Tag Archives: slavery

A King’s Cure for All Evils: Lincoln, the End of the War, and Slavery

Before the Civil War, Lincoln was staunch in his antislavery beliefs and denied access to equal rights for African Americans. Throughout the war, his views evolved considerably. He denied Frémont’s 1861 call for military emancipation because he did not see it as a necessity, but by 1862 he began to see slavery as intrinsically linked to the war cause. In a December 1862 address to Congress, he said “without slavery the rebellion could never have existed; without slavery it could not continue” and outlined his ideas for emancipation, which included gradual and compensated emancipation (146). This proposal was to further the war cause and quicken reunion, not necessarily to give the salves the freedom they deserved. However, Lincoln never abandoned his personal moral opposition to slavery. In the Gettysburg Address of November 19th, 1963 he reminded the nation that the war advanced the notion of equality between blacks and whites.


“Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address” by Dan Duffy. From http://www.lionword.com.

Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January 1, 1863. In December of the same year, he addressed Congress and outlined the effectiveness of emancipation on the war effort. He emphasized that the “full one hundred thousand” (186) black men now enlisted in the Union military provided both manpower and worked against the Confederacy by taking away their slaves and employing them against the Confederate war effort.  White soldiers, though originally reluctant to embrace emancipation as a war aim, began to support it once they saw that it would be the best way to dry up the support system of the Confederacy. By 1864, Lincoln began calling for voting rights for the “very intelligent” blacks as well as those who fought for the Union (193). In April, he said: “I am naturally antislavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong” (194).  He presented his opposition to slavery as not only one that is morally right, but one that is inherent in man’s sense of justice and righteousness, as well as one ordered by God. He claimed that emancipation became a military necessity not only due to the manpower crisis, but also due to the refusal of Border States to voluntarily accept gradual emancipation. Previously, Lincoln kept this personal view of slavery to himself, but the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment and the general acceptance of black troops gave Lincoln the green light to announce his personal opinions.

Lincoln did not sway from this position – he used previous actions such as the Militia Act of 1862, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Thirteenth Amendment as well as the views of the people (213) to validate and further his views on slavery. In his Second Inaugural Address, he cited slavery as the cause for the war and without its abolishment, the war would continue forever. Lincoln’s views on slavery evolved due to events outside of his control, and he eventually supported complete emancipation and eradication of slavery and suffrage for certain blacks, but his opinions on equal rights remained unclear, for he never said anything directly about black equal rights except in relation to their status as prisoners of war, specifically at Fort Pillow (197). However, his plan of extending suffrage towards some blacks could have evolved into a plan of extending suffrage to all black men during the journey of Reconstruction.

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Lincoln’s Military Necessity for Emancipation

Lincoln revokes Fremont’s Emancipation Proclamation (c. 1861) “I’m sorry to have to drop you, Sambo, but this concern won’t carry us both!”

Before the year 1861, Abraham Lincoln had crusaded for the anti-slavery cause and did his best to separate himself from the abolitionists. In September of that year, he revoked Union Major General John C. Frémont’s statute declaring the emancipation of slaves of citizens in rebellion, claiming it was “purely political, and not in the range of military law, or necessity” (110). In December, he requested Congress to approve a plan offering compensation to any state that agreed to gradually free its slaves. Although Congress did not initially approve it, Lincoln got his way in March of 1862. He issued a plea to Congress stating that the purpose of gradual and compensated emancipation of border states is to deprive the Southern states of the hope of Northern slave states leaving the Union and joining the Confederacy, thus “substantially [ending] the rebellion” (119).

Clearly, Lincoln did not choose to propose compensated emancipation because his moral standing on slavery changed, but rather the military necessity of emancipation increased. However, in May, when Union General David Hunter ordered all slaves in the occupied areas of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, Lincoln overturned his proclamation. Lincoln claimed that emancipation would be acceptable only when he issued it and when it was “a necessity indispensable to the maintenance of the government” (123) and furthermore, he had already established an offer of compensated gradual emancipation that required action only on the part of the states, not by the Union’s military commanders. Unfortunately, the Border States did not take up his offer, despite his warnings that otherwise they would lose slavery altogether and “have nothing valuable in lieu of it” (126).

In August of 1862, Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune, urged Lincoln to integrate slavery with the war effort. Lincoln replied and declared that his “paramount object in the struggle is to save the Union and is not either to save or destroy slavery” and that all he does about slavery is “because [I] believe it helps to save the Union” (135). Exactly one month later, on September 22nd, Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. This came after the Union’s good-enough victory at Antietam, and gave the rebellion states 100 days to return to the Union, after which he would free the slaves in rebelling areas, but would continue offering compensation to the Border States and to those “who shall have remained loyal thereto throughout the rebellion” (137). This escalation of the war was again justified by the goal of “practically restoring the constitutional relation between the United States” (136) – a goal which could not be reached without the threat of the abolition of slavery which, in turn, inflamed Confederate sentiment against the Union even more. In December, Lincoln stated “…Without slavery the rebellion could never have existed; without slavery it could not continue” and “the proposed emancipation would shorten the war, perpetuate peace, insure this increase in population, and proportionately the wealth of the country. With these, we should pay all the emancipation would cost, together with our debt, easier than we should pay our other debt, without it” (146). He now directly linked slavery to the cause of the rebellion, but also showed that reunification would benefit the entire country by repaying Union debt as well as emancipation compensation, but omits any mention of how emancipation would help pay back Confederate debt.

President Lincoln, writing the Proclamation of Freedom (David Gilmore Blythe c. 1862)

On January 1st 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in which he declared “all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward, shall be free…and…that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service” (152). The areas excepted from the proclamation were those already in Union possession, where gradual, rather than immediate, compensation would be enacted. He defended the act, citing his 100 days warning and continuing the offer of Union rights to states not included in the proclamation, so long as they agree to systems of gradual emancipation and establish apprenticeships for former slaves. In July, he responded to the Confederate action of enslaving any captured black troops and the execution of their white commanders by threatening mirrored retaliation against Confederate soldiers. In the same order, he stated that every government had the duty “to give protection to its citizens, whatever class, color, or condition…especially to those who are duly organized as soldiers” and “the law of nations…permit no distinction as to color in the treatment of prisoners of war” (169). This statement is extremely interesting, as it could suggest equal rights and treatment under law for blacks – despite his early denial of the establishment of such equality between the races (30).  August he wrote to General Grant and defends the use of black troops in the war as “it works doubly, weakening the enemy and strengthening us” and allows the “relieving (of) all the white troops to serve elsewhere” (172). He again defended his proclamation to his fellow Republicans and claimed that the use of black troops was “the heaviest blow yet dealt to the rebellion”. He also tells the men that if they will not fight for the freedom of the slaves, they should “fight…then, exclusively to save the Union. I issued the proclamation on purpose to aid you in saving the Union” because the use of black troops would leave “so much less for white soldiers to do” (178).

Thus, Lincoln’s strategy against slavery evolved from one echoing the ideals of the Founding Fathers and the concept of equality to one imploring the military necessity of emancipation – the eventual weakening of the Confederate forces by using the same people who had previously fueled their society and war machine to literally fight against them. These black troops would also be used in place of the seemingly more valuable white troops. On November 19th 1863, Lincoln harkened back to the basic principles he had previously depended on when he issued his Gettysburg Address: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” (184). Here, Lincoln returned to the reasoning that the war was for equality between blacks and whites due to moral and historical standings, not due to military or political necessity.

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Lincoln’s (and the Founding Fathers’) Moral Opposition to Slavery

Footrace political cartoon lithograph, 1860 (Library of Congress)

Throughout his political career, Abraham Lincoln consistently denied claims of being an abolitionist as well as denouncing the establishment of “political and social equality between the whites and the blacks” (30) but rallied the cry for the restriction of slavery in new states and territories while letting it be in places it was already established. Lincoln was steadfast in his views on slavery but his arguments against it developed throughout his career. By the 1860s, he had a full arsenal to use against the perpetuation of slavery, primarily concerning the obvious moral issue of one man enslaving another as well as the denial of the founding principles of America by those who wish to preserve slavery.

In his speech given in Peoria, Illinois in 1854, Lincoln attested that blacks are men and therefore have the right to govern themselves as individuals. Thus, when a white man governs himself plus another man he exceeds the limits of self-government and becomes a despot. The clincher of his argument regarding self-government is this: “no man is good enough to govern another man without that other’s consent” (32). He supported this claim by using one of the most famous phrases in American history – “We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” (32). The relationship between slave and master was in violation of this basic principle of the United States and was therefore immoral and in direct disparity with the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln further pushed the importance of adhering to the country’s founding principles by repeating the founding fathers’ only supporting argument for slavery: it was for necessity only.

He delved further into the hypocrisy in the fundamental arguments for slavery in a fragment written in the late 1850s. He addressed three prongs of the pro-slavery argument and turned their own logic against them. The logical fallacy of the color argument was that whites could enslave blacks so therefore someone, perhaps another white person, with a lighter skintone could enslave white people. The second point was based on the assumption whites were more intelligent than blacks and due to this superior intelligence, whites could enslave blacks – but then a person who was more intelligent than a white person could enslave them by the same method. Finally, pro-slavery arguments contended that if it was in your interest, then you could enslave someone. Again, Lincoln took this logic and turned it against the pro-slavery faction and said that if another man “can make it his interest, he has the right to enslave you” (42). Here, Lincoln emphasized that institution of slavery was potentially harmful to all and that if the slaveholders truly believed that they could have their slaves due to superiority in color or intelligence or because it was in their interest, then someone else someone else who was superior to them, according to their own terms, could enslave them as well. Lincoln’s destruction of these principles seemed to denounce white supremacy, yet in 1858 at the fourth Lincoln-Douglas debate he said “I am not…in favor of bringing about…the social and political equality of the white and black races…while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race” (57).

Lincoln and Douglas, November 3, 1903. Creator: Jaspard, J. M. (Chicago Historical Society)

Lincoln continued to place the utmost importance on the principles and decisions of the founding fathers. At the seventh Lincoln-Douglas debate in 1858, he argued that the founders prohibited the spread of slavery into new territories and banned the slave trade in 1808 because they believed “that it was in the course of ultimate extinction” (59). In his speech at the Cooper Union in February of 1860, he referenced the Constitution and its lack of the word “slavery” as well as the restriction of establishing slavery where it had not been before in order to counter the pro-slavery side’s claim that the Republicans made slavery the hot issue by trying to restrict it and “[discarding] the old policy of the fathers” (73).

Lincoln kept the basic stance of being anti-slavery, but his reasoning evolved. By the time of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, he believed that slavery was not only morally wrong but that it also undermined the core American belief that “all men are created equal” (32), including blacks, despite his inherent racism. By the end of the decade, he criticized the reasons for which slaveholders defended the right to own slaves by demonstrating the way those reasons could be used to enslave the slaveholders by others who were deemed more superior according to the holders’ own defense. By the year of his Presidential nomination, he had mastered the use of the common principles shared among all Americans – the ones declared in our Constitution and Declaration of Independence – as evidence supporting the Republican cause and the freezing of slavery in the states where it already existed and was deemed, just as the founding fathers did, a necessity.

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Why Are We Still Arguing Over This? (or: It Wasn’t Just Slavery, Now Stop It!)

Currier & Ives political cartoon, 1864 (Library of Congress)

Growing up on the border of Virginia and North Carolina, I learned quite a bit about the Civil War, most of it revolving around the mantra: “The South will rise again!” and the notion of Northern aggression. But why it fell in the first place is a question that not one of my peers who proudly attached Confederate flags to their trucks could answer with full confidence. “It was slavery!” they would exclaim, “The Northerners wanted to take away the backbone of our economy!” Funnily enough, most of these proud Sons of the Confederacy were Northern transplants with parents in the military stationed at Norfolk or Oceana. Nevertheless, it isn’t just in sweet old Chesapeake (boasting proximity to the famous Battle of Ironclads in 1862) that slavery was the accepted answer for why the Civil War happened. In his article entitled “What Caused the Civil War?” Edward Ayers explains why, as a society, we accept the most simple and sensible answer as legitimate. He then explores the truly multifaceted answer of what really caused the Civil War and why it happened when it did.

Ayers begins the piece with recapping a scene from The Simpsons where a character is asked to answer the question of what caused the Civil War. He begins to explain it in detail, but is interrupted and asked to just say slavery. With the use of this cultural staple, Ayers reiterates his point that we know the Civil War was caused by more than just slavery, but we’ve accepted it because there are so many correct answers, but slavery is the easiest for us to understand. Ayers addresses the difficulty in reaching a consensus on a comprehensive answer by exploring two different schools of thought: fundamentalist and revisionist. The fundamentalists hold strongly onto the driving force of slavery as the cause of the Civil War and that such a conflict was inevitable (132). Revisionists, however, focus on other facets of Antebellum society such as the fragmentation of the Democratic Party (and thus the true two-party system) and the election of anti-slavery Abraham Lincoln as President as some major events leading to the tipping point. Both of these groups are correct, but not correct enough.

Walt Handelsman, 2000

Ayers presents the case that the Civil War was a result of many different issues – all intertwined. Slavery was “the most profound [problem] the nation has ever faced’ (134), as it encompassed so many other facets of Antebellum society. In order to understand the causes of the Civil War, one must study history from that time’s perspective, not a modern one. Ayers calls this “deep contingency” (143) and emphasizes the necessity of understanding Antebellum society as a whole in order to truly know what caused the Civil War. One cannot simply answer the question of “what caused the Civil War?” especially with just one phrase such as “slavery” or “states rights”. As Ayers says, “History does not fit on a bumper sticker” (143).

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