This is part of a series
Jan 19, 2018
Abraham Lincoln and the Abolitionists
Smith examines Lincoln’s views on slavery and some of his many disagreements with abolitionists.
Abraham Lincoln is commonly praised as the greatest president in American history. He was the “Great Emancipator” who freed the slaves by leading the Union in a bloody war that cost 620,000 lives, not to mention hundreds of thousands more men who were maimed and wounded. Perhaps the most prevalent myth about Lincoln is that he engaged in war with the South for the express purpose of emancipating slaves and winning complete civil rights for blacks. Informed historians know, however, that Lincoln did not wage war to free the slaves, nor did he believe in equal civil rights for blacks. Abolitionists had no doubt about Lincoln’s real beliefs, nor is there any reason why they should, given how often he repeated them. Consider these remarks by Lincoln during one of his celebrated debates with Stephen Douglas in 1858, as they competed for an Illinois Senate seat.
I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races,—that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will for ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.
Lincoln never abandoned these sentiments, and they scarcely won him accolades in the abolitionist community. As Wendell Phillips exclaimed shortly after Lincoln had been elected president, “Who is this huckster in politics?” Abolitionists viewed Lincoln as a savvy opportunist who downplayed his opposition of slavery for political gain, yet many endorsed his run for president. They also supported the Northern cause in the Civil War, even though Lincoln repeatedly stated that he was not waging war to achieve emancipation. In his First Inaugural Address, Lincoln emphasized that he had no intention of interfering with slavery as it presently existed.
Apprehension seems to exist among the people of the Southern States, that by the accession of a Republican Administration, their property, and their peace, and personal security, are to be endangered. There has never been any reasonable cause for such apprehension. Indeed, the most ample evidence to the contrary has all the while existed, and been open to their inspection. It is found in nearly all the published speeches of him who now addresses you. I do but quote from one of those speeches when I declare that “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery where it now exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” Those who nominated and elected me did so with full knowledge that I had made this, and many similar declarations, and had never recanted them.
Lincoln, with his dedication to Whig principles, was an extreme nationalist who prized the preservation of the Union above every other political goal, including the abolition of slavery. Abolitionists understood that Lincoln engaged in war with no intention of eradicating slavery, but they hoped that a policy of emancipation would be forced upon him as a necessary war measure. (A common argument was that slave owners would need to devote more manpower to guarding their plantations if the slaves knew that they could escape to freedom.) Lincoln stated many times that his primary purpose in waging war was to save the Union, not to end slavery. One of his most unambiguous statements appeared in a response to Horace Greeley (the influential editor of the New York Tribune), who had criticized Lincoln for failing to make the Civil War a war for abolition. Lincoln replied, in part:
My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it 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; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.
Even the vaunted Emancipation Proclamation was explicitly presented as a “war measure.” On several occasions, Lincoln explained his reasons for issuing the Proclamation. For example, on September 13, 1862, the day after the Preliminary Proclamation was issued, Lincoln met with a delegation of abolitionist Christian ministers, and told them bluntly: “Understand, I raise no objections against it [slavery] on legal or constitutional grounds … I view the matter [emancipation] as a practical war measure, to be decided upon according to the advantages or disadvantages it may offer to the suppression of the rebellion.”
Moreover, the Emancipation Proclamation proclaimed freedom only in those areas that were under Confederate control, and the Preliminary Emancipation promised that those states that returned to the Union within 100 days could keep their slaves. The four slaves state in the Union —the so-called Border States—were unaffected by the Proclamation. As one contemporary critic remarked, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation applied only to those slaves that Lincoln could not help.
William Lloyd Garrison was easier on Lincoln than were many other abolitionists, such as Wendell Phillip and Frederick Douglass. This requires some explanation, since for decades Garrison had advocated that the North secede from the South. So how could the same man who placed “No Union with Slaveholders!” on the masthead of The Liberator justify his support for a war whose purpose, according to Lincoln, was to restore that selfsame Union? In addition, Garrison was a nonresistant (i.e., a pacifist) who opposed violence, however righteous the cause for which violence was used. This too requires an explanation.
In subsequent essays I shall explore the attitudes of three leading abolitionists—Garrison, Phillips, and Douglass—toward Lincoln and the Civil War. Their justifications are interesting if not always convincing. This essay focuses on Lincoln’s beliefs and actions so that we have a context to work from.
One policy in which Lincoln firmly believed but which abolitionists repudiated was colonization. Plans to resettle blacks, including freemen, in another country had lost much of its influence in recent decades, owing largely to Garrison’s highly effective critique, Thoughts on African Colonization (1832). For years colonization was popular among Southern slave owners, such as Thomas Jefferson, who believed that white and free black people would never be able to live together in peace. Lincoln revived the doctrine, and during his presidency he backed plans for colonization. It should noted, however, that Lincoln believed that emigration by blacks should be voluntary.
Although Lincoln sincerely detested slavery, he was no abolitionist. On the contrary, he often criticized abolitionism as a threat to the Union and advocated instead a scheme of gradualism that included compensation for slaveholders (another policy that abolitionists opposed) and resettling all blacks outside the United States. He eventually settled on Central America rather than Africa as the best location, believing that blacks could support themselves by mining coal, which they could then sell to the U.S. Navy. He abandoned this plan, however, after vigorous protests from three Central American counties that did not want the “plague of which the United States desired to rid themselves.” Lincoln then turned his sights to an island in the Caribbean. He pressured Congress to fund his venture, after which 450 free blacks volunteered to emigrate. But after nearly a quarter of this group died of starvation and disease, they were returned to the United States, and Congress withdrew additional funding for colonization.
As I said, unlike some advocates of colonization, Lincoln advocated voluntary methods, not coercion, that would convince blacks that it was in their best interests to leave America. A race war was inevitable if former slaves settled among white Southerners, he thought, so both blacks and whites would benefit from colonization. To this end Lincoln held a meeting with five black ministers on August 14, 1862, during which, in an attempt to convince the ministers to propagandize for colonization, he came close to blaming the Civil War on the presence of blacks in America.
We look to our condition, owing to the existence of the two races on this continent. I need not recount to you the effects upon white men growing out of the institution of slavery. I believe in its general evil effects on the white race.
See our present condition—the country engaged in war!—our white men cutting one another’s throats, none knowing how far it will extend; and then consider what we know to be the truth. But for your race among us there could not be war, although many men engaged on either side do not care for you one way or the other. Nevertheless, I repeat, without the institution of slavery, and the colored race as a basis, the war would not have an existence.
It is better for us both, therefore, to be separated.
I have not said anything in this essay that is not common knowledge among historians. The misconception that Lincoln waged war primarily over slavery stems from the misconceptions and lies that Southerners—mainly the radical “fire-eaters”—spread about Lincoln’s views. They represented Lincoln as a “Black Republican” and abolitionist who wished to extinguish slavery altogether, even though Lincoln advocated no such thing. From the perspective of many secessionists, therefore, the Civil War was waged over slavery. It is not unusual for opposing sides in a war to be motivated by different reasons, and this is what we find with the Civil War.