Lincoln’s slow dance with abolishing slavery
Though he blamed slavery for ‘discord,’ he was initially unwilling to threaten his wartime coalition by supporting emancipation
By John David Smith
Posted: Sunday, Nov. 07, 2010
In his lucid “The Fiery Trial,” historian Eric Foner charts Abraham Lincoln’s emerging attitudes on slavery and race from his youth along the Kentucky-Indiana-Illinois frontier to his final days. On racial matters, Foner writes, “the hallmark of Lincoln’s greatness was his capacity for growth.”
Lincoln grew up exposed to slavery, white racism and various kinds of antislavery sentiment. By 1834, when he entered Illinois’ legislature, Lincoln already had espoused the virtues of free over slave labor and blamed slavery for intersectional political “discord.”
In 1837 he coauthored a “protest” denouncing slavery as unjust without, however, attacking slaveholders and identifying with abolitionists. Though Lincoln believed that blacks deserved the human rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, he opposed granting them citizenship rights. “I am naturally anti-slavery,” Lincoln professed decades later. “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel.”
Yet Lincoln shared the anti-black prejudice of most white Americans before and after the Civil War. Believing that the two races could not live together as equals, Lincoln advanced a conservative anti-slavery program of gradual abolition, monetary compensation to slave owners, and colonization of the “freepeople” outside the United States. Whites never would accept blacks as political and social equals, he said.
During the tumultuous 1850s Lincoln believed that prohibiting slavery’s expansion would encourage whites to settle the Western territories.
“Lincoln discussed slavery as an abstraction,” Foner writes, “a violation of basic principles of self-determination and equality, not a living institution that rested on day-to-day violence.”
Once civil war erupted, however, Lincoln no longer could view slavery abstractly. Committed to preserving the Union, not emancipating the slaves, he first avoided the issue, fearful that making emancipation a war aim would drive the border states, especially Kentucky, to secede. The determination of the slaves to free themselves by entering Union Army lines and the inability of Lincoln’s army to suppress the rebels led Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.
On paper Lincoln freed more than 3million Confederate slaves, but, significantly, they resided in states largely beyond federal control. The proclamation exempted around 800,000 slaves in the border states, Tennessee and other areas occupied by Union forces. Even so, Foner notes, Lincoln’s proclamation liberated 50,000 slaves immediately and encouraged blacks to enlist in the U.S. Army.
Foner frames Lincoln’s evolving ideas on slavery extraordinarily well. But he presents no new insights into the incongruity between Lincoln’s commitment to human rights for blacks and his zealous support of colonization and glacier-like steps toward emancipation.
Because Lincoln died only days following Appomattox, we will never know his plans for the “freedpeople” during Reconstruction. We do know, however, that an internecine war of untold proportions “propelled him down the road to emancipation and then to a reconsideration of the place blacks would occupy in a post-slavery America.”