “ And, as this subject is no other, than part and parcel of the larger general question of domestic-slavery, I wish to MAKE and to KEEP the distinction between the EXISTING institution, and the EXTENSION of it, so broad, and so clear, that no honest man can misunderstand me, and no dishonest one, successfully misrepresent me.” (http://www.nps.gov/liho/historyculture/peoriaspeech.htm). The significance of which can not be understated as the territorial expansion of slavery has supposedly been decided with prior law in the Missouri Compromise. Lincoln was focused on the fact that passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act was in consequence a repeal of the Missouri Compromise thereby allowing an extension of slavery to new territories.

We can see this example in the following excerpt; “Now congress declares this ought never to have been; and the like of it, must never be again. The sacred right of self government is grossly violated by it! We even find some men, who drew their first breath, and every other breath of their lives, under this very restriction, now live in dread of absolute suffocation, if they should be restricted in the “sacred right” of taking slaves to Nebraska. (http://www.nps.gov/liho/historyculture/peoriaspeech.htm) Again he is not talking about the institution of slavery as established in the southern states but in the expansion of slavery to new territories. Which in a certain manner Lincoln’s views on slavery were not clearly defined as of yet but he was unwilling or uncomfortable with an expansion of slavery. Further examples of Lincoln’s view on slavery is established in this section of the Peoria speech; “On Judge Douglas’ motion a bill, or provision of a bill, passed the Senate to so extend the Missouri line. The Proviso men in the House, including myself, voted it down, because by implication, it gave up the Southern part to slavery, while we were bent on having it all free.”(http://www.nps.gov/liho/historyculture/peoriaspeech.htm) So while he did not attack the institution of slavery and was concerned about the expansion of slavery his over arching goal of freedom for all in the new territories was clear.

This ambiguous but contradictory certainty concerning the expansion of slavery verses the institution of slavery is exhibited further in the speech where Lincoln espouses his views by stating; “This declared indifference, but as I must think, covert real zeal for the spread of slavery, I can not but hate. 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—enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites—causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty—criticising the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.” (http://www.nps.gov/liho/historyculture/peoriaspeech.htm)

Lincoln now has explained his position on slavery as a whole and that of being against the principles of a free democratic society. However, Lincoln had not solidified his position on the practical procedures and problems concerning the removal of slavery as an institution. In the same speech, he goes on to say; “When southern people tell us they are no more responsible for the origin of slavery, than we; I acknowledge the fact. When it is said that the institution exists; and that it is very difficult to get rid of it, in any satisfactory way, I can understand and appreciate the saying. I surely will not blame them for not doing what I should not know how to do myself. If all earthly power were given me, I should not know what to do, as to the existing institution.” (http://www.nps.gov/liho/historyculture/peoriaspeech.htm) Clearly demonstrating the confusing issue of how to remove slavery and what to do with the slaves after abolition. Again of course while espousing the ideals of abolition but still not attempting to force the totality of which upon established states but only upon newer additions to the Union. It seems reasonable that the absence of a solution was the reason why Lincoln was willing to deal with the expansion of slavery yet not the institution. For if slavery could be prevented from the new territories it would be easier to do so then to attempt to remove slavery from established ones.

Part of the issue confronting Lincoln concerning the abolition of slavery in established states was what to do with the slaves that were already there. Prohibition of the import of slaves could be easily established but for the slaves that were already in bondage the release of which would have societal consequences the results of which could not be foreseen. Therefore as Lincoln explained in the Peoria speech he could not condemn the southerners for the institution of which if he himself could not develop of practical solution of its abolition. (Foner, Oct. 12, 2010)

That is not to say that Abraham Lincoln lacked solutions to the issue of slavery only that he lacked practical solutions to the same. This is demonstrated in which Lincoln first suggests an attempt to remove the slaves to Liberia for the purpose of repatriating them back to Africa. However, as he notes this would be impractical as the endeavor would be logistically impossible. Other considerations was compensation for slave owners but again would this would face a similar difficulty in providing the monies for such.

Yet this lack of a practical solution would come to an end by the time of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Part of which was presented by the slaves themselves. As the civil war progressed the increase in the runaway slaves that approached the Union army lines looking for freedom and showing a willingness to enlist to further attempt to foster freedom amongst the remaining slaves gave Lincoln the solution that he was unable to conceive of prior. This is giving in evidence by this passage of the Proclamation; “And I further declare and make known, that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service. And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.” (http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/featured_documents/emancipation_proclamation/transcript.html)

Abraham Lincoln has been given the legacy as the Great Emancipator. It is a deserved legacy as a man who opposed slavery based on the ideals of his religion and the founding laws of the country he served. A man who served as the head of state of a nation in the throes of tearing itself apart all the while searching for a solution to the problem that brought the Union of the United States to the brink of dissolution. This solution that Abraham Lincoln set in motion that will continue to effect the concerns and retention of human rights of all civilized persons in all the world.


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