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‘Abraham Lincoln and Slavery’
The wisdom of the Bible tells us ‘in the writing of books there is no end’. In our time this seems true for websites as well. Yet with the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth (2/12/09), with the election of the first African-American President, and with our ongoing need for inspiration and insight from the 16th President of the United States, it is an opportune time for this website.
Abraham Lincoln viewed slavery as something he had always hated. Yet this was an institution that had always been on the American landscape. The founding fathers had written in the Declaration of Independence (1776) about ‘all men being created equal’ and of ‘certain inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’. But in the ratified US Constitution (1788), ‘We the People’ promoted the institution of slavery, even to the point that each slave was valued as three-fifths of a citizen in a state’s electoral proportion. 'Self-evident truths' of equality and self-determination from the Declaration were in conflict with 'creating a more perfect union' from the Constitution. This national ambivalence carried into the 1860s, when injustice was established and domestic tranquility became Civil War.
Lincoln was also a man of his times, living in two worlds. Illinois was a mixture of abolitionist thinking in its north and slavery sympathy in its south that bordered the slave state Kentucky. Lincoln’s residence in Springfield was analogous to his centrist politics on slavery. He wanted slavery to be limited to its present national boundaries. Then as the American West experienced the boom of competitive labor, the culture would ultimately desire to promote freedom for all people, instead of leaving an underclass in permanently indentured servitude.
When the Kansas-Nebraska Act was enacted in 1854, everything changed for Lincoln and the country. This was the slippery slope that allowed slavery into any and all of the emerging western states. Lincoln’s conscience moved him to become an unelected, self-styled spokesman against the prospect of a permanently enslaved nation. While failing to win elected office in 1858, he spoke for many when he accepted the constitutional validity of slavery without the necessity of this becoming expansive into the western states. This position won Lincoln a hearing with the electorate and ultimately the United States Presidency in 1860.
Lincoln entered office in March, 1861 holding to these convictions. Yet the Southern states were incrementally seceding from the Union and many in the North, unwilling to continue conflicted relationships, were saying ‘good riddance’. Lincoln’s position was for the preeminence of the Union (the bonds were Constitutionally and morally not allowed to be broken) and the tolerance of slavery without its expansion.
As the Civil War started and then droned on, Lincoln sought to use any means possible to bring the military conflict to an end and to bring restoration of the rebel States, which he contended had never legally left the United States. The Emancipation Proclamation, proposed near the end of 1862, was Lincoln’s mega-attempt to cause the war to come to a swift conclusion. This did not happen. What did happen was that the North accepted a culture of freedom for all. The War between the States was now about the Union and about freeing slaves. As the war continued, Lincoln came to the conclusion that this was the opportune time to bring a permanent emancipation and even the initial steps towards citizenry for millions of people. To secure this emancipation beyond Supreme Court scrutiny, the Thirteenth Amendment was proposed and passed by Congress.
What you have just read is the largest portion of commentary you will see on this site. The essence of Lincoln and Slavery is found under Document: Lincoln Concerning Slavery, Challenging the Institution in His Own Words. The honor is for Lincoln to explain his own journey of living and working through the issue of slavery. The words of this document are predominately Lincoln’s own, with limited commentary to frame the setting for Lincoln’s messages. So please be transported to another time and culture; then make your own judgment about the impact Abraham Lincoln has made for freedom on American life.