Abraham Lincoln as a Genuine Abolitionist


Abraham Lincoln is considered a great emancipator who abolished slavery and gave freedom for black population. On January 31, 1865, the proposal for the Thirteenth Amendment came to a final vote in the House. All together, thirteen Democrats this day voted in favor of the amendment, besides the four who also had voted for it previously. The resolution carried with more than the necessary two-thirds majority. The next day, February 1, 1865, when the resolution was brought to him for his signature, Lincoln signed it. Since that time, historians have expressed and analyzed different views and facts on the problem of emancipation and slavery, and personal position and ideas of Lincoln.


The Lincoln-Douglas debates are often cited as the most vivid example of Lincoln’s position towards slavery and his ideas of democracy and emancipation. One of the recent works on this topic is written by H. Holzer in 2004. His book The Lincoln-Douglas Debates: proposes a unique and substantial analysis of events and public reaction towards the debates and positions of both sides: Lincoln and Douglas. This work is based on literature review and analysis of primary documents, letters and writing of Lincoln and Douglas. The author presents a unique position and unveils weaknesses and limitations of both sides. Holzer portrays that warming to his argument, Lincoln denounced what he called Douglas’s “care not” policy regarding slavery, declared that slavery was being extended by putting “this and that together,” observed that “another nice little niche” remained to be filled by a decision of the Supreme Court denying a state the power to exclude slavery, thus making slavery “alike lawful in all the States,” and predicted the day when the people would “awake to the reality… that the Supreme Court has made Illinois a slave State,” unless what he called the “present political dynasty” should be overthrown. Then he took care to destroy the argument that Republicans should turn to Douglas as their leader, conceding that Douglas was “a great man,” but adding, in a rather ill chosen phrase, that “a living dog is better than a dead lion.'”

The book Southern Slavery and the Law, 1619-1860 y Thomas Morris (1996) portrays events of the Civil war period and political debates concerning war and slavery issues. This book proposes a deep analysis of the secondary sources published at the beginning of 20th century and primary documents of the Civil war era. This blueprint was envisaged not merely with reference to the war, though its integration with a broad war policy was a vital factor; beyond the war the President’s solution was projected into a peace-minded future with a view to the ultimate, statesmanlike elimination of an institution in which, as Lincoln felt, North and South had a common responsibility and a community of interest.

J.A Rawley (2002) and J.Y. Simon et al (2003) evaluate traditional views and understanding of Lincoln’s political actions and propose a new approach. In contrast to previous researchers, they criticize actions of Lincoln and his passivity, thus defend his position and views influenced by the social and economic problems, and the war. Both books are objective and accurate based on primary documents analysis and evaluation of the secondary sources. Though the plan failed, a familiarity with it becomes necessary to an understanding of wartime currents and especially of Lincoln’s manner of tackling a large problem. As one studies the President’s pathetically earnest efforts to promote this “proposition,” one is impressed with his conservatism, his sense of fair dealing, his lack of vindictiveness, his attention to legal adjustments, his respect for self-determination in govermnent, his early vision of state-and-federal cooperation, and his co-ordination of a domestic reform with the nation’s paramount purpose to restore the Union and then to preserve it.

The book Freedom, Union, and Power: Lincoln and His Party by M.S. Green (2004) examines political views of the political parties and their impact on the antislavery legislation. The author does not analyze personal qualities and skills of Lincoln but propose readers a deep and thoughtful analysis of political situation and its impact on the decision-making. The author states that the proposition to abolish slavery was significant as perhaps the major instance in which Lincoln tried manfully to enlist the support of Congress. On no other matter did he so far extend his presidential leadership in attempted legislation. Two researchers, D, Green and J.E. Underwood examine political skills and qualities of Lincoln. Both D, Green and J.E. Underwood defends Lincoln and claim that his “passivity” was the only possible way to save the Union and the nations. The only other project of the period that compares with it is that of reconstruction, but in that case Lincoln did not rely upon congressional enactment of a presidentially sponsored measure.

Discussion Section

Lincoln abolished slavery but he hesitated and opposed antislavery legislation. Following Holzer (2004) between October debates of 1854 and the great debate of 1858 Lincoln had continued his political activity, though busy with law practice, had been drawn somewhat tardily into the Republican party, had received 110 votes as vice-presidential nominee in 1856, and in that year had spoken many times for Frémont, whom he disliked. Then on June 16, 1858, the Republican state convention at Springfield gave him its highest honor next to endorsement for the presidency by nominating him for United States senator. Having been the leading Whig of Illinois while yet in his thirties, he was now its leading Republican. Either the opponents of slavery, will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in course of ultimate extinction, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.

Lincoln too had his embarrassment which Douglas did not hesitate to exploit. It was the stigma of abolitionism. He repudiated it with spirit, asserting at Alton that Douglas was trying to place him “in an extremely Abolition attitude” before an audience which had “strong sympathies southward.” On various occasions Lincoln explained his house-divided declaration. He went so far as to say that in his half-slave-half-free speech he did not say he “was in favor of anything”; he was making “a prediction only — it may have been a foolish one, perhaps.” Lincoln was regretting his famous slogan only to the extent that it was being used to make him appear as an abolitionist or a promoter of strife and war. In explaining it he brought out what he insisted was the “real issue” of the whole contest: that slavery was wrong, that peace and harmony in the country prior to 1854 had been based on the belief that it was “in course of ultimate extinction,” that these were the sentiments of the fathers, and that he intended only to resist the “farther spread” of the institution, and to “place it where the founders… originally placed it.” This sentiment he repeated, with renewed declarations against slavery as a wrong, many times. He did not hedge on his house-divided declaration in the sense in which he said it should be interpreted, but he did resent Douglas’s effort to make it appear that he was stirring up sectional strife

Lincoln opposed abolishing of slavery because, in his view, it threatened national unity and the Union. What Lincoln was in fact trying to do in this whole period was to put the damper on sectional conflict. Over and again that position was clearly stated. Yet people who knew nothing of that, or chose to ignore it, would quote this phrase and picture Lincoln as a man who would either insist on uniformity as to slavery or else divide the country — a man who would perhaps assent to disunion as many abolitionists were quite willing to do. Lincoln did not mean it that way. He thought of a peacefully continuing Union, as his very words in the whole passage implied; in this continuing Union he seemed to envisage a future day when uniformity as to slavery would exist, but he was not demanding disunion while it should not exist. Following historian Green it was not the whole speech, nor even the connected passage, that was quoted; rather, it was only those few challenging words that kept recurring when Lincoln was mentioned. The fact that Lincoln was no firebrand and that he did not intend disunion nor any attack upon legitimate Southern rights, would be overlooked, especially by his opponents who would make it appear that he would oppose any type of Union-saving compromise.

The main tone of the President’s answer was negative and disappointing. “What good would a proclamation of emancipation from me do,?” he asked. “I do not want to issue a document that the whole world will see must… be inoperative, like the Pope’s bull against the comet.” In the “rebel States” such a proclamation could no more be enforced, said Lincoln, than the recent ineffective law offering freedom to slaves coming within Union lines. And suppose they did throw themselves upon us in large numbers, what should we do with them? Much more the President gave them, impressively piling up doubts concerning the wisdom and feasibility of a liberating edict. Conceding that slavery was the “rebellion,” that emancipation would help the cause in Europe, and that it would weaken the enemy by drawing off their laborers. Lincoln would have the visiting committee consider the difficulties of freeing helpless thousands, the danger of their re-enslavement, the impotence of the government to do anything about it if they were re-enslaved, and the danger that arms put into Negro hands would be seized by the enemy. Especially he emphasized the importance of fifty thousand Union bayonets from the border slave states; if in consequence of a proclamation they should go over to the enemy, it would be a very serious matter. He went on thus for “an hour of earnest and frank discussion.” Then, with the meeting about to break up, Lincoln remarked, as if giving a broad hint on a matter that could not go into the record: “Do not misunderstand me,…. I have not decided against a proclamation of liberty to the slaves, but hold the matter under advisement; and I can assure you that the subject is on my mind, by day and night, more than any other”

He trusted that in freely canvassing their views, he had not injured his visitors’ feelings.

On the slavery question, while in Congress, Lincoln voted for the Wilmot proviso to prohibit slavery in national territory to be acquired from Mexico, and he worked out a formula of conservative legislation for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia. According to Lincoln’s proposal children born of slave mothers after 1850 were to be “free,” but during minority were to be dependent upon their mothers’ owners for support and education, being meanwhile treated as apprentices to such owners. Slaves then held in the District were to remain slaves, but owners, if they wished, could emancipate them at any time, receiving “full value” from the treasurer of the United States. Simon et al admit that Lincoln was thus applying the process of gradual emancipation. The board for the fixing of compensation was to consist of none other than the President of the United States, the secretary of state, and the secretary of the treasury. Fugitive slaves from the outside, finding their way into the District, were to be arrested and returned to owners. Finally a vote of free white male citizens over twenty-one years of age was to be taken in the District, and the act was to go into force only if a majority favored it. Lincoln applied the principle of a popular referendum on a congressional statute.

Following Rawley (2003) Lincoln’s theme was a formulation of the principles on which the Republican party should face the electorate in 1860; but instead of attempting a full coverage of issues he spoke only of the slavery question. Federal slavery restriction, he urged, was consistent with the doctrines of the fathers. All that Republicans asked was to leave slavery where the fathers left it, as an evil to be tolerated but not extended. His party, he urged, was not sectional. It would do no wrong to the South; it would deny the South no essential right. It was conservative, not revolutionary. It would stick to ways that were old and tried. It was the South, he said, that wanted a change, wishing to reject the old policy, though disagreeing among themselves as to any substitute. The John Brown raid, he insisted, was not of Republican instigation, nor was it traceable to Republican activity. Accusations to that effect were a slander. “Republican doctrines and declarations,” he said, “are accompanied with a continual protest against any interference whatever with your slaves, or with you about your slaves. Surely, this does not encourage them to revolt.” The power of emancipation, Lincoln clearly recognized, was not in the Federal government. As for the “judgment and… feeling against slavery in this nation,” that was a thing that could not be destroyed; it was therefore better to keep it in the peaceful channel of the ballot box; to do otherwise would hardly lessen the number of John Browns. The threat that Southerners would not abide the election of a Republican President, that they would break up the Union in that event, blaming the crime upon the Republicans, he compared to the case of a highwayman terrorizing his victim. He advised his party associates to yield to Southerners wherever possible, to “do nothing through passion and ill temper,” to try to determine what their demands involved, and make every effort to “satisfy them.” “Wrong as we think slavery is,” he urged, “we can yet afford to let it alone where it is….” Lincoln concluded: Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the government, nor of dungeons to ourselves. Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith let us to the end dare to do our duty as we understand it.”

Congress had taken the lead in emancipation, beginning the work less than four months after the firing on Fort Sumter. The first confiscation act, of August 6, 1861, provided that slave-owners should forfeit those of their slaves whom they used in military service against the United States. Also in 1862 Congress provided that enemy owned slaves serving in the Union armies should be free, and their families as well, and in 1864 Congress also gave freedom to slave-soldiers (with their families) belonging to loyal owners. In 1864 Congress finally repealed the fugitive-slave laws of 1793 and 1850 which, up to that time, had continued to provide an indirect sanction for slavery in the Federal statute books. Viewing the increasing difficulties that emerged as liberating incidents inevitably arose out of the war, Lincoln seriously weighed the question of colonization — that is, of shipping the freed slaves out of the country. While debating with Douglas he had shown an interest in Negro emigration, and in his first annual message to Congress he advised that slaves presumably freed by the confiscation act of that year be colonized in some genial clime. If any of the states should adopt emancipation measures, Lincoln thought that their ex-slaves might be accepted by the United States in lieu of taxes — a rather curious idea — and that they might be included in a general colonizing scheme. He would also extend the process to those of the free colored who might desire a foreign home. At the end of 1864, it became evident that abolition of slavery was inevitable. Lack of active policies and legislation threatened the Party and its position. Following Morris to one who thinks of the Emancipator in terms of abolitionist stereotypes the words of his remarkable address to this group, preserved in his published works, will come as something of a surprise. In this address Lincoln’s thesis was utterly different from the concepts of those to whom sudden and complete abolition presented no obstacles in terms of post-liberation adjustment. To Lincoln such adjustment, as well as the presence of large numbers of Negroes long free, offered very serious difficulties, and his words could have given little encouragement to his colored auditors.


Where Lincoln gave thought to large-scale national planning in the matter of liberating the slaves, such thought was not embraced within the bounds of the emancipation proclamation. Speaking relatively and with a view to the President’s main concept for solving the problem, it is correct to regard the proclamation as of minor importance. The famous edict was to Lincoln a war measure of limited scope, of doubtful legality, and of inadequate effect. In his reaching out for an adequate solution the President developed an elaborate blueprint for freedom in terms of gradual emancipation by voluntary action of the slave states with Federal co-operation in two matters: foreign colonization of emancipated Negroes (already treated), and compensation to slave-owners. President Lincoln, with his proclamations, actually did not go so far as Congress already had gone in the second confiscation act, but he did assert and dramatize the antislavery policy of his own administration. Though in itself even the final proclamation did not free a single slave, it appealed to slaves who heard of it and thus brought thousands within the Union lines, where they were freed according to existing laws.


Green, D. Constitutional Unionists: The Party That Tried to Stop Lincoln and Save the Union. The Historian, 69 (2007): 65.

Green, M.S. Freedom, Union, and Power: Lincoln and His Party during the Civil War. Fordham University Press, 2004.

Holzer, H. The Lincoln-Douglas Debates: The First Complete, Unexpurgated Text. Fordham University Press, 2004.

Lincoln, A. Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings. ed. by R.P. Basler World Publishing, 1946.

Morris, Thomas D. Southern Slavery and the Law, 1619-1860 University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Rawley, J.A Abraham Lincoln and a Nation Worth Fighting For. University of Nebraska Press, 2003.

Simon, J.Y., Holzer, H., Ruark, D. The Lincoln Forum: Rediscovering Abraham Lincoln. Fordham University Press, 2002.

Underwood, J.E. Lincoln: A Weberian Politician Meets the Constitution. Presidential Studies Quarterly, 34 (2004), 231.

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