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Lincoln's Changing Views on Slavery

Jamie Schaefer
Waterloo High School, Waterloo

Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth president of the United States, entered office during a critical period in American history. During his presidency he dealt with the cohesiveness of the Union and slavery. Lincoln had formulated opinions of slavery from the time he was young; he grew up with slavery, and had the opportunity to determine whether slavery would be upheld or abolished while he was president. As a political leader, Lincoln's views about slavery changed as he had to worry about the Union and all of the people within it. No longer could he view slavery as he had in his earlier life.

Lincoln's views on slavery can be attributed to childhood and family experiences. There are two factors that are part of why Lincoln formulated anti-slavery thoughts and feelings. Lincoln and his family were very religious. They were of the Separate Baptist faith. Many of the Separate Baptists during this period opposed slavery. Ill feelings toward slavery also came from growing up in Kentucky in the early 1800s. During the early 1800s, Kentucky's land was not surveyed, but was settled at random. This caused a number of land disputes between the larger farmers, who typically utilized slave labor, and the smaller farmers who did not utilize slave labor. Lincoln's father, Thomas, and other small farmers, began to have problems with land disputes and claims that had to be settled in court. Due to a lack of money, many of the small farmers decided they could not afford the legal expenses and were forced to leave Kentucky. Thomas and his family moved to Indiana as a result of being put out of business by wealthier landowners.

Even though Lincoln did not approve of slavery throughout his life, he realized it would be improbable that blacks and whites could live with equality, since they had to deal with too many prejudices. During the Lincoln-Douglas debate at Charleston on September 18, 1858, Lincoln stated:

I will say then that I am not, nor have I ever been in the favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races . . . There must be a position of superior and inferior, and I... am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race ... I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position that the negroe should be deprived everything.

It was early in this debate that Lincoln was tested on questions dealing with the admission of additional slave states into the Union, the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Act (which required that all slaves who escaped to northern states must be returned), and the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia. He answered that he was not in favor of repealing the Fugitive Slave Act, he was not pledged against the admission of another slave state into the Union, and he did not at that time favor abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia. However, toward the end of the debates, Lincoln started to convey his feelings regarding slavery. He stated that the inferior races were equal in their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but he also knew that it was impossible to produce a perfect social and political equality between black and white races.

Lincoln had a number of ideas on how to tackle slavery. He suggested setting up a black colony in Central America in 1863 so that blacks could seek rights and freedoms where prejudice did not exist. He also thought colonization was the best solution. Many people, including blacks, did not believe colonization was a viable solution and believed it would never be carried out.

The Emancipation Proclamation (1863) stated

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Fugitive slaves often successfully escaped to free states, which was no guarantee of their permanent freedom.

that slaves in the seceded states were free. Lincoln knew that he could not declare total emancipation: hence, he decided this was the only legal action he could take under the Constitution. This proclamation was designed to maintain a balance in the nation so the border states, which had slavery, but were still part of the Union, would remain loyal. Lincoln knew that if he made a move toward immediate emancipation it may cause the border states to secede. Instead of ordering a dramatic form of emancipation in the border states Lincoln decided to urge the states' governments to accept a program of gradual emancipation. Because Lincoln was unsure of the legality of his proclamation and whether it would be sustained by the Supreme Court, he strongly urged Congress to adopt the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery throughout the nation. Lincoln insisted that this was necessary for the restoration of the nation after the Civil War.

Lincoln was concerned about freeing the slaves, but he also stated, "My paramount objective in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slaves, I would do it, if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it." This shows that Lincoln's primary objective at that time was to save the Union, because he did not believe it should be split by an issue such as slavery. Even though he did not approve of slavery, it did not mean that he wanted to abolish slavery.

The issue of slavery was a complicated one that Lincoln had to deal with his entire life. From his childhood to his later years, his views on slavery were altered. Lincoln did not necessarily change his views on slavery, but rather his ideas and policies changed from compensation and gradual emancipation to immediate abolition during his political career.[From Roger Bridges and Rodney Davis, eds., Illinois: Its History and Legacy; David Herbert Donald, Lincoln; John Hope Franklin, "The Emancipation Proclamation: An Act of Justice," Quarterly of the National Archives; Fred Kerner, Lincoln: A Treasury of Lincoln Quotations.]

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