The Icon Series: Reevaluating The Legacy of Abraham Lincoln and Slavery

7 months ago Ricardo Hylton 0

“I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I cannot remember when I did not so think, and feel.”

There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of Abraham Lincoln’s emphatic declaration, written in April 1864, three years into the American Civil War. But as with so much of his early life, the origins of his thoughts and feelings about slavery remain shrouded in mystery.


A God Amongst Mere Men?

It would be fair to say that Abraham Lincoln is probably the most revered and deified president in American history. On inauguration night 2008, Barack Obama spoke of Abraham Lincoln in esteemed, hallowed terms. President Obama has long cited his fellow president from Illinois in the defining moments of his political career.

He announced his presidential candidacy in Springfield, Ill., Abraham Lincoln’s hometown. He studied up on Lincoln’s writings shortly after winning his first election in 2008. He framed his first inaugural address after that of the “Great Emancipator”, ripping its title from a line in the Gettysburg Address. On a number of occasions, he’s quoted (and even misquoted) the 16th president to drive home a point.

But the Lincoln deification is far from an Obama only pursuit. It is pretty much the same for Republicans and Democrats; blacks, white and Latinos; Americans, Germans and British. Lincoln isn’t merely considered the greatest President. He is often touted as the greatest American of all time. The invisible aliens find this curious. We aim to chronicle said history as it was; not necessarily the history our textbooks told us.


What’s The 411?

So what is the Lincoln narrative? Pick up a typical biography of the man and it will say that he was born in 1809 into an obscure backwoods family in a one-room Kentucky log cabin, and subsequently supplied with scant formal education. It will say that his mother died when he was 9 years old and his father married a widow. Though his education was limited to a few months in a one-teacher school, this frontier lawyer held the nation together through the worst crisis in its history. A leader of weaker will or fainter vision might well have failed either to win the Civil War or end the institution of slavery.

Growing to a muscular 6’4″, he supported himself by manual labor until he was 21. He continued his self-education while serving as storekeeper, militia captain in the Black Hawk War, and postmaster.

During this period, Lincoln also began his private study of law, borrowing books from a local attorney, and was licensed to practice in 1836.

It will say that in 1847, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and became known for both his opposition to the thievery at the heart of the Mexican War and the institution of slavery. After switching allegiance to the new Republican Party in 1856, Lincoln ran for the U.S. Senate against Stephen A. Douglas. Though Lincoln lost, the race attracted national attention because of the candidates widely reported debates over the issue of slavery in the territories.

By the time Lincoln arrived in Washington to be sworn in as the nation’s 16th president, 4 Mar. 1861, the Confederate States of America had been formed. A Civil War ensued.

It will say, a man of gentle spirit, Lincoln accepted the fact that only a vigorous prosecution of the war would restore the Union. His will to win never flagged despite enormous battle casualties and much political opposition, a substantial amount of it coming from members of his cabinet and from among the Radical Republicans.

Lincoln kept the nation together and freed the slaves, goes the narrative. A self made man of impeccable morals, goes the narrative. Is this true?


Abraham Lincoln Was No Emancipator

Because of Lincoln’s special place in U.S. history, and especially in his role as the “Great Emancipator,” it can be difficult to face certain facts squarely, such as the fact that Lincoln came late to the anti-slavery cause and, at every stage, trailed behind others who were more committed, more able to rise above the pervasive racism, more willing to risk their reputations for the cause. But no abolitionist could ever have become president in 1860.


Lincoln didn’t believe blacks should have the same rights as whites.

Though Lincoln argued that the founding fathers’ phrase “All men are created equal” applied to blacks and whites alike, this did not mean he thought they should have the same social and political rights. His views became clear during an 1858 series of debates with his opponent in the Illinois race for U.S. Senate, Stephen Douglas, who had accused him of supporting “negro equality.” In their fourth debate, at Charleston, Illinois, on September 18, 1858, Lincoln made his position clear.

“I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in anyway 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 intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever 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 and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied everything.”

Like his views on emancipation, Lincoln’s position on social and political equality for African-Americans would evolve over the course of his presidency. In the last speech of his life, delivered on April 11, 1865, he argued for limited black suffrage, saying that any black man who had served the Union during the Civil War should have the right to vote.


Lincoln Was No Abolitionist.

During the 1830s and ‘40s, when he was an Illinois legislator and a practicing lawyer, Lincoln was involved in a smattering of cases involving slavery. He represented clients on both sides of the issue. In the worst instance, he represented a Kentucky slaveholder seeking to have his slaves returned to him by the courts of Illinois. (Lincoln lost the case, by the way.)

In letters and occasional remarks that have been preserved, he expressed his view that it was morally wrong for one human to own another.  (“As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master…”)

But, in the middle and late 1850s, as Lincoln shifted from the Whigs to the newly formed Republican Party, slavery became much more central to Lincoln and the years being “quiet about it” ended.


Who Wins When It is Morality versus The Constitution?

Lincoln did believe that slavery was morally wrong, but there was one big problem: the highest law in the land, the Constitution, sanctioned it. The nation’s founding fathers, who also struggled with how to address slavery, did not explicitly write the word “slavery” in the Constitution, but they did include key clauses protecting the institution, including a fugitive slave clause and the three-fifths clause, which allowed Southern states to count slaves for the purposes of representation in the federal government.

In a three-hour speech in Peoria, Illinois, in the fall of 1854, Lincoln presented more clearly than ever his moral, legal and economic opposition to slavery—and then admitted he didn’t know exactly what should be done about it within the current political system.

True abolitionists, by contrast, knew exactly what should be done about it: slavery should be immediately abolished, and freed slaves should be incorporated as equal members of society. They didn’t care about working within the existing political system, or under the Constitution, which they saw as unjustly protecting slavery and slave owners. Leading abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison called the Constitution “a covenant with death and an agreement with Hell,” and went so far as to burn a copy at a Massachusetts rally in 1854.

Though Lincoln saw himself as working alongside the abolitionists on behalf of a common anti-slavery cause, he did not count himself among them. Only with emancipation, and with his support of the eventual 13th Amendment, would Lincoln finally win over the most committed abolitionists.


Lincoln thought colonization could resolve the issue of slavery. 

For much of his career, Lincoln believed that colonization—or the idea that a majority of the African-American population should leave the United States and settle in Africa or Central America—was the best way to confront the problem of slavery. His two great political heroes, Henry Clay and Thomas Jefferson, had both favored colonization; both were slave owners who took issue with aspects of slavery but saw no way that blacks and whites could live together peaceably.

Lincoln first publicly advocated for colonization in 1852, and in 1854 said that his first instinct would be “to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia” (the African state founded by the American Colonization Society in 1821).

Nearly a decade later, even as he edited the draft of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in August of 1862, Lincoln hosted a delegation of freed slaves at the White House in the hopes of getting their support on a plan for colonization in Central America.

Given the “differences” between the two races and the hostile attitudes of whites towards blacks, Lincoln argued, it would be “better for us both, therefore, to be separated.” Lincoln’s support of colonization provoked great anger among black leaders and abolitionists, who argued that African-Americans were as much natives of the country as whites, and thus deserved the same rights.

Even late in the Civil War, he held a meeting with African-American leaders to urge them to get behind the colonization idea (and even suggested that since it was the presence of blacks in the United States that had caused the Civil War, they were under some obligation to cooperate).


The Civil War Was Never About Freeing Negroes

As much as he hated the institution of slavery, Lincoln didn’t see the Civil War as a struggle to free the nation’s 4 million slaves from bondage. Emancipation, when it came, would have to be gradual, and the important thing to do was to prevent the Southern rebellion from severing the Union permanently in two.

But as the Civil War entered its second summer in 1862, thousands of slaves had fled Southern plantations to Union lines, and the federal government didn’t have a clear policy on how to deal with them. Emancipation, Lincoln saw, would further undermine the Confederacy while providing the Union with a new source of manpower to crush the rebellion.

In July 1862 the president presented his draft of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet. Secretary of State William Seward urged him to wait until things were going better for the Union on the field of battle, or emancipation might look like the last gasp of a nation on the brink of defeat. Lincoln agreed and returned to edit the draft over the summer. On September 17 the bloody Battle of Antietam gave Lincoln the opportunity he needed. He issued the preliminary proclamation to his cabinet on September 22, and it was published the following day.

The Emancipation Proclamation was not a universal declaration. It detailed where slaves were freed, only in those states “in rebellion against the United States.” Slaves remained slaves in states not in rebellion — such as Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware. The civil war was a war over states and their right to leave he Union. The slaves got caught in the middle of a quarrel.