Abraham Lincoln Part 3: A deeper insight on Lincoln’s stance on Abolition


Abraham Lincoln is a giant in American history, and for good reason: he did the impossible in keeping a nation together when a third of it had committed to sever all ties and be their own nation. Any other leader would have crumbled under the divisive pressure. But there is one vital topic about Lincoln that is still incredibly misunderstood today with many sides that hold different ideologies pull from select pieces of Lincoln’s history to fit their agenda. That topic is, of course, slavery. It is incredible to observe one historian talk about Lincoln as the great abolitionist that dove into the bloodiest war in American history to free the slaves, and then find another historian authoritatively state that the war had nothing to do with slaves, but state rights and representation, and that Emancipation was only propaganda. It is this side where they cement their claim by quoting one of Lincoln’s public letters saying, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it.”

As with any polarizing story, the truth rests in a shade of grey that doesn’t reside purely on a single side. While I doubt I would be able to fully understand and represent Lincoln’s beliefs, there is much context to be found that can clarify more accurately the topic of slavery and Lincoln’s relation to it. I will talk a little bit about the macro perspective of slavery in America, but I’m mostly focusing on Lincoln.

If I were to give a summarized statement about Abraham Lincoln’s stance, I would say he was always against slavery, but recognized that it was too polarizing of a topic to tackle straight on, and waited for opportune times to fit abolition initiatives within broader political agendas. This approach proved to be effective, but it came at the expense of historical ambiguity. What was needed then was political maneuvering to use abolition as a tool to unify the Union and to dismantle the Confederacy; but that also meant some of Lincoln’s actions can be misinterpreted when looking back at the surface level.

Lincoln’s stance on slavery wasn’t a static belief, but continued to evolve over the years. Even as a child he believed slavery was wrong. He was raised in a household that was against slavery, and when his family had to move due to land disputes, the Lincolns chose to leave the slave-holding state of Kentucky to the free state of Illinois because of their stance on slavery. While he was raised in an anti-slavery household, Lincoln was a highly empathic individual, who was able to internalize the pains and emotions of others to a degree that was uncommon amongst his peers. The ideology of slavery being wrong must have been cemented in him from his own experience when his father would hire him out to other farms as a laborer. He could see how the lack of autonomy and submission to the rule of his father was only a fraction of the hardships the slaves were experiencing.

He grew up being against slavery, but questions of when and how had not yet been determined by him. Lincoln believed early on like the Founding Fathers that slavery would die off naturally as western expansion continued and as society continued to change, and thus spent many years trying to balance the line of being against slavery but not falling into the politically divisive category of being an “abolitionist.” Lincoln saw that falling into extreme side of the political spectrum neutralized his voice from being heard by the other side, and thus would isolate him in the political sphere. It was this inoffensive stance of being able to talk about the values of emancipation without calling for extreme measures for it as a politician that allowed the newly-formed Republican Party to resort to nominating him for President when more prominent names like, Governor William Seward & Governor Salmon Chase made too many enemies in their abolitionist pursuits to free slaves.

Balancing the Union with Abolition:

Once the war had begun, Lincoln hesitated to push for emancipation or even the enlistment of black free men into the Union Army; this isn’t because he opposed those measures, but rather he didn’t believe the timing was right. One of the greatest skills Lincoln possessed that has also caused much confusion in observing his end actions is that he had a keen insight into public perception and understanding how leverage perceptions to push people along. He understood that this war had many elements to it, and while the root cause can be identified as slavery, slavery alone was not yet a strong enough of a reason for a young white man to drop everything and risk his life for.

At the beginning, the focus of the war for the Union was primarily about preservation of the nation (for the South, it was always about preserving state rights…the right to have slaves); when the South seceded, it not only threaten to fragment the country, but it meant reducing the cumulative strength as a whole with the loss of the Southern textile industry. It also meant the Constitution was at risk since if the South could secede, which was unconstitutional, then it could invalidate the Constitution as a whole, and thus erode all that Americans believed made them unique. Not only that, but if the South secedes, and the Constitution is invalidated, then other states may leave as well and thus create a domino effect that breaks every state off as their own nation-state. This would mean the end of Manifest Destiny—the belief that it was God’s plan for America to expand to the whole continent and be a prosperous nation. To protect the union and Manifest Destiny, that was something worth fighting for and even dying for, not to free slaves who will just move up north and take their jobs. While northerners felt morally superior to the southerners for not having slavery, many still held racist viewpoints that even free black men were not socially equal to them, and so their fighting needed to about their preservation of power and the freeing of slaves could be a nice byproduct of it, but if this just turned into a moralist crusade, then it’s not worth fighting for.

Protecting the Union as a priority also had another angle to show the interconnectedness between the preservation of the Union and Abolition. Lincoln believed that the greatest act to assure the freedom of all slaves came from the act of demolishing the Confederacy; that abolition comes through Union victory and not as a separate entity. He needed to bring the slave states back in the Union in order to enact Abolition, otherwise if the Confederacy won, Lincoln would have no power to free those in bondage. Seward explained this rationale to his wife, Francis, when she became heated after reading Lincoln’s response to Horace Greeley, where she felt Lincoln was abandoning his stance on slavery. Seward said, “Suppose, for one moment, the Republic destroyed. With it is bound up not alone the destiny of a race, but the best hopes of all mankind. With its overthrow the sun of liberty, like the Hebrew dial, would be set back indefinitely. The magnitude of such a calamity is beyond our calculation.” This meant that Lincoln had to focus his narrative initially on the preservation of the Union, and Union alone. If he started pushing for emancipation or other initiatives that take on the plight of black people, he would be seen as not wholly invested in the preservation of the Union. This balance is really delicate and the fight for this narrative persisted the entire war since even in the final months of the war, the 13th Amendment was almost killed by the rumor of peace commissioners on their way to meet Lincoln. If there were peace commissioners and if they would agree on peace if they were able to keep their slaves, then the Northerners would get what they want, and as a result, if that offer was declined due to slavery, it could be spun by the border state Democrats that Lincoln was going to let more young white boys die just for slaves. Even though this was an almost impossibly delicate balance to maintain, Lincoln was able to expertly navigate the public narrative. He needed to be strategic about the timing on when he implemented initiatives that would put an end to the horrific practice of slavery.

What Lincoln realized was that even though he couldn’t get the Northerners to fight solely for freeing slaves, he could reverse the narrative so that freeing slaves became a tool for the end goal of crushing the rebellion and preserving the Union. He waited a couple years into the war for the country to have a long-term investment in the end result of the war until he announced his Emancipation Proclamation, which he shaped it as a strategy to demoralize the South. The Emancipation Proclamation was used as a military tactic to declare all slaves in the Confederate States to be recognized as free in the Union. If the slaves were to escape and cross over into Union territory or meet up with the Union Army, they would not be subject to the Fugitive Slave Law that required slaves to be returned to their master even if they crossed into a Free State. Since the war was now deeply entrenched, the idea was that many slaves would run to get their freedom, which would deplete Southerners of economic resources and would demoralize them; thus make surrender a more likely solution than before.

Emancipation also worked as a morale boost for the Northerners as well. While they would not fight solely for freeing slaves, the changed narrative that they were liberators cemented their belief that they were the morally right ones and that their enemy were the oppressors, and that this fight was truly a fight of good against evil.

Lincoln’s evolving views:

Lincoln’s viewpoint still wasn’t perfect, though. He was always against slavery, but the question of what happens after emancipation wasn’t as clearly defined for him. For many years, he resided with a minority of abolitionist thinking that all the slaves should be sent back to Africa. Before the war started, he thought he could resolve the slavery issue through economic means and thought the government should pay to purchase all the slaves and then send them away. Later when the war was on, he even invited a group of freed slaves to the White House and suggested the idea to them that it would be best for them to get a clean slate and start over new by colonizing part of Central America. While it was the first time black delegates were officially invited to the White House, Frederick Douglass ridiculed Lincoln for this idea that the solution was to push them out. He pointed how tone deaf Lincoln really was to the plight of black American and that the precedent had been set for whites to perceive black inferior due to the context they arrived to America as slaves; had they immigrated like Europeans, there wouldn’t have been such hostility. What Lincoln didn’t see then was that America was their home too; Africa was as much home to them as England was for Lincoln. Sending them away would be to evict them from their own homes and it showed that he saw blacks as others and not truly American. It seems that Lincoln finally learned from this as it appears to be the last time he ever mentioned colonization and all his measures from then-on-out were about bringing emancipation and black rights.

Lincoln and Frederick Douglass:

Perhaps the greatest example that validates Lincoln’s genuine support for black Americans comes from the great Frederick Douglass; a fiery man whose famous story of rising out of slavery had already inspired many, and became the leading voice in the abolitionist movement and a leading human rights advocate. He was a man who was ahead of his time and not only pushed for the abolition of slavery, but for full citizenship of black Americans, women, and immigrants. He was a man who pulled no punches and was willing to call someone out if he disagreed regardless of what the individual’s political stance was. When black soldiers were permitted in the Union Army, the Confederate Congress responded with an ordinance that called for “death or slavery every negro taken in arm, and every white officer who commands (them),” Douglass chastised Lincoln for delaying any retaliation for this barbaric ordinance. But Douglass also developed a strong relationship with Lincoln and also publicly praised Lincoln’s acts toward abolition. One of Douglass’ favorite stories to tell about Lincoln was when Lincoln had invited him to the White House to discuss a letter from a Wisconsin Democrat, Charles Robinson, who was asking for Lincoln to change his narrative toward peace even at the expense of total abolition. Lincoln had drafted an evasive response that he had Douglass read and suggested that he not send it since it would backfire and revert the narrative back to the war solely being about abolition. Then a messenger came in, telling Lincoln that the Governor of Connecticut was there to see him. Lincoln brushed off the messenger and said “Tell Governor Buckingham to wait, I want to have a long talk with my friend Douglass.” He would say, “He treated me as a man; he did not let me feel for a moment that there was any difference in the color of our skins! The President is a most remarkable man. I am satisfied now that he i doing all that circumstances will permit him to do.” Douglass also would talk about the first time he went to meet Lincoln for the first time when he showed up without a set appointment; he felt anxiety that he may be just accepted in the building and denied a meeting with Lincoln. When he arrived he saw there were already a large crowd of people there which only further deepened his belief that it was a fool’s errand. He signed in and expected to be there for hours, but only a few minutes later was ushered into meet Lincoln. Lincoln greeted him with warmth and consideration that Douglass would say in public speeches, “Perhaps you may like to know how the President of the United States received a black man at the White House… Just as you have seen one gentleman receive another. I tell you, I felt big there!”

Dismantling the Horace Greeley Letter:

I mentioned a quote from Lincoln that had been used to claim that Lincoln was not about slavery that said, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it.” I decided to wait until the end to discuss this, after establishing the context of Lincoln’s conduct when it came to delicate situations. The story is that Horace Greeley, one of the most prominent white abolitionists and early former of the Republican Party, wrote a public letter to Abraham Lincoln titled, “The Prayer of Twenty Millions” in August, 1862. Greeley chastised Lincoln for not pushing for emancipation and enforcing the Second Confiscation Act. Greeley argued that “all attempts to put down the Rebellion and at the same time uphold its inciting cause are preposterous and futile—that the Rebellion, if crushed out tomorrow, would be renewed within a year if Slavery were left in full vigor.”

What Greeley didn’t know was that Lincoln was already working ahead on these very things. He had actually already drafted his Emancipation Proclamation a month earlier, and was sitting on it until the Union Army showed some positive momentum. He would officially sign it on January 1st, 1863, but at that point nobody except Lincoln’s cabinet had known Lincoln had set in motion the course of abolishing slavery. As stated earlier, Lincoln had to balance a fine line; Lincoln couldn’t make the war solely about slavery otherwise he would lose the support of the Border States and Democratic support, even though he would win over the Republican support. But Lincoln used this situation as an opportunity to prime the pump for the public to see that emancipation could actually be a reality, but he also had to cover it with ambiguity as to not alarm the non-supporters. He needed to convey that preserving the Union was the goal, but the discussion may not be an either-or of choosing either preserving the Union or emancipating the slaves, but rather emancipation could possibly be the means of preserving the Union. He says,
“My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or 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 this Union, and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.”

The key word in all this is the word “Paramount,” it is used to assure the Border States and Democrats that the end objective is the Union. The biographer, David Herbert Donald adds that it is being used as terms like “foremost” and “principal”, not as “sole.” He’s stating that if he happens to go the route of emancipation, it is because it supports the paramount objective of preserving the Union and not as some personal agenda. The statement, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it” is a baseless notion since he in fact believed that the only way to preserve the Union was by freeing the slaves. It’s a clever maneuver like when someone asks you to come to their “Arrow” TV Show viewing party, and you say, “Oh if I’m free that night I’ll totally go!” Even though you already know that you work that night and you know that Arrow is a completely worthless show that is just a cheap rip-off Batman, which is already a DC Comic! Seriously, why does anyone waste their valuable time watching horrendous acting that is based on sub-par screenwriting that is already an inferior product of what DC has to offer? Sorry, I couldn’t help it.

Anyways, so Lincoln’s statement has nothing to do with him contemplating the possibility of preserving slavery, but only giving the illusion of it to those he needed to not get offended, while he buys time for the proper opportunity to steer the nation towards abolition. He was the political master who wielded incredible patience and control as he played a game of chess with the emotions and minds of people to finally blot out America’s greatest evil: slavery. I’ll end with the full letter response from Lincoln to Greeley. With this new perspective, read as Lincoln uses a set of 400 words to balance the emotions of both the Abolitionist and the loyal slave holder; from those think he is incompetent and unqualified; from those who find him to be a puppet and weak; read how he was the grandmaster of them all:

I have just read yours of the 19th, addressed to myself through the New-York Tribune. If there be in it any statements or assumptions of fact which I may know to be erroneous, I do not now and here controvert them. If there be in it any inferences which I may believe to be falsely drawn, I do not now and here argue against them. If there be perceptible in it an impatient and dictatorial tone, I waive it in deference to an old friend, whose heart I have always supposed to be right.
As to the policy I “seem to be pursuing,” as you say, I have not meant to leave any one in doubt.
I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored the nearer the Union will be “the Union as it was.” If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time save Slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy Slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or 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 this Union, and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views. 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.
A. Lincoln.”