Lincoln's Changing Views
Abraham Lincoln's views on slavery were formed by the times and places in which he was raised and during which he served his country. Slavery was a recognized institution in the United States throughout Lincoln's formative years. Lincoln's personal feelings about blacks and about slavery actually were quite constant over time. His political positions and actions regarding slavery changed as the national political situation changed.
Lincoln initially recognized that slavery was a bad institution but one that was accepted and necessary for the South's economy. In Bloomington, Illinois, he stated "that southern slaveholders were neither better, nor worse than we of the north, and that we of the north were no better than they. And we never ought to lose sight of this fact in discussing the subject." Additionally, he appeared to support the belief that blacks did not deserve equal treatment of whites. This view probably resulted from the family background in which he was raised and educated. Abraham Lincoln was born in a slave state, but his father and most of the other small farmers in that part of Kentucky did not own slaves. Lincoln's homes after 1830, Indiana and Illinois, were free states, but both states were very unfavorable toward blacks and severely limited the rights of free blacks.
Election to Congress in 1854 and the Mexican War brought the issue of the expansion of slave territory to the nation's attention. Lincoln formed a clearer position on slavery. He was opposed to black equality and had no intention of disturbing slavery in slave states. However, he recognized that slavery was wrong and should not be allowed to spread to new states. At Peoria, Illinois, on October 16, 1854, Lincoln stated that he thought that the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, which outlawed slavery in Nebraska and Kansas was wrong. He said that it also was wrong in its basic principle, that of allowing slavery to spread to every part of the world where men can take it. This apparent change in his position developed as Lincoln gained political maturity, saw more aspects of slavery—such as the slave markets in the South—and formed a more "national" view of issues as a result of serving in Congress.
Lincoln ran for Senate in 1858 against Stephen A. Douglas. It was a spirited campaign, and Lincoln and Douglas engaged in seven popular and now famous debates about slavery. Lincoln was not an abolitionist, though he regarded slavery as an evil. He opposed its expansion. Lincoln said that he had no purpose directly or indirectly to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it existed. Furthermore he said that he had no lawful right to do so and that he had no intention of doing that. He believed also that whites were superior. Lincoln said that he was not and had never been in favor of bringing about the social and political equality of the white and black races. Lincoln stated further that he was not nor ever had been in favor of making voters or jurors of blacks, nor letting them hold office or intermarry with white people.
As Southerners became convinced that the election of Lincoln would be sufficient cause for secession, his views on slavery shifted again. Lincoln was for the free-labor ideology of equal opportunity and upward mobility. The true issue on slavery, he said, was the morality and future of the slaves and of slavery. Further, he now firmly believed that if the nation remained divided on the issue of slavery, the nation would not last. Lincoln said, borrowing from a statement made by Jesus, "A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe that this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free." At the 1860 election, Lincoln's private position on slavery appeared to be moving closer to that of abolition. On the eve of his election he seemed to recognize that his public position allowing the southern states that had slavery to retain it, but not allowing any new states to have slavery, would not work.
After the 1860 election, Lincoln made a firm public decision not to tolerate expansion of slavery into the territories. In other words, Lincoln's early position as president was slavery could remain in current slave states but could not expand to new states or territories. He promised also to support an amendment guaranteeing slavery from federal interference. Upon review, some of his views on slavery seemed to contradict one another. On the one hand, current slave states could maintain the status quo. On the other hand, he recognized that a country divided on this major issue could not survive.
Lincoln's views at this time were politically motivated, and they focused on ending the war and preserving the Union. He felt that Southerners must not be allowed to split the nation or to further beliefs that did not support human freedom and equality for all men. Lincoln waged war for four years in support of the position that the issue of slavery must not be allowed to end the Union. In January 1863 Lincoln formed his final position on slavery when he signed the Emancipation
Proclamation. Although this document had little impact at the time, it changed forever the way our country thinks and acts about all American citizens.
Lincoln was not an opportunist. He seemed to be a man of great integrity and insight. He appeared to be a politician, a realist, and a visionary. His personal view of the institution of slavery was fairly constant. The evidence supports that he thought it was wrong for any group to enslave another. Lincoln had the foresight finally to see that the country could not, in fact, survive as part free and part slave. He took the action required to save the nation. Thus, his view on the volatile political issue of slavery appeared to change as his views on what was required to save the nation changed.— [From J.M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom; P. Smith, Trial by Fire; Benjamin P. Thomas, Abraham Lincoln; A. Zilversmit, Lincoln on Black and White.]