Lincoln's Evolving Views On Race

Textbooks often teach President Abraham Lincoln as “The Great Emancipator,” however, this narrative requires further examination. Embracing the legacy of Lincoln’s January 1, 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, which declared all enslaved individuals in territories in open rebellion against the Union free, and the 13th Amendment ignores the work of the many Americans, black and white, who fought to end slavery. Further, while it may speak to Lincoln’s antislavery views, it discourages students from examining his complicated personal and political views related to race.

In order to effectively understand Lincoln’s views on race, students need adequate context and access to the original records to evaluate how his views reflected the beliefs of the society in which he lived and how they may have changed over time. In this Teaching Guide, we have provided key historical context, primary sources, and transcripts to help you lead a student examination of Lincoln's evolving views on race prior to and during his Presidency. Scans of each original record are included below and we provide full and excerpted transcripts for classroom use.

The Candidate

In the 1850s, slavery, and the potential to legally expand its boundaries, splintered Northern and Southern Democrats and divided the Whig party into “warring factions” (Senate.gov, n.d.). Founded in 1854, the Republican Party was, in many ways, a response to the Kansas-Nebraska Act that allowed settlers in new states to determine if slavery would be allowed within their borders. As a coalition of northern Democrats and Whigs against the expansion of slavery, the Republican party called for the repeal of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

In the midst of these explosive debates, Abraham Lincoln, a lawyer and politician from Springfield, Illinois, began to rise to political prominence. During this time, it is possible that he drafted the following definition of what democracy meant to him. Although the original paper is undated and he never shared it publicly, the editor of the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln believes Lincoln wrote this definition in August of 1858.

In that same year, Lincoln decided to enter the mid-term election for Illinois’s United States Senate seat as the Republican Party’s candidate. Running against incumbent Senator Stephen A. Douglas, the two candidates engaged in a series of seven debates in 1858. In the sixth debate, held at Quincy, Illinois, on October 13, 1858, Lincoln responded to Douglas’s assertion that he sees no “distinction between races.” Printed in the Chicago Daily Press and Tribune on October 15, 1858, Lincoln replied:

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... 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 intermingling with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which will 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. I am as much as any other man in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.

Although Lincoln’s response was reflective of the “antiblack environment that was mid-nineteenth century Illinois (and, in general, the rest of the country as well)” and drew cheers from the present crowd, it was, “a statement that to the present day allows Lincoln’s critics to challenge his commitment to fairness and equal treatment” (Medford, 2015, p. 24).

Lincoln lost the election to Douglas. However, he “won national acclaim” through the debates and “Republicans took control of the House and swept northern gubernatorial races,” while “Democrats maintained a majority in the Senate” (Senate.gov, n.d.).

First Inaugural Address

After a bitter six-month campaign between four potential candidates, Abraham Lincoln was elected as the Republican candidate for the President of the United States in November of 1860. While he won 54% of the vote in the North and West, only 2% of the Southern vote went to Lincoln and most of those votes came from Missouri (Holzer, 2008). His election drew predictions of "gloom and storm” from Democrats who had threatened secession upon his election (Holzer, 2008).

At the time of his inauguration on March 4, 1861, seven states, including South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas, had seceded from the Union citing various causes but unanimously committed to protecting slavery from the perceived threat of a Republican administration. In this political speech, Lincoln primarily directs his address to Southerners, attempting to draw them back into the Union. As a Republican, Lincoln adamantly opposed the expansion of slavery yet, in his speech, he attempted to reassure Southerners that he had no intention of interfering with slavery where it already existed. To that end, Lincoln specifically references the Fugitive Slave Clause of the United States Constitution (Article IV, Section II, Clause III)—a clause that guaranteed enslavers the right to repossess enslaved individuals who escaped to other states.

The Emancipation Proclamation and Exchange with Horace Greeley

During the summer of 1862, Lincoln privately debated how to use a presidential decree to emancipate enslaved individuals in the Southern states. Drawing on the general laws of war, he decided he had the power, as Commander-in-Chief, to seize the property of individuals who lived in Confederate states if it was necessary to end their rebellion. Justifying his actions as "military necessity,” however, “could be tricky” (Medford, p. 55). In order for a proclamation of emancipation to work, Lincoln needed national and international allies to recognize his decision as a legitimate step in bringing about the end of the war. Without their recognition, his proclamation would be open to significant challenge.

Lincoln first discussed his idea with Secretary of State William H. Seward and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles on July 13, 1862 and shared the draft below with his full Cabinet on July 22. The draft met mixed reactions—two Cabinet members remained silent, one whole-heartedly agreed, one “objected strenuously,” and the remaining two voiced various cautions and concerns (Medford, p. 55). He was not seeking their approval and their concerns “did not deter Lincoln from his decision to proceed...however, he did accept Seward’s suggestion that he wait for a Union battlefield victory before releasing the proclamation” (Medford, p. 55).

While Lincoln and his Cabinet privately deliberated when to release the Emancipation Proclamation, vocal Northern abolitionists, including Horace Greeley, editor and founder of the New York Tribune, argued that Lincoln had not done enough to end slavery. On August 19, 1862, Greeley published an impassioned editorial calling for Lincoln to free all enslaved individuals in the Union’s territories.  Entitled “The Prayer of Twenty Millions,” Greeley also called for Lincoln and the Union’s generals to enforce the Confiscation Acts of 1861 and 1862, thus, in his mind, encouraging enslaved individuals to defect to Union territories and support their cause.

Although Lincoln “could have simply replied that he was in the process of doing what Greeley demanded,” as historian Eric Foner (2010) notes, he, instead, “chose to interpret Greeley’s letter as a call for immediate and total abolition” (p. 228). On August 22, 1862, just three days after Greeley’s “The Prayer of Twenty Millions” ran in the Tribune, Lincoln sent his reply to Greeley via a competitor—the Washington National Intelligencer (Foner, 2010). In his response, Lincoln said:

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...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.

Lincoln’s response was met with mixed reactions among Republicans. Some saw it as “the ‘best enunciation’ yet of slavery’s relationship to the war effort,” while Wendell Phillips, an abolitionist crusader, believed it to be “‘the most disgraceful document that ever came from the head of a free people’” (Foner, 2010, p. 228). There were those, however, including Tribune managing editor Sydney Howard Gay, who saw the letter as Lincoln’s attempt to prepare citizens for an announcement that “the ‘destruction of slavery’ as necessary to save the Union” (Foner, p. 228). While there is no question that preservation of the Union was Lincoln’s first and foremost priority, it is clear, based on his work on the draft Emancipation Proclamation, that he considered emancipation long before this interaction with Greeley.

So why write a response that seemingly belied his private stance? While Lincoln often drew “a distinction between professional responsibilities and personal beliefs,” in this instance, he needed to “[prepare] northern public opinion for a change in policy on which he had already decided” (Foner, 2010, p. 229). Years later, even Greeley, who published Lincoln’s letter and his reply in the August 25, 1862 edition of the Tribune, noted that Lincoln’s response did not address his editorial, instead using it to prepare public opinion for his “altered position” on emancipation (Linn, 1903, ch. 8).


On September 17, 1862, General George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac defeated General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at the Battle of Antietam. The battle, which began at dawn and ended as night fell, saw an estimated 22,717 casualties and 3,654 deaths (American Battlefield Trust). The battle was, and still is, the deadliest single-day battle in American military history. After admitting defeat, General Lee retreated to Virginia, ending his attempts to invade the north.

For Lincoln, Antietam was the Union victory Seward had encouraged him to wait for. On September 22, 1862, just five days after the victory at Antietam, Lincoln released his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that if the Confederacy did not cease fighting and rejoin the Union within the next 100 days, enslaved individuals living in areas actively rebelling against the Union would be freed. On January 1, 1863, one hundred days after his preliminary proclamation, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, making freedom official for some.

As a military measure, Lincoln hoped the Emancipation Proclamation would inspire those enslaved in the South to support the Union cause—particularly since it gave African Americans the right to serve in the U.S. Military. He also hoped it would prevent international powers from recognizing the legitimacy of the Confederate States of America. When it came to the rights of black Americans, however, the Emancipation Proclamation was limited. It only freed enslaved individuals who lived in states actively rebelling while doing nothing to address slavery in the border states or parts of the Confederacy that had already fallen under Union control.

Although the Emancipation Proclamation did not end American slavery, it fundamentally changed the nature of the war as every Union advance meant the expansion of freedom of black Americans. The proclamation also “confirmed [the] insistence of [enslaved individuals],” many of whom had been fighting for their own freedom since before the war began, “that the war for the Union must become a war for freedom” (NARA, 2009a).

Second Inaugural Address

At the time of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, the Civil War, which began a month into his presidency and ended just five days before his death, had not yet concluded. Modern estimates place the death toll for the war as high as 750,000 (Gugliotta, 2012). As the nation’s Commander-in-Chief, Lincoln’s speech reflected on the previous four years of death and destruction and indicated his reflection that the war could be God’s punishment for the sins of slavery. Neither side, North or South, was excluded from this condemnation and Lincoln makes clear his desire to destroy slavery, rather than limit its expansion (Tucker, 2021).

Rather than highlighting Union accomplishments or speaking to an increasingly likely Union victory, however, Lincoln took a forgiving tone, as he encouraged his fellow Americans to embrace reconciliation and healing.

Last Public Address

In his last public address, Lincoln highlighted the importance of reconstruction, specifically focusing on the readmission of Louisiana to the Union. He wrote most of the speech several weeks prior, in an unsuccessful attempt to advocate for Louisiana’s readmission to the Union. However, on April 11, 1865, just two days after Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse, Lincoln saw an opportunity to present Louisiana’s case to the public.

As he described the work of 12,000 Louisianans loyal to the Union who had abolished slavery within the state, Lincoln, for the first time, publicly stated that he favored giving some black men, including the “very intelligent and...those who serve our cause as soldiers” the right to vote. His public endorsement of limited black suffrage prompted John Wilkes Booth, who stood watching from the crowd, to “declare ‘that is the last speech he will ever make’” (Masur, 2015). Three days later, on April 14, 1865, Booth shot Lincoln as he watched a play in Ford’s Theatre, fatally wounding the 16th President of the United States.

References

American Battlefield Trust. (n.d.). Antietam: Sharpsburg. Retrieved from https://www.battlefields.org/learn/civil-war/battles/antietam

Foner, E. (2010). The fiery trial: Abraham Lincoln and American slavery. W.W. Norton & Company.

Gugliotta, G. (2012, April 2). New estimate raises Civil War death toll. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/03/science/civil-war-toll-up-by-20-percent-in-new-estimate.html

Holzer, H. (2008, November). Election day 1860. Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved from https://smithsonianmag.com/history/election-day-1860-84266675/

Lincoln, A. (1861, March) Abraham Lincoln papers: Series 1. General Correspondence. -1916: Abraham Lincoln, March 1861 First Inaugural Address, Final Version. [Manuscript/Mixed Material]. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/mal0773800/

Lincoln, A. (1862) Abraham Lincoln papers: Series 1. General Correspondence. 1833 to 1916: Abraham Lincoln, Tuesday, Preliminary Draft of Emancipation Proclamation. [Manuscript/Mixed Material]. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/mal1723200/.

Lincoln, A. (1863, January 1). Emancipation Proclamation, January 1, 1863; Presidential Proclamations, 1791-1991; Record Group 11; General Records of the United States Government. [Manuscript/Mixed Material]. Retrieved from the National Archives, https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=34

Linn, W. A. (1903). Horace Greeley, founder and editor of the New York Tribune. D. Appleton and Company. Retrieved from http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A2001.05.0180%3Achapter%3D9#note4

Masur, L. P. (2015, May 9). Why Lincoln’s last speech matters. OUP Blog. Retrieved from https://blog.oup.com/2015/05/lincolns-last-speech-matters/

Medford, E. G. (2015). Lincoln and emancipation [Concise Lincoln Library]. Southern Illinois University Press.

National Archives and Records Administration [NARA]. (2009a). Emancipation Proclamation. Our Documents. Retrieved from https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=34

National Archives and Records Administration [NARA]. (2009b). President Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. Our Documents. Retrieved from https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=38

Senate.gov. The 1858 midterm election. Historical Highlights. Retrieved from https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/minute/The_1858_Midterm_Election.htm

Tucker, N. (2021, January 21). Inauguration stories: Lincoln’s 1865 “With Malice Toward None” speech. Library of Congress Blog. Retrieved from https://blogs.loc.gov/loc/2021/01/inauguration-stories-lincolns-1865-with-malice-toward-none-speech/

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