Abraham Lincoln’s Little-Known Path to Abolition

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February 12 is the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, the former U.S. president who led the nation through the Civil War and the country’s greatest moral, constitutional, and political crisis. His actions and successes set the country closer to becoming a nation that acknowledged the “unalienable rights” of all people. Lincoln was the first U.S. president to be assassinated, and that essence of martyrdom may have helped solidify his place in history as a morally praiseworthy leader.

Lincoln believed that slavery was unjust because it restricted Black men from ‘improving their condition in society and enjoying the fruits of their labor,’ which was a right that, he believed, all men should share regardless of race. But, did Lincoln wish for white people and Black folks to have equal rights? In his own words, he said:

“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.”

In fact, Lincoln believed that the best solution to the issue of race was colonization. He sought support from free Black leaders in sending the majority of Black people to settle in Africa and South America. This enraged the Black community who believed they were just as native and entitled to the land as their white neighbors.

Not only did Lincoln take moral issue with slavery, but slavery was causing a major political burden for him. Slavery was protected by the Constitution, and because of the Three-Fifths Compromise, slavery gave political power to the southern white leaders he opposed.

Lincoln thought Emancipation would undermine the Confederacy economically and militarily. It would also serve to win over the abolitionists he had a common anti-slavery cause with. Even though Emancipation didn’t free slaves instantly, it had major impact on the war, the evolution of Lincoln’s views on slavery, and would pave the way for abolition by the 13th Amendment.

Lincoln’s legacy has shifted time and time again as different groups interpret him. He has been said to have freed the slaves, and said to embody America’s tradition of racism, but he has since become a symbol of freedom for many.  After Lincoln died, Parke Godwin, editor of the Evening Post, wrote this: 

“No loss has been comparable to his,” Godwin said. “Never in human history has there been so universal, so spontaneous, so profound an expression of a nation’s bereavement.”