September 21, 2012
1. Lincoln wasn’t an abolitionist.
Lincoln did believe that slavery was morally wrong, but there was one big problem: It was sanctioned by the highest law in the land, the Constitution. The nation’s founding fathers, who also struggled with how to address slavery, did not explicitly write the word “slavery” in the Constitution, but they did include key clauses protecting the institution, including a fugitive slave clause and the three-fifths clause, which allowed Southern states to count slaves for the purposes of representation in the federal government. In a three-hour speech in Peoria, Illinois, in the fall of 1854, Lincoln presented more clearly than ever his moral, legal and economic opposition to slavery—and then admitted he didn’t know exactly what should be done about it within the current political system.
Abolitionists, by contrast, knew exactly what should be done about it: Slavery should be immediately abolished, and freed slaves should be incorporated as equal members of society. They didn’t care about working within the existing political system, or under the Constitution, which they saw as unjustly protecting slavery and slave owners. Leading abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison called the Constitution “a covenant with death and an agreement with Hell,” and went so far as to burn a copy at a Massachusetts rally in 1854. Though Lincoln saw himself as working alongside the abolitionists on behalf of a common anti-slavery cause, he did not count himself among them. Only with emancipation, and with his support of the eventual 13th Amendment, would Lincoln finally win over the most committed abolitionists.
2. Lincoln didn’t believe blacks should have the same rights as whites.
Though Lincoln argued that the founding fathers’ phrase “All men are created equal” applied to blacks and whites alike, this did not mean he thought they should have the same social and political rights. His views became clear during an 1858 series of debates with his opponent in the Illinois race for U.S. Senate, Stephen Douglas, who had accused him of supporting “negro equality.” In their fourth debate, at Charleston, Illinois, on September 18, 1858, Lincoln made his position clear. “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,” he began, going on to say that he opposed blacks having the right to vote, to serve on juries, to hold office and to intermarry with whites. What he did believe was that, like all men, blacks had the right to improve their condition in society and to enjoy the fruits of their labor. In this way they were equal to white men, and for this reason slavery was inherently unjust.
Like his views on emancipation, Lincoln’s position on social and political equality for African-Americans would evolve over the course of his presidency. In the last speech of his life, delivered on April 11, 1865, he argued for limited black suffrage, saying that any black man who had served the Union during the Civil War should have the right to vote.
3. Lincoln thought colonization could resolve the issue of slavery.
For much of his career, Lincoln believed that colonization—or the idea that a majority of the African-American population should leave the United States and settle in Africa or Central America—was the best way to confront the problem of slavery. His two great political heroes, Henry Clay and Thomas Jefferson, had both favored colonization; both were slave owners who took issue with aspects of slavery but saw no way that blacks and whites could live together peaceably. Lincoln first publicly advocated for colonization in 1852, and in 1854 said that his first instinct would be “to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia” (the African state founded by the American Colonization Society in 1821).