Was Lincoln a Reluctant Abolitionist?

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Lincoln was first and foremost a politician, and the sincerity of politicians is always subject to question, but it is impossible after examining his speeches and private letters not to be convinced of his deep and abiding hatred of slavery.

His attitude towards slavery was well set forth in the following letter to A.G. Hodges on April 4, 1864:

Executive Mansion,
Washington, April 4, 1864.

A.G. Hodges, Esq
Frankfort, Ky.

My dear Sir: You ask me to put in writing the substance of what I verbally said the other day, in your presence, to Governor Bramlette and Senator Dixon. It was about as follows:

“I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel. And yet I have never understood that the Presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act officially upon this judgment and feeling. It was in the oath I took that I would, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. I could not take the office without taking the oath. Nor was it my view that I might take an oath to get power, and break the oath in using the power. I understood, too, that in ordinary civil administration this oath even forbade me to practically indulge my primary abstract judgment on the moral question of slavery. I had publicly declared this many times, and in many ways. And I aver that, to this day, I have done no official act in mere deference to my abstract judgment and feeling on slavery. I did understand however, that my oath to preserve the constitution to the best of my ability, imposed upon me the duty of preserving, by every indispensabale means, that government — that nation — of which that constitution was the organic law. Was it possible to lose the nation, and yet preserve the constitution? By general law life and limb must be protected; yet often a limb must be amputated to save a life; but a life is never wisely given to save a limb. I felt that measures, otherwise unconstitutional, might become lawful, by becoming indispensable to the preservation of the constitution, through the preservation of the nation. Right or wrong, I assumed this ground, and now avow it. I could not feel that, to the best of my ability, I had even tried to preserve the constitution, if, to save slavery, or any minor matter, I should permit the wreck of government, country, and Constitution all together. When, early in the war, Gen. Fremont attempted military emancipation, I forbade it, because I did not then think it an indispensable necessity. When a little later, Gen. Cameron, then Secretary of War, suggested the arming of the blacks, I objected, because I did not yet think it an indispensable necessity. When, still later, Gen. Hunter attempted military emancipation, I again forbade it, because I did not yet think the indispensable necessity had come. When, in March, and May, and July 1862 I made earnest, and successive appeals to the border states to favor compensated emancipation, I believed the indispensable necessity for military emancipation, and arming the blacks would come, unless averted by that measure. They declined the proposition; and I was, in my best judgment, driven to the alternative of either surrendering the Union, and with it, the Constitution, or of laying strong hand upon the colored element. I chose the latter. In choosing it, I hoped for greater gain than loss; but of this, I was not entirely confident. More than a year of trial now shows no loss by it in our foreign relations, none in our home popular sentiment, none in our white military force, — no loss by it any how or any where. On the contrary, it shows a gain of quite a hundred and thirty thousand soldiers, seamen, and laborers. These are palpable facts, about which, as facts, there can be no cavilling. We have the men; and we could not have had them without the measure.

[“]And now let any Union man who complains of the measure, test himself by writing down in one line that he is for subduing the rebellion by force of arms; and in the next, that he is for taking these hundred and thirty thousand men from the Union side, and placing them where they would be but for the measure he condemns. If he can not face his case so stated, it is only because he can not face the truth.[“]

I add a word which was not in the verbal conversation. In telling this tale I attempt no compliment to my own sagacity. I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me. Now, at the end of three years struggle the nation’s condition is not what either party, or any man devised, or expected. God alone can claim it. Whither it is tending seems plain. If God now wills the removal of a great wrong, and wills also that we of the North as well as you of the South, shall pay fairly for our complicity in that wrong, impartial history will find therein new cause to attest and revere the justice and goodness of God. Yours truly,

A. Lincoln

Frederick Douglass, the foremost black abolitionist of Lincoln’s day summed up his view of Lincoln and abolition:

Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.

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  1. Henry Clay was in favor of it along with many others. It was a completely idiotic idea as the cost would have been astronomical, there was no suitable land available in Africa for such large scale colonization and blacks were unwilling to go. Lincoln was always in favor of colonization if it was voluntary and in the Civil War it became apparent that the idea was completely impractical.

  2. “No suitable land in Africa?” It’s the world’s second largest continent. As for the “cost being astronomical,” it would have been better to pay it than to lose 600,000 lives to “free” them. Today’s racial divide is as wide as ever and the assimilation of black into a white culture has been an abysmal failure.

  3. No suitable land Joe. American freed men transplanted to Liberia died like flies, which was one of several reasons why colonization was so unpopular among blacks. From1825-1867 a grand total of 13,000 former American slaves immigrated to Liberia. The idea that this was ever going to solve the problem of slavery in this country was idiotic in the extreme. Needless to say, most slave owners were completely opposed to any government purchasing their slaves and resettling them in Africa in any case. The whole concept was nothing more than a pipe dream.

  4. “Abraham Lincoln displayed precious little reluctance to killing 600,000 Americans.”

    Yes, T.Shaw, it was all Lincoln’s fault that in order to maintain the precious civil right of holding other humans in bondage, Southern states seceded, and then it was Lincoln’s fault that they started a War that they were bound to lose.

  5. On January 26, 1849 black abolitionist Frederick Douglass gave voice to the general feeling among American blacks about colonization proposals:

    “In view of this proposition, we would respectfully suggest to the assembled wisdom of the nation, that it might be well to ascertain the number of free colored people who will be likely to need the assistance of government to help them out of this country to Liberia, or elsewhere, beyond the limits of these United States—since this course might save any embarrassment which would result from an appropriation more than commensurate to the numbers who might be disposed to leave this, our own country, for one we know not of. We are of the opinion that the free colored people generally mean to live in America, and not in Africa; and to appropriate a large sum for our removal, would merely be a waste of the public money. We do not mean to go to Liberia. Our minds are made up to live here if we can, or die here if we must; so every attempt to remove us will be, as it ought to be, labor lost. Here we are, and here we shall remain. While our brethren are in bondage on these shores, it is idle to think of inducing any considerable number of the free colored people to quit this for a foreign land.

    For two hundred and twenty-eight years has the colored man toiled over the soil of America, under a burning sun and a driver’s lash—plowing, planting, reaping, that white men might roll in ease, their hands unhardened by labor, and their brows unmoistened by the waters of genial toil; and now that the moral sense of mankind is beginning to revolt at this system of foul treachery and cruel wrong, and is demanding its overthrow, the mean and cowardly oppressor is meditating plans to expel the colored man entirely from the country. Shame upon the guilty wretches that dare propose, and all that countenance such a proposition. We live here—have lived here—have a right to live here, and mean to live here.”

  6. Mr McClarey,

    You don’t have to be a holocaust denier or anti-semite to wonder about the wisdom of the Civil War and Abraham’s Lincoln’s part in it. As T. Shaw mentions above, the loss of over 600,000 American lives to have this fight, strikes me as a hard number to justify. Of course, I realize that no one knew it would take that many. But still, some of the blame surely belongs to Mr. Lincoln for those deaths.

    This is not to mention the utter havoc thrown upon the land as the war destroyed social fabric along with house and farm and town. The reintroduction of total war into civilized nations was also a grave consquence that resulted from this war.

    Would it have been so bad to see the southern states go there own way and create another version of America based on it’s own unique genius?

    The cause of this war is much deeper than most realize but the consequences are also deeper. I don’t know that that has been explored fully enough.

    Is the autonomous freedom that eventually came to slaves and likely would have come anyway within a few years due to technology, worth the cost of all the dead and wounded, the utterly destroyed social structure, the changed nature the Constitution, and the loss of the check on the central state that the individual sovereign states had been. Was it worth all that to throw the slaves off the land.

    I honestly don’t know.

  7. We have fought and re-fought the merits of the Civil War on what seems like a semi-weekly basis. This post has nothing to do with the worthiness of fighting the war, but rather concentrates solely on Lincoln’s feelings with regards to slavery. Can we please return focus to that? Thank you.

  8. I have no doubt that Lincoln was “personally opposed” to slavery. But he also knew that there was no Constitutional authority for the Federal government to interfere with the practice. The sad thing is, despite this knowledge, he cynically seized on emancipation as a war aim when the war was not going particularly well for the Union. Thus was an already Constitutionally suspect war to preserve the “Union” (yes, “scare” quotes, because a Union at the point of a bayonet is not much of a union) transformed into a war to free slaves, an aim which Lincoln himself knew was not constiutionally permissible.

    Thus we have the first large example in our history of Federal unconstitutional overreaching. That it occurred for an otherwise good cause should not blind us to the hazardous precedent it set.

  9. Thus we have the first large example in our history of Federal unconstitutional overreaching.

    Thomas Jefferson doubled the size of the United States overnight with the Louisiana Purchase – an action of such constitutional dubiousness that Jefferson contemplated submitting a constitutional amendment before his advisers suggested that it was inconvenient as it would doom the purchase.

    Fifty years later Chief Justice Taney handed down his decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford, a decision far removed from both the constitutional text and even the context of the case that was before him – kind of like how your comment and Tim’s are not exactly germane to the topic of the original post. But we can’t have Lincoln’s name be mentioned on this blog without some carping from the usual corners, now can we?

  10. I don’t doubt Lincoln’s personal convictions against slavery… he was not the only person who held these views, others like R. E. Lee also held them.

    It is just fairness to history and accuracy not to deify a man who, for whatever subjectively good reasons he may have had, ignored the Constitution when it suited him to do so.

    So, it IS germane to the topic: yes, Lincoln was an abolitionist, no he was not a reluctant one. He believed in it so much he ultimately surrended Constitutional government to the principle, and bathed the nation in blood.

  11. No Tom, the ones who attempted to overthrow the constitution, in order to perpetuate slavery forever, were the secessionists, and Lincoln led the Union forces to victory to preserve the Constitution along with the Union. The ironic thing is that Lincoln was no threat to slavery where it existed in the states, so the Confederacy was created to fight against a non-existent threat to the Peculiar Institution.

  12. The constitution is not what we wish it to be or imagine it to be; it is a written, clear document. Either it is followed in a particular circumstance or not.

    I can see no provision of the Constitution forbidding secession to the states. I can also find no provision authorizing the president to gather armies and invade the states militarily. Since the constitution is one of express, delegated powers with respect to the federal government, one must point to a provision of the constitution authorizing a president to invade several states, kill their citizens, blockade their ports.

    I submit you will not find such authority in an express provision of the constitution.

    On the other hand, you will equally find no provision forbidding the states from seceding. What power is not expressly ceded to the federal government is maintained by the state. There is no provision whereby the states ceded the power of withdrawing from the Union.

    These are fairly simple, unremarkable observations. We are supposed to be a government of law, not men. Lincoln upset that by ignoring the Constitution and invading the south.

    You may like that Lincoln did what he did, or believe it was required by some kind of necessity, or had good results that outweighed ignoring the constitution for a time, but it cannot be imagined that it was done consistent with the express terms of the constitution.

  13. In order for a right of secession to exist Tom it would have to be expressly set forth in the Constitution. The Founding Fathers of the Confederacy clearly agreed with that contention, since they rejected, when drafting the Confederate Constitution, a right of secession to be set forth as called for by the South Carolina delegates. It is difficult to read a right of secession into the Federal Constitution when it contains the following provision:

    “Section 10
    No State shall enter into any Treaty, Alliance, or Confederation;”

    Why put such a provision into the Constitution if states could leave the Union at will? Additionally, other than the 13 colonies, all the other states, except Texas, were created by the Federal government under the Constitution. How could these creations of the Federal government have any existence apart from it? James Madison, the father of the Constitution, held that no right to secession existed. On the theoretical question of secession, I will defer to Robert E. Lee.

    “Secession is nothing but revolution. The framers of our Constitution never exhausted so much labor, wisdom, and forbearance in its formation, and surrounded it with so many guards and securities, if it was intended to be broken by every member of the Confederacy at will. It was intended for “perpetual union,” so expressed in the preamble, and for the establishment of a government, not a compact, which can only be dissolved by revolution or the consent of all the people in convention assembled. It is idle to talk of secession. Anarchy would have been established, and not a government, by Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, and the other patriots of the Revolution. . . . Still, a Union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets, and in which strife and civil war are to take the place of brotherly love and kindness, has no charm for me. I shall mourn for my country and for the welfare and progress of mankind. If the Union is dissolved, and the government disrupted, I shall return to my native state and share the miseries of my people; and, save in defense, will draw my sword on none.”


    As for rebellion, the Constitution gives the Federal government power to act under Section 8:

    “To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union,
    suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;”
    The Insurrection Act of 1807 gives the President the following power:

    “Whenever the President considers that unlawful obstructions, combinations, or assemblages, or rebellion against the authority of the United States, make it impracticable to enforce the laws of the United States in any State or Territory by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings, he may call into Federal service such of the militia of any State, and use such of the armed forces, as he considers necessary to enforce those laws or to suppress the rebellion.”

    When it comes to the Civil War, I am always happy to debate these issues on behalf of Lincoln and the Union from a legal standpoint because I believe their case is strong. In a larger sense, I agree with these sentiments of another Confederate general John B. Gordon:

    “And the repeated manifestations of General Grant’s truly great qualities–his innate modesty, his freedom from every trace of vain-glory or ostentation, his magnanimity in victory, his genuine sympathy for his brave and sensitive foemen, and his inflexible resolve to protect paroled Confederates against any assault, and vindicate, at whatever cost, the sanctity of his pledge to the van-quished-will give him a place in history no less renowned and more to be envied than that secured by his triumphs as a soldier or his honors as a civilian. The Christian invocation which came from his dying lips, on Mount McGregor, summoning the spirit of peace and unity and equality for all of his countrymen, made a fitting close to the life of this illustrious American. Scarcely less prominent in American annals than the record of these two lives, should stand a catalogue of the thrilling incidents which illustrate the nobler phase of soldier life so inadequately described in these reminiscences. The unseemly things which occurred in the great conflict between the States should be forgotten, or at least forgiven, and no longer permitted to disturb complete harmony between North and South. American youth in all sections should be taught to hold in perpetual remembrance all that was great and good on both sides; to comprehend the inherited convictions for which saintly women suffered and patriotic men died; to recognize the unparalleled carnage as proof of unrivalled courage; to appreciate the singular absence of personal animosity and the frequent manifestation between those brave antagonists of a good-fellowship such as had never before been witnessed between hostile armies. It will be a glorious day for our country when all the children within its borders shall learn that the four years of fratricidal war between the North and the South was waged by neither with criminal or unworthy intent, but by both to protect what they conceived to be threatened rights and imperilled liberty; that the issues which divided the sections were born when the Republic was born, and were forever buried in an ocean of fraternal blood. We shall then see that, under God’s providence, every sheet of flame from the blazing rifles of the contending armies, every whizzing shell that tore through the forests at Shiloh and Chancellorsville, every cannon-shot that shook Chickamauga’s hills or thundered around the heights of Gettysburg, and all the blood and the tears that were shed are yet to become contributions for the upbuilding of American manhood and for the future defence of American freedom. The Christian Church received its baptism of pentecostal power as it emerged from the shadows of Calvary, and went forth to its world-wide work with greater unity and a diviner purpose. So the Republic, rising from its baptism of blood with a national life more robust, a national union more complete, and a national influence ever widening, shall go forever forward in its benign mission to humanity.”

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