Abraham Lincoln, elected as the 16th President of the United States in 1861, is generally viewed as one of the greatest leaders and politicians in American history, having governed the country through one of its most difficult and darkest times, the Civil War. However, one of Lincoln’s greatest achievements came in the form of dramatic social change in the U.S., the famous Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all slaves in the Union and served as the basis for the subsequent 13th Amendment to the Constitution. This paper will seek to investigate the role of Abraham Lincoln as “The Great Emancipator” and determine whether his legacy matches that of historical reality, Lincoln’s personal opinions on the issue, and the public perception of his single-term Presidency.
Abraham Lincoln was born in Kentucky in 1809 to a poor working family. He moved around with his family and began working from an early age, having little formal schooling. After eventually settling down in Illinois as a young man, Lincoln became involved with the local Whig Party. After a second try, he eventually won his first election to the Illinois House of Representatives in 1834. Having seen slavery in action during his youth and being a great supporter of the Whig ideology, Lincoln proclaimed himself an antislavery and abolitionist early on (Locke & Wright 350). In 1836, he was admitted to the Illinois bar and began practicing law, climbing up the ladder. Lincoln was fully self-taught as a lawyer. In 1839 he met Mary Todd, a daughter of a well-known local lawyer, marrying her in 1842.
In 1847, after a second try, he won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. He continued to pursue antislavery policies in many areas of the country while also practicing cases as a lawyer, including the controversial abolitionist Supreme Court case Dred Scott v. Sandford. Lincoln joined the newly formed Illinois Republican Party, eventually accepting a Senate nomination in 1856 when he made his famous “a house divided against itself cannot stand” speech, once again referring to the divisions that slavery was causing the country (“House Divided Speech”). Despite losing the Senate race, Lincoln gained public recognition and high-profile sponsors with his eloquence and passionate speeches, setting him up for a bid in the next presidential election.
Lincoln was nominated as a Republican and elected as President in 1860, largely due to the massive party informational campaign and his views. However, tensions between the Union and the South were reaching a critical point, and before Lincoln was sworn in, a number of states planned to secede. Lincoln strived to preserve the Union as peacefully and diplomatically as possible, indicating to the South that he was no threat to their way of life. However, the one issue he would not compromise on was slavery, albeit understanding how deeply divisive it was (Locke and Wright 372). As Civil War began, he quickly learned military strategy and became a competent commander-in-chief.
In 1863, after the Union victory at the Battle of Antietam, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves located in the rebel states but notably not in the Union border states. Although he later pushed for the passage of the 13th Amendment, which would outlaw slavery, he always indicated that the cohesiveness of the Union was more important to him and that he neither wanted to “save or destroy slavery” (Lincoln, “Abraham Lincoln Papers”). Later in 1863, Lincoln gave his famous Gettysburg Address, an eloquent expression of the country’s purpose, ideals, and striving for human equality. As the Civil War was coming to a close with a Northern victory, Lincoln won re-election in 1864. He was in the process of developing plans for Reconstruction, bringing back Southern states into the Union peacefully in the context of slavery. However, he never fulfilled his plans or the outcomes of his antislavery campaign. Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865, at the Ford Theater in Washington D.C., by a Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth (Locke & Wright 404).
Lincoln is typically viewed as one of the greatest U.S. Presidents to have ever lived, despite his only short one-term Presidency. Given the tragic and divisive time of the Civil War, Lincoln is credited with preserving the Union as he commanded the North in both military and civil matters. He is credited with saving democracy and, the biggest accomplishment of all, ending slavery. He is often described as a man of strong and brave character that also had the stoicism and rationality to guide the nation in the once-in-a-century crisis. Finally, his death, coming at the hands of a political radical, propelled him into the echelons of martyrdom, someone who had died because of their beliefs and ideals. He was canonized and compared to that Jesus. To many in the country who respected his leadership, Lincoln became a near-mythological hero (Burlingame). Almost immediately after his death, he attributed the many achievements, in which he undoubtedly had a role, but the Republicans sought to use Lincoln’s death for political gain in the upcoming legal battles over Reconstruction.
Despite the popular ionization of Lincoln, historians also offer him similar praise. He was striving to preserve the Union no matter the personal and political cost to himself. Lincoln is characterized as having an iron resolve and being a visionary. He also recognized that the institution of slavery was so ingrained into U.S. society and politics that to end it required significant patience, careful negotiation, and political calculation. Furthermore, in the process of achieving many of the heroics attributed to Lincoln, he broke various laws, ignored multiple Constitutional provisions, and even countered the Supreme Court by creating his own version of judicial review. Lincoln believed that the President had special duty in times of crisis, powers that no modern president would ever be allowed.
Frederick Douglas wrote in 1865 that Lincoln was “a progressive man, a human man, an honorable man, and at heart an antislavery man” and suggested that if not for his death, the African Americans in the South would have had a “hope of enfranchisement” in the years following the Civil War (Kunhardt). Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation is seen as the axe to slavery, while the policy of the Thirteenth Amendment, which Lincoln strongly supported at the start, solidified this at the Constitutional level.
The title of the ‘Great Emancipator,’ even as an informal one, is significant. There are historical disagreements where critics indicate that Lincoln may not have possibly been the avid abolitionist his legacy portrays. There are suggestions that he was potentially drawn into abolitionism due to political reasons as to its growing popularity in the North. In a letter to Albert Hodges in 1864, Lincoln notes, “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me” in regard to his discussion of the politics of slavery (Lincoln, “Letter to Albert Hodges”). During his legislative career, Lincoln did articulate the position of antislavery, which he followed throughout the entirety of his political career. Lincoln arguably was antislavery, not so much for its horrors but viewed as a bad policy. The Republicans at the time sought to create a vision of the North where the “free laborer” could prosper with available opportunities, suggesting that Northern laborers were often more exploited than slaves, being at the mercy of capitalist society. Rather than viewing slavery as a moral wrong, he perceived it as an injustice of men not being compensated for their labor (Foner 152).
There is evidence that Lincoln hated slavery, but he was never an abolitionist, nor claimed to be one. He was viewed as an abolitionist and considered dangerous by the South because of his desire to eventually end slavery as a social institution. However, there are statements that suggest that Lincoln may have been racist to some extent. Lincoln held the view, “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” (Foner 154).
Furthermore, later as President, Lincoln strongly held the view that even being antislavery, it was not his responsibility nor job to pursue the agenda. He suggested that it was a “judgment” and “feeling” that the Presidency does not have the right to act on. In the letter to Hodges, he wrote, “I understood, too, that in ordinary civil administration this oath even forbade me to practically indulge my primary abstract judgment on the moral question of slavery” (“Letter to Albert Hodges”). Like many Republicans, he supported a gradual and voluntary end to slavery, meaning that individual slave owners and states would choose whether participation in the long-term plan for ending slavery, for which they would be compensated by the federal government for their losses (Black).
Until near the end of his life, Lincoln maintained that the Constitution did not provide the executive branch the authority to abolish slavery; it was in the hands of Congress, and even then, preferably with the support of state legislatures. Even as he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, his position on the Constitutional issue did not shift; in fact, it was largely viewed as a political war measure, as it strongly undermined the Confederacy’s ability to wage war (Black). When Lincoln indicated that he neither wanted to preserve slavery nor destroy it, as discussed earlier, in the same correspondence, he explicitly stated, “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” (Lincoln, “Abraham Lincoln Papers”). The Civil War was tremendously taxing on the Union and its people, and Lincoln sought to end it. Towards the very end of the war, when the Union was evidently winning, Lincoln was spending significantly less time and resources on pushing the Thirteenth Amendment in Congress and state ratification.
Lincoln was undoubtedly involved in the emancipation efforts. However, his position and rhetoric had always focused on shifting the responsibility from the President to Congressional and state leaders, as well as the common people. He did not oppose emancipation, but he believed it would only be meaningful after dialogue and deliberation with the American people. Potentially, the Emancipation Proclamation was rushed, serving as a war and propaganda tactic. Legally, it had little impact until the Thirteenth Amendment was passed. While subsequent Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments contributed to establishing the former slaves and giving them the right to vote, as well-known, the ex-Confederate states did not accept this position. They implemented various measures of voter suppression and intimidation of black communities. Lincoln realized that, just as before the Civil War, the South could not be subdued with aggressive liberal policy (Wilson 464).
Potentially, that is the outcome that Lincoln sought to avoid; instead of a swift end to slavery, he would have liked to see a gradual transition, but one where the fact would have been accepted. As mentioned earlier, he was antislavery, but he was not an abolitionist; he did not see it as a moral wrong that must be ended immediately. To Lincoln, ending slavery was a matter of policy for the socioeconomic benefit of the country. According to Frederick Douglas, he was “preeminently the white man’s President,” and his goals were not aligned with ending slavery or revitalizing the black community (Wilson 452). Lincoln’s legacy is difficult to contest given his iconic status in history and public mind, but investigating the details of his life and Presidency, it is evident that it remains more complex than the lauded labels given to his achievements.
Abraham Lincoln was a great man and strong politician that carried the burden of governing and reunifying the country during the Civil War. It was a highly complicated time with sophisticated politics often involved in policy decisions. Legacy and historians attribute Lincoln as being the person behind ending slavery. However, evidence suggests that while he held an antislavery position and did contribute to policies that resulted in ending slavery, he was not alone in achieving this outcome and supported the effort largely for political reasons.
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“House Divided Speech.” National Park Service, Web.
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