Abraham Lincoln is No Longer The Great Emancipator?

Abraham Lincoln is no longer viewed as The Great Emancipator by some, because they’re finding out that he was a bit more equivocal about slavery than they originally believed.  Yet, anyone that has read a book on Lincoln, perused his letters, or listened to documentarians speak on him, know that ending slavery was one of the primary drivers of his life.

As a kid, Lincoln used to watch slaves being paraded past his backyard, and he wrote of the inhumanity he saw in their treatment.

“That sight was a continued torment to me; and I see something like it every time I touch the Ohio (River), or any other slave-border.”

The great Abraham Lincoln

The great Abraham Lincoln

The fact that we now learn that Lincoln exhibited some restraint in his beliefs on slavery has many of us believing that he was not as adamant about ending slavery as we once believed.

“You know I dislike slavery.  I confess I hate to see the poor creatures hunted down, and caught, and carried back to their stripes, and unrewarded toils; but I bite my lip and keep quiet.”{1}

“Why would he keep quiet?” some are now asking. “Why would he bite his lip?  He was the President of the United States after all.  He should’ve used that bully pulpit to bring about more immediate change, and if he felt more passionate about the topic he would’ve.”  First of all, a review of the history of America in the 1860’s would provide details regarding the fact that the states weren’t necessarily united at that point.  There was an event that occurred on the first day of Lincoln’s first day as president.  This event is historically called The Civil War in which half of the country disagreed with Abraham Lincoln’s personal opinions on slavery.  The reason that Lincoln used restraint, and bit his lip, and kept quiet is that he wanted to try to do whatever he could to preserve this Union that we call the United States today, and in doing so he believed slavery would eventually end.

“Lincoln said during the Civil War that he had always seen slavery as unjust. He said he couldn’t remember when he didn’t think that way,” explains historian Eric Foner. “The problem arises with the next question: What do you do with slavery, given that it’s unjust? Lincoln took a very long time to try to figure out exactly what steps ought to be taken.”{2}

“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,” wrote Lincoln.  “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 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; 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.”

Prior to taking office, Lincoln switched from the political party called The Whigs to the Republican Party, and this move was based on the fact that that Whig party sought a softer stance on slavery so as to win elections in an otherwise volatile nation with volatile passions on both sides of the fence.  Lincoln chose to align himself with those people, the Republican Party, that weren’t afraid to lose elections based on the fact that they had a volatile passion for ending slavery.  Based on this fact, it should not enter the discussion that Lincoln did not lead the North’s fight in The Civil War against the South, and continue to fight against overwhelming forces, for the sole purpose of ending slavery.  The reasonable question that any student of history should ask, on counter point, is why did the South lead a fight against the North?  If the tea leaves didn’t show the South that the institution of slavery was nearing an end (highlighted by the views of the victorious president Abraham Lincoln) why would they decide to secede from the Union in the first place?

Another complaint specifies that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation did not call for an immediate end to all slavery in the South, but only to those that had already escaped the South.  Again, we must say he was focused on preserving the Union of the North and the South, and he didn’t want to further the anger the South felt in losing the Civil War by bringing an abrupt end to slavery, but he believed that the individualistic nature of the country would bring about the eventuality of freedom of all men.  And again, The South saw this eventuality as well, or they wouldn’t have seceded in the first place.  In other words, Lincoln saw it as his duty to preserve the nation first and foremost, and put his personal views on matters such as slavery on the back burner, until the former was achieved.

Another myth perpetuated against Republicans of the day in general, and Abraham Lincoln in particular, was that Republicans wanted slaves counted as 3/5ths a person in the Three Fifths Compromise.  This charge is levied to counterpoint everything Republicans of the day did to free the slaves.  The counterpoint also suggests that if Republicans wanted to free the slaves, they wanted to do so in a manner that left African-American slaves as partial human beings to the eventual point of abstentia.  First of all, Lincoln did not enact this compromise.  This compromise was achieved during the 1787 Philadelphia convention, seventy-four years before Lincoln took office.  Second, the compromise was reached with the long-term goal of lessening the power of the pro-slavery Democrats in the South in the House of Representatives and in the Electoral College.  Since slaves were afforded no voting power, the House would’ve been ruled by pro-slavery Democrats, and Lincoln probably would not have succeeded in achieving enough Electoral votes for office.   Some could say that the Three Fifths Compromise was a cynical ploy by Republicans to have a chance in elections, but it could also be said that if Republicans had not achieved victory in this cynical ploy, slavery would not have been ended as early as it did.

If you do extensive research on Lincoln, and his views on slavery, you will find some letters and statements made by Lincoln that suggest he wasn’t as hard-lined on slavery as others, and that he sought to save the Union above all else.  You will find that Lincoln wanted to compensate slave owners for their loss of product (slaves), and you may find that Lincoln treated African-Americans as pawn pieces in legislation, commands to his generals, and in personal letters to friends, but you will also find an overarching theme that suggests that Lincoln thought that preservation of the Union meant that the abolition of slavery would eventually occur under the weight of the individualism banner of the Constitution, and the will of the people in the United States of the day.

You may also find writings that suggest that Lincoln believed white men to be superior to black men, and that he wasn’t an advocate for black voting rights, or blacks abilities to sit on juries, and that Lincoln believed that the freed black men should be forced out of America to colonize a different colony based on the fact that blacks and whites could not live in harmony in those post-Civil War United States.  This has been listed by historians as controversial, based on a limited amount of personal writings in Lincoln’s second term as president.  Regardless the finer points found in Lincoln’s positions, the theme remains that Lincoln did not think that a civil union could be maintained with the worm of slavery eating away at her core.

When we look at the actions of Lincoln, and the Republicans of the day, we do so from the vantage point of hindsight.  We know that the North won The Civil War, and we wonder why Lincoln didn’t pursue the spoils of victory more.  We think that if Lincoln was the crusader against slavery that history tells us he was, he would’ve gone hard line with the South, but again Lincoln wanted to preserve the Union, and he believed that welcoming the South back into the Union was more conducive to maintaining the Union long-term than forcing them to immedicately comply 100% to the North’s ways.  We believe Lincoln should’ve backhanded the South at the conclusion of the Civil War for committing such a sin against humanity, but we do so without realizing the rage the South had at the conclusion of the Civil War.  We don’t celebrate Lincoln’s restraint and patience in this regard, based on our own rage over the horrors that occurred in our beloved country.  We live in an immediate satisfaction society that lists those that might slightly disagree with our current views on race and our current ways of dealing with matters as haters, but those of us that criticize the manner in which Lincoln achieved victory over the South, preserved the Union, and abolished the institution of slavery haven’t achieved 1/100th of what Lincoln did over the course of four years.  It took a very steady hand, and a man that was willing to patiently accept the fact that he couldn’t exert his opinion and will on a people immediately.  To those that want more immediate statements from Lincoln about race, and a firmer hand in regards to abhorrent institution that was slavery, the question that has to be asked is how many countries have you saved?


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