Abraham Lincoln's stance on slavery

What was Abraham Lincoln’s stance on slavery? I once had a teacher tell my class that Lincoln didn’t care about the slaves or the situation they were in; instead he used it as a political platform for his presidency campaign. Is this fact true? Also I am not saying this to be rude, but who initiated the slave trade? Did the Africans put up any resistance. If they did, why is none of this noted in any of the history books (or at least the ones I was exposed to)? Thanks

I’ll pass on the first question, except to note it’s not a fact but a matter of considerable debate.

Slaves have been traded since prehistory, so no-one “initiated” it. If you mean the specific trace of kidnapping black Africans and transporting them to the new world for work, the Spanish started that, having got there first (although they tended to buy slaves from dealers in Africa, who were mostly Arab and, yes, black African, rather than doing the kidnapping themselves).

Yes they put up resistance, but once their nation-states were destroyed it was ineffective.

If your history books mention slavery but not the above, I can only speculate as to why. What school system did you go through?

Certainly Lincoln made some statements that could be interpreted that way:

Taken at face value, Lincoln’s statements appear to support your teacher’s statements, and indeed some historians agree. Others, however, point out that Lincoln’s opposition to slavery was fierce:

The mistake that many make is assuming that opposition to slavery must equal dedication to racial equality. It’s not, and many abolitionists supported proposals to repatriate Negro slaves to Africa, or send them to Haiti or some such. They opposed slavery for reasons that are entirely different from our reasons for despising it.

I’m not sure whether your history teacher presented a more nuanced statement about Lincoln that you missed, or whether your teacher was pushing an agenda and deliberately skewed the presentation of Lincoln’s views.

Lincoln was an implacable foe of slavery and considered it an abomination. However, it is possible that he did not consider blacks to be the “equal” of whites as a people. (He believed that they should be treated equally before the Law, but historians disagree on whether he actually believed that Africans were either culturally or inherently equal to Europeans.) Given the era in which he lived, it would not be surprising to discover that he held blacks to be an “inferior” example of humanity. On the other hand, some of his writings that express this paternalistic view need to be considered in the light of the period in which he lived, when a “natural ordering” of the “races” was accepted as fact by many scientists. Given his long public career (at a time when politicians expressed themselves in detailed letters and lengthy speeches instead of sound bites), we can find quite a few contradictory statements over the course of twenty years.

This is the conflict that historians wrangle over.

However, your post alludes to a specific statement of Lincoln’s that needs to be considered in the light of the situation in which he found himelf as president of a country dividing itself over the issue of slavery. In a letter to Horace Greeley, a fierce abolitionist, Lincoln said “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.” In other words, as president of the U.S., Lincoln put the preservation of the Union above any other goal. As such, he was quite willing to tolerate slavery if it resulted in the maintenance of a United States. Despite a personal antipathy to slavery, he held the union to be a higher goal than abolition.

As to the origins of (race-based, chattel) slavery in the U.S., we have had many threads on the topic, including (but not limited to):

Whence came Western European/American slavery?

The role of black Africans in the slave trade.


My understanding is that Lincoln was morally opposed to slavery, always and everywhere, and was fairly courageous about expressing his disdain for it considering the atmosphere of the day. But one of the things that gets lost in all the hero-worship is that he was a politician, quite the loyal Whig, and later, Republican, and those were times when you could not succeed as a politician without being an integral part of a party apparatus. Politics being the art of the possible, Lincoln weighed abolition along with other competing goals, like preserving the Union. You will find that he gave speeches in northern Illinois that were virulently anti-slavery, but speeches in southern Illinois that were accomodating to slaveholders. Lincoln was also a very able and traditional student of the law, and opposed a “civil disobedience” approach to changing the status quo.

It is probably an oversimplification, but Lincoln seems to have delayed aggressive moves against slavery until all-out war was a done deal. At that point, acting against slavery couldn’t have made anything worse.

The way I’ve written this makes Lincoln sound like an unprincipled opportunist, but I assure you he was more honorable and complex than that. I consider him to have been the greatest President.

Quite simply, Lincoln’s views on slavery evolved over his lifetime, and most especially during his presidency.

Still, his views, as backward as we might view them today, were sufficiently liberal to cause widespread panic in the South. So we have to admit that Lincoln was a progressive on slavery all his life. Still, he was never on the leading edge on this issue and largely seems to have reflected (northern) public opinion on the matter.

Of course by officially making the abolition of slavery a goal of the war, Lincoln made it very difficult for England and France to support the Confederacy.

Lincoln’s primary attitude on slavery that got the southern US upset was that he was opposed to the expansion of slavery in the new western states. A southerner looking at a map in 1860 and doing some quick math would realize that soon the US would have more than 2/3 free states, with resulting consitutional changes regarding slavery quite likely. The rickety balance that had kept things only mildly violent (as in Kansas and Missouri) for the previous 40 years was about to dissolve. A majority free states in congress plus Lincoln as president meant that the south could not stop the addition of more free states or otherwise force a new compromise. The Civil War ensued.

I presume that Lincoln was also aware of the result of not allowing the expansion of slavery and viewed this as a relatively peaceful way to phase out slavery. (If the south went along with it.)

It’s not just an oversimplification, it’s an unfortunately common misunderstanding of the time line.

The war was a done deal when South Carolina seceded on December 20, 1860. Then President James Buchanan did nothing, in full knowledge that he would be leaving Lincoln to clean up the mess.

Lincoln was in the middle of a crisis the day he set foot in the White House. In those days, inaugurations were held later than today. Lincoln was inaugurated on March 4, 1861. By that time, six more states had already seceded.

Beauregard called upon Ft. Sumter to surrender on April 10, and started shelling on April 12.

The South reacted to Lincoln’s election as president, not to anything that Lincoln did in his official capacity. If Lincoln had called for complete abolition in his Inaugural Address it would only have changed events by a tick of the calendar.

Lincoln himself hoped that some scheme of colonization, with freed Negroes transplanted bodily to some other continent in order that a free society might not have to admit them to full membership. Ten years before his presidency, he had confessed that if he had all earthly power he would not know what to do about slavery; it was a wrong that cried for settlement, but millions of Negroes were physically in America, and if they were not slaves they would be free men, headed for ultimate equality with white men; and “we cannot…make them equals.” In the middle of 1862, he protested to a Maryland correspondent that all thinking Southerners must know that “I never had a wish to touch the foundations of their society.”

In early 1865, when the Confederacy was just a pinched-off triangle of land in southern Va. and upper NC, Lincoln was prepared to offer peace terms. He even suggested that if the South should lay down its arms now he would go to congress and ask it to appropriate money to pay southern slave owners for the slaves who would very shortly be set free.

[source: This Hallowed Ground, Bruce Catton (1956)

It’s worth noting that when the Civil War made it possible for Lincoln to issue a general emancipation he chose to do so. There were political benefits but also political costs.

Lincoln’s official position at the time of his election was that local areas within the United States would be able to choose whether or not they wished to have slavery. As a practical issue, Lincoln and the Republicans realized that the expanding population in the west (which was generally anti-slavery) would gradually lead to a anti-slavery majority in the national population overall. At some point (although probably not during Lincoln’s term of office) there would probably have been measures taken to reduce slavery in the states where it existed, probably by a process of gradual emancipation, federal reimbursement for freed slaves, and resettlement of freed slaves.

Being from Louisiana, and a little familiar with our history, emancipation of the slaves was coming whether Lincoln liked it or not.

With the advent of the steam-engine, cotton gin, horse drawn sowing engines, and harvesting engines, the manpower needed to operate a farm was going down. Keeping huge numbers of hands around a plantation simply would not be needed. So even if Lincoln, and everyone else, had been pro-slavery 100% it simply would have vanished by about 1900 or so.

“The pursuit of knowledge is the asking of many questions.” Nowhere is this more true than in history.

The short answer to “why was I never told this” is, history is largely about people, and people are complicated. More complicated, perhaps, than can ever be completely explained or understood.

Most history, come what might, is stories told by people with an agenda. Sometimes they want to show up the US as the Great Satan, or the USSR as the Evil Empire, or the Confederacy as the Lost Cause, or something. Very often, in histories for a general audience, they want to present history as a story, with Good Guys and Bad Guys and a happy ending. Sometimes it is even true.

But very few people are ever all good, or all bad. If Hitler had died in 1936, he may have been hailed as a great leader of the German people. Thomas Jefferson was a great President and brilliant thinker, who very likely had a long-term sexual relationship with a black slave. Strom Thurmond the segregationist had a black daughter who he supported loyally his whole life.

By the standards of our day, Lincoln was a fairly obnoxious racist. By the standards of his own day, he was startlingly enlightened and progressive.

He freed the slaves - in the rebellious South. He stated publicly that he believed blacks were inherently inferior to whites - and treated all the blacks he met with kindness and respect. He was anti-slavery - and against “race mixing”.

People can’t be summed up in a couple of phrases. You do yourself and them a disservice if you try. Or at least, if you try, you should keep in mind that this is a kind of shorthand for the exasperating, contradictory, complicated, unfathomable mixtures of angel and animal that make up the people of history.

Just like you and me.


Well, maybe. There is a huge industry in the academic world studying just how economically effective slavery was, and whether it was on its way out by the Civil War.

The Slavery Debates, 1952–1990: A Retrospective, by Robert W. Fogel:

You should also look up cliometrics:

Not that this stopped the arguments, of course.

I should note, however, that virtually everyone on every side agrees that the cotton gin saved slavery by making cotton plantations viable. It is not a good choice for an argument on machines putting slavery out of business.

This is what I meant when I said Lincoln did not act against slavery until the course of war became inexorable. I know that war was inevitable as soon as Lincoln was elected, but wars can end in various ways. Lincoln was open to settlement as opposed to total surrender until nearly the end. Around 1863 he seems to have made a calculation that proclaiming emancipation would do more good than harm, even considering that his main goal was the preservation of the Union.

Sorry, but I’m still having trouble with your chronology.

Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation back in 1862, to take effect on January 1, 1863. This effectively ended the dialog on whether the war would free the slaves.

barbitu8’s quote merely says that Lincoln made a compensation offer “for the slaves who would very shortly be set free.” How is that acting against slavery? Virtually all the slaves in the country had already been set free by that time. Lincoln’s gestures were strictly to stop the killing. Slavery was already over.

The Emancipation Proclamation was explicitly worded to only cover states that were in rebellion. It said nothing about slave states that remained in the Union.

You’re right, I should have said 1862.

I used barbit8’s quote only to illustrate that Lincoln was open to ending the war by means other than unconditional surrender until well after hostilities began. Had ending slavery been his primary goal, he might have made the Emancipation Proclamation immediately upon the fall of Fort Sumter, or for that matter on the day he took office, but he chose to wait. Until 1/1/63, the future of slavery in the existing slave states was still negotiable. Lincoln’s personal disapproval of slavery did not override what he felt to be his official responsibility to preserve the Union.

Yes, and so what?

I said that the Emancipation Proclamation ended the dialog about slavery. Note my wording.

While slavery was the cause of the Civil War, the major argument of the entire 19th century, abolition did not have widespread support in the north. People did not enter the war specifically to defend slavery and probably as many northerners as southerners were virulently biased against blacks.

When the EP did was announce to the south - and to the world at large - that slavery would not survive the war. This was a major policy shift for the government. It drew extreme criticism from all sides, but it also drew a line in the sand.

Afterward, no European government could afford to give aid to the Confederacy, because that would be explicitly supportive of slavery. Afterward, every slave in the south had reason to welcome and aid the northern troops, because contrary to southern propaganda, their freedom would be ensured. Afterward, Lincoln had a moral principle that could trump any notion of the war being about state’s rights or the tariff or any of the other red herrings of southern self-delusion.

Hyperelastic, your argument changes from post to post, but I continue to find it incoherent. There was no possible way Lincoln could have made a stand against slavery any earlier, because it would been political suicide. He was barely fending off his political enemies - who called him much worse things than Democrats are calling Bush now. And those were the leaders of his own party! The opposition was much harsher on him. He waited until the first real success of the war - Antietam (which was a success only compared to the earlier disasters) and used that as a platform.

Was the future of slavery negotiable until 1/1/1863? Possibly. But no one did debate it in any real terms once the war started. (In fact, Lincoln kept refusing to even talk to negotiators sent by Jefferson Davis and others.) You said Lincoln waited until “acting against slavery couldn’t have made anything worse.” I say just the opposite. He waited until acting against slavery changed everything. For the better.