Examining Lincoln’s Views on African Americans and Slavery
Since his assassination, Abraham Lincoln has often been referred to as the “Great Emancipator.” While he played a critical role in ending American chattel slavery through the Emancipation Proclamation and 13th Amendment, the truth is more complicated. Many Americans, Black and White, fought to end slavery, both during and before the Civil War. Further, while Lincoln opposed slavery, he held complex political and personal views on the institution and African Americans that changed over time.
To effectively understand Lincoln’s evolving views on African Americans, students need adequate context and access to primary sources. In this Teaching Guide, we have provided historical context and scans of primary sources with transcriptions (full and excerpts) to help you lead students through an examination of Lincoln’s views on African Americans and slavery.
In the 1850s, slavery and the potential to legally expand its boundaries disrupted the American political system, splitting the Democratic Party into northern and southern factions and destroying the Whig Party. A coalition of former Whigs, disgruntled Democrats, anti-slavery advocates, and others formed the Republican Party in reaction to this crisis. The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act provided the main spark that allowed settlers in new states to determine if slavery would be legal within their borders. Republicans wanted to repeal this act that destroyed the previous Missouri Compromise and potentially opened all Western territories to legal slavery.
Abraham Lincoln, a lawyer and politician from Springfield, Illinois, rose to prominence as one of the founders of the Republican Party. Lincoln may have written this note, known today as the “Definition of Democracy,” during that time. It is undated but was probably written in the post Kansas-Nebraska period, as it shows Lincoln working out his stance on slavery and democracy.
In 1858, Lincoln challenged U.S. Senator and leading Democrat Stephen A. Douglas for his seat. The two candidates engaged in a series of seven debates across Illinois. In the sixth debate, held in Quincy on October 13, 1858, Lincoln responded to Douglas’s assertion that Lincoln saw 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—that 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.
Lincoln was campaigning against a Democrat accusing him of being an abolitionist, and Lincoln responded in a way that he believed would generate support from the audience. In doing so, he reveals his potential racial biases, along with their own. It is a difficult, much debated passage that should be considered within the context of his time and the rest of the argument he presented.
Although Lincoln lost the election to Douglas, his skillful arguments in the debates made him a national figure, eventually enabling him to win the 1860 Republican presidential nomination.
First Inaugural Address
After a bitter campaign between four candidates, Abraham Lincoln won the election in November 1860. While he swept the North, Lincoln did not carry the border the states and did not receive any votes in the Deep South. Southern Democrats believed Lincoln’s election posed a direct threat to slavery and many immediately began planning for secession.
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 and formed the Confederate States of America. In his Inaugural Address, Lincoln primarily directed his address to White 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 referenced the Constitution’s Fugitive Slave Clause (Article IV, Section II, Clause III) 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 whether emancipation should be used to help defeat the Confederacy. Drawing on the general laws of war, he decided he had the power, as Commander-in-Chief, to seize the property, including enslaved persons, of individuals who lived in Confederate states if it was necessary to end their rebellion. Justifying his actions as "military necessity,” would require the support of the international community, the Republican Party, and commanders on the ground—not to mention the enslaved people themselves.
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 ranging from silence, to agreement, to strenuous objection, and to various cautions and concerns. Although he was not seeking the cabinet members’ approval, Lincoln valued their judgement and accepted Seward’s suggestion that he wait for a major battlefield victory before issuing the proclamation.
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 under the Union’s control. Entitled “The Prayer of Twenty Millions,” Greeley also called for Lincoln and his generals to more fully enforce the Confiscation Acts of 1861 and 1862, especially the latter’s provision for freeing enslaved people under protection of the U. S. military.
Ironically, Lincoln was privately pursuing most of what Greeley demanded he do publicly. This freed him to use Greeley’s letter to explain his deliberations over the issue of emancipation without revealing he had already made up his mind. 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. 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 unsurprisingly provoked varied reactions. Abolitionists viewed it as a moral outrage while moderates approved of its measured tone. There were those, however, including Tribune managing editor Sydney Howard Gay, who recognized Lincoln was likely preparing the public for a more direct assault against slavery.
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 saw an estimated 22,717 casualties and 3,654 deaths. It was, and still is, the deadliest single-day battle in American history.
On September 22, 1862, just five days later, Lincoln seized on the victory and released his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. It declared that if the Confederacy did not cease fighting and rejoin the Union before the end of the year, enslaved individuals living in areas actively rebelling against the Union would be “forever free.” On January 1, 1863, one hundred days after his preliminary proclamation, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
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 Black men 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 for Black Americans. In doing so, it affirmed the efforts of thousands of African Americans who had pressured the government and the military through the press and by fleeing their enslavers to make slavery’s destruction a Northern war aim.
Second Inaugural Address
By the time of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, the Civil War, which began a month into his presidency, had not yet concluded. Modern estimates place the death toll for the war as high as 750,000, and Lincoln’s speech reflected on the four years of death and destruction and the possibility that the war could be God’s punishment for the sins of slavery. Neither side, North nor South, was excluded from this condemnation and Lincoln made clear his desire to destroy slavery, rather than limit its expansion.
Instead of 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 Southern 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. 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 by any president, publicly stated that he favored giving at least 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.” Three days later, on April 14, 1865, Booth shot Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre, fatally wounding the 16th President of the United States. Because of Booth, it would be left for others to lead southern Reconstruction.
Foner, E. (2010, October 11). Lincoln's evolving thoughts on slavery, and freedom [Author Interview]. NPR Fresh Air. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2010/10/11/130489804/lincolns-evolving-thoughts-on-slavery-and-freedom
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
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
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