Did Abraham Lincoln Free the Slaves?


During the American Civil War, the country experienced considerable events and changes. In particular, the United States saw the establishment of two oppositions between the Confederate States of American and the Union, the abolition of slaves and the governance of the president Abraham Lincoln who changed the fate of slaves forever. In particular, his Emancipation Proclamation triggered the emergence of liberation movements and stopped the confrontation between the slaves and their owners.

However, this question is quite disputable as it gave rise to disputes among the critics. In particular, Stephen Oates in his book Abraham Lincoln: Man behind the Myths argues that the president was liable for penalizing the unprecedented use of military power against state institutions with the help of the adoption of Emancipation Proclamation. This executive order further encouraged slaves to abandon the farms and plantations of the slaves’ owners.

On the other hand, Harding’s book There is a River: the Black Struggle for Freedom in America expresses the idea that slaves were the initiators of the dramatic movement for self-liberation. In this respect, Abraham Lincoln refused to recognize that the main goal of war was to extinct the slavery, which resulted in adapting the Emancipation Proclamation. However, this act failed to impart the slaves with freedom in the areas beyond the control of the Confederate. My strong belief is that the introduction of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation has triggered the rise of liberation movements and contributed to absolute destruction of slavery.

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Harding’s first mentioning Abraham Lincoln policy towards the African Americans is reduced to author’s following statement: “The recently formed Republican Party and its spokesmen, like Abraham Lincoln, while generally supporting some qualified civil rights for black people, had made clear their essential commitment to white supremacy” (1993, p. 220). In the book, Harding explains the Emancipation Proclamation as Lincoln reaction to the pressures from the North.

Further, Harding states that the penalties imposed on the army have been explained by Lincoln’s desire to fit his needs. In particular, the book reveals that Abraham Lincoln “could serve as a mythic symbol of Emancipations” (Harding, 1993, p. 284) In this regards, Vincent Harding insists on the idea that, though the president was an honest personality for whom the human liberty was the priority, he could not accept the supremacy of the blacks.

Therefore, slavery meant to him as the infringement of human rights, but that did not mean that he accepted the equality of races. The author also observes some extent of ambiguity related to Lincoln’s attitude to black people. On the one hand, the president addresses the issues of injustice towards slaves and strives to abolish it by all means. On the other hand, Lincoln clearly singled out the physical disparities between the black and white race. Moreover, Harding believes that the Emancipation Proclamation failed to liberate the slaves on the territories, since the immediate exemption took place in the Union-occupied territories. Therefore, this act was declared as ill defined, as it also failed to free the slaves on other than Union-occupied territories.

Addressing the contradictable issues, Harding puts forward the idea that slaves were the triggering power in launching the liberating movement. According to Harping, the African-American society was the only one that encouraged the adoption of the Proclamation so that it was not initiated by Lincoln. Despite the president’s outright pronouncements concerning the veritable reasons of war, the black people decided to organize an independent movement and to start the campaign of real liberation of slavery and establishment of national identity. By risking their lives and abandoning their masters, they strived to put an independent freedom as the prior task of the national agenda.

In contrast to the Harping, Oates book called Abraham Lincoln: The Man Behind the Myths reveals the fact in favor of the Emancipation Proclamation and the president policy. From the first pages, he describes Lincoln as the person who sacrificed his life for the sake of human liberty and equality, and as the person who stood against the slavery abolition. However, Oates shatters the myths about Lincoln’s character, as many considered him as martyr-saint who respected truth and religion. In fact, Oates gave the description that can hardly coincide with the description of an ideal person.

Though he was indifferent to religion and was definitely committed to white supremacy, he extremely despised slavery and the infringement of human rights. In this respect, the author states: “[i]n Lincoln’s view, bondage was the one retrograde institution that disfigured the American experiment….” (Oates, 1994, p. 61). For Lincoln, the presence of slavery as itself was inadmissible for building an independent and powerful country. As a justification of Lincoln’s fidelity to the white race, the president belonging to the Republican Party dictated his political views thus leaving him no choice. Therefore, the only way to justify the political position was to beseech “southerners no to deny their true feelings about slavery” and “to regard bondage strictly as a necessity as the fathers had so regarded it…” (Oates, 1994, p. 68).

In his book, Oates also believes that the opposition to slavery was largely predetermined by the reluctance of southern whites to be left without labor force. In this respect, Lincoln called for the whites’ awareness to stop the policy of containment and usher the independent country. This evidence proves that myth about Lincoln’s unequal attitude to the black can be shattered as well. In addition to this, Oates claims that the main goal of the Republican Party was “to reform the American system – to bring their nation into line with the Declaration’s premise – by ridding it of slavery…” (1994, p. 96).

Finally, Oates pays attention to the idea that Lincoln’s Proclamation contributed to the rise of liberation movement and became the reason of absolute abolition of slavery in the end of the Civil War. The order radically changed the character of the war thus acquiring the status of destruction of slavery war.

It should be admitted that both authors have presented a chain of rather persuasive arguments for and against the Lincoln’s role in struggle against slavery. Hence, the Harpings explanations sound as rather categorical and straight, there is a single hint at positive intentions of Lincoln’s Proclamation, since his primary goals did not correspond to the actual matters. Despite the idea that author agrees with Lincoln reluctance to accept slavery, Harping criticizes his decisive role in those events during the Civil war.

Instead, he gives a prior importance to the desperate aspiration of the African-Americans for liberty and national identity as the triggering points for the extinction of slavery. Oates’s view on Lincoln’s contribution to the American history and to anti-slavery movements is more contradicting and ambiguous. However, each disputable point of the books was consistently justified by the author by evidence extracted from history. Therefore, one cannot but agree that Oates presentation of facts was quite persuasive, but still he failed to explain what the veritable political views of the president were.

In my opinion, a closer consideration of both books allows to consider Abraham Lincoln as the outright supporter of slavery abolition and human liberty. However, now I am more inclined to think that Lincoln did not recognize the human equality, as he was committed to the white supremacy. Furthermore, the fact about Lincoln initial rejection to provide the emancipation has led me to the idea that the destruction of slavery was primary predetermined by the desire of the black people to restore their identity and freedom. I also admit the Oates’ point about the function of Emancipations Proclamation as the prevention from the illegal use of power and as the spark triggering the slaves’ rebellion.

As for Harping’s view, it sound more subjective and unpersuasive, since his consideration of Lincoln’s racial preferences and the matter of bondage are irrelevant in the situation. More importantly, the slaves’ eternal desire to be liberated would be impossible without the imposition of the Emancipation Proclamations; even if it did not liberated the black people immediate, it prepared a fertile ground for the introduction of 13th Amendment.


In conclusion, the consideration of the book by Oates and Harping has caused the appearance of disputable questions concerning the character representation of the 16th president of the United States and his attitude to slavery. Hence, Lincoln is represented as a dual personality devoted both to the white race and, at the same time, he is loyal to his outright desire to establish justice, peace and equal relations within the country. A different point of view was presented by Oates who sees Lincoln as an exclusively desperate fighter for freedom and independence and his commitment to the whites was predetermined by the pressure set by the white society of the South. Nevertheless, Lincoln can still be regarded as the emancipator of slavery, although his attempt was not successful.

Works Cited

Harping, Vincent. There is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America. US: Mariner Books, 1993.

Oates, Stephen B. Abraham Lincoln: Man Behind the Myths. US: Harper Perennial, 1994.

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