Lincoln on Slavery
Abraham Lincoln is often referred to as “The Great Emancipator” and yet, he did not publicly call for emancipation throughout his entire life. Lincoln began his public career by claiming that he was “antislavery” — against slavery’s expansion, but not calling for immediate emancipation. However, the man who began as “antislavery” eventually issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all slaves in those states that were in rebellion. He vigorously supported the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery throughout the United States, and, in the last speech of his life, he recommended extending the vote to African Americans.
This brief study of Lincoln’s writings on slavery contains examples of Lincoln’s views on slavery. It also shows one of his greatest strengths: his ability to change as it relates to his public stance on slavery.
We are deeply indebted to the work of the Abraham Lincoln Association in collecting Lincoln’s writings and publishing them as the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. It was from this monumental work that these selections were taken. The roman numerals and numbers at the end of each section refer to the volume and page of the Collected Works.
March 3, 1837
At the age of 28, while serving in the Illinois General Assembly, Lincoln made one of his first public declarations against slavery.
The following protest was presented to the House, which was read and ordered to be spread on the journals, to wit:
“Resolutions upon the subject of domestic slavery having passed both branches of the General Assembly at its present session, the undersigned hereby protest against the passage of the same.
They believe that the institution of slavery is founded on both injustice and bad policy; but that the promulgation of abolition doctrines tends rather to increase than to abate its evils.
They believe that the Congress of the United States has no power, under the constitution, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the different States.
They believe that the Congress of the United States has the power, under the constitution, to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia; but that that power ought not to be exercised unless at the request of the people of said District.
The difference between these opinions and those contained in the said resolutions, is their reason for entering this protest.”
July 1, 1854: Fragment on Slavery
Lincoln often encountered views supporting slavery. In this fragment, he countered the arguments that slavery was justified based on color and intellect.
If A. can prove, however conclusively, that he may, of right, enslave B. — why may not B. snatch the same argument, and prove equally, that he may enslave A?–
You say A. is white, and B. is black. It is color, then; the lighter, having the right to enslave the darker? Take care. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with a fairer skin than your own.
You do not mean color exactly?–You mean the whites are intellectually the superiors of the blacks, and, therefore have the right to enslave them? Take care again. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with an intellect superior to your own.
But, say you, it is a question of interest; and, if you can make it your interest, you have the right to enslave another. Very well. And if he can make it his interest, he has the right to enslave you.
October 16, 1854: Speech at Peoria, Illinois
Lincoln, in a speech at Peoria, attacked slavery on the grounds that its existence within the United States made American democracy appear hyprocritical in the eyes of the world. However, he also confessed his uncertainty as how to end slavery where it then existed, because he believed that neither colonolization nor racial equality were practical.
I can not but hate [the declared indifference for slavery’s spread]. I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world — enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites — causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty — criticising [sic] the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.
Before proceeding, let me say I think I have no prejudice against the Southern people. They are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not now exist amongst them, they would not introduce it. If it did now exist amongst us, we should not instantly give it up. This I believe of the masses north and south. Doubtless there are individuals, on both sides, who would not hold slaves under any circumstances; and others who would gladly introduce slavery anew, if it were out of existence. We know that some southern men do free their slaves, go north, and become tip-top abolitionists; while some northern ones go south, and become most cruel slave-masters.
When southern people tell us they are no more responsible for the origin of slavery, than we; I acknowledge the fact. When it is said that the institution exists; and that it is very difficult to get rid of it, in any satisfactory way, I can understand and appreciate the saying. I surely will not blame them for not doing what I should not know how to do myself. If all earthly power were given me, I should not know what to do, as to the existing institution. My first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia, — to their own native land. But a moment’s reflection would convince me, that whatever of high hope, (as I think there is) there may be in this, in the long run, its sudden execution is impossible. If they were all landed there in a day, they would all perish in the next ten days; and there are not surplus shipping and surplus money enough in the world to carry them there in many times ten days. What then? Free them all, and keep them among us as underlings? Is it quite certain that this betters their condition? I think I would not hold one in slavery, at any rate; yet the point is not clear enough for me to denounce people upon. What next? Free them, and make them politically and socially, our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not.
August 24, 1855
In a letter to his friend Joshua Speed, Lincoln freely expressed his hatred of slavery but he did not recommend immediate emancipation.
You know I dislike slavery; and you fully admit the abstract wrong of it. So far there is no cause of difference. But you say that sooner than yield your legal right to the slave — especially at the bidding of those who are not themselves interested, you would see the Union dissolved. I am not aware that any one is bidding you to yield that right; very certainly I am not. I leave that matter entirely to yourself. I also acknowledge your rights and my obligations, under the constitution, in regard to your slaves. I confess I hate to see the poor creatures hunted down, and caught, and carried back to their stripes, and unrewarded toils; but I bite my lip and keep quiet. In 1841 you and I had together a tedious low-water trip, on a Steam Boat from Louisville to St. Louis. You may remember, as I well do, that from Louisville to the mouth of the Ohio there were, on board, ten or a dozen slaves, shackled together with irons. That sight was a continual torment to me; and I see something like it every time I touch the Ohio, or any other slave-border. It is hardly fair to you to assume, that I have no interest in a thing which has, and continually exercises, the power of making me miserable. You ought rather to appreciate how much the great body of the Northern people do crucify their feelings, in order to maintain their loyalty to the constitution and the Union.
I do oppose the extension of slavery, because my judgment and feelings so prompt me; and I am under no obligation to the contrary.
July 10, 1858: Speech at Chicago, Illinois
In this speech at Chicago, Lincoln reiterated his hatred of slavery and also his belief that it should not be touched where it then existed.
I have always hated slavery, I think as much as any Abolitionist. I have been an Old Line Whig. I have always hated it, but I have always been quiet about it until this new era of the introduction of the Nebraska Bill began. I always believed that everybody was against it, and that it was in course of ultimate extinction.
I have said a hundred times, and I have now no inclination to take it back, that I believe there is no right, and ought to be no inclination in the people of the free States to enter into the slave States, and interfere with the question of slavery at all.
August 1, 1858[?: Definition of Democracy
October 7, 1858: Fifth Debate with Stephen A. Douglas, Galesburg, Illinois
In 1858, the Republican Party sought to unseat one of the nation’s most powerful United States Senators, Stephen Douglas. To oppose him, they nominated Abraham Lincoln. The resulting Lincoln-Douglas debates gave each candidate ample opportunity to publicly express his opinions on slavery. During the fifth debate, Lincoln claimed that slavery ran counter to American democratic principles because the Declaration of Independence’s phrase – “all men are created equal” applied to African-Americans.
October 13, 1858: Sixth Debate with Stephen A. Douglas, Quincy, Illinois
In the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Douglas maintained that the Founding Fathers established this nation half-slave and half-free in the belief that it would always be so. Lincoln argued that the Founding Fathers considered slavery wrong, and firmly expected it to die a natural death.
I wish to return Judge Douglas my profound thanks for his public annunciation here to-day, to be put on record, that his system of policy in regard to the institution of slavery contemplates that it shall last forever. We are getting a little nearer the true issue of this controversy, and I am profoundly grateful for this one sentence. Judge Douglas asks you “why cannot the institution of slavery, or rather, why cannot the nation, part slave and part free, continue as our fathers made it forever?” In the first place, I insist that our fathers did not make this nation half slave and half free, or part slave and part free. I insist that they found the institution of slavery existing here. They did not make it so, but they left it so because they knew of no way to get rid of it at that time. When Judge Douglas undertakes to say that as a matter of choice the fathers of the government made this nation part slave and part free, he assumes what is historically a falsehood. More than that; when the fathers of the government cut off the source of slavery by the abolition of the slave trade, and adopted a system of restricting it from the new Territories where it had not existed, I maintain that they placed it where they understood, and all sensible men understood, it was in the course of ultimate extinction; and when Judge Douglas asks me why it cannot continue as our fathers made it, I ask him why he and his friends could not let it remain as our fathers made it?
October 15, 1858: Seventh and Last Debate with Stephen A. Douglas, Alton, Illinois
To some Americans, the phrase “all men are created equal” applied only to some. To Lincoln, it applied to all.
And when this new principle [that African Americans were not covered by the phrase “all men are created equal”] — this new proposition that no human being ever thought of three years ago, — is brought forward, I combat it as having an evil tendency, if not an evil design; I combat it as having a tendency to dehumanize the negro — to take away from him the right of ever striving to be a man. I combat it as being one of the thousand things constantly done in these days to prepare the public mind to make property, and nothing but property of the negro in all the States of the Union.
…..I have never sought to apply these principles to the old States for the purpose of abolishing slavery in those States. It is nothing but a miserable perversion of what I have said, to assume that I have declared Missouri, or any other slave State shall emancipate her slaves. I have proposed no such thing.
October 15, 1858: Seventh and Last Debate with Stephen A. Douglas, Alton, Illinois
In the final Lincoln-Douglas debate, Lincoln claimed that the issues over which the two candidates had sparred, were not just issues of his time, rather, Lincoln believed that these debates were small battles in the larger war between individual rights and the divine right of kings.
That is the real issue. That is the issue that will continue in this country when these poor tongues of Judge Douglas and myself shall be silent. It is the eternal struggle between these two principles — right and wrong — throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time; and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity and the other the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says, “You work and toil and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.” No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.
October 18, 1858: Letter to James N. Brown
Some feared that Lincoln was recommending social and political equality between the races. Writing to James N. Brown, Lincoln discounted this belief although seven years later, he would embrace this hope in the last speech of his life.
I do not perceive how I can express myself, more plainly, than I have done in the foregoing extracts. In four of them I have expressly disclaimed all intention to bring about social and political equality between the white and black races, and, in all the rest, I have done the same thing by clear implication.
I have made it equally plain that I think the negro is included in the word “men” used in the Declaration of Independence.
I believe the declara[tion] that “all men are created equal” is the great fundamental principle upon which our free institutions rest; that negro slavery is violative of that principle; but that, by our frame of government, that principle has not been made one of legal obligation; that by our frame of government, the States which have slavery are to retain it, or surrender it at their own pleasure; and that all others — individuals, free-states and national government — are constitutionally bound to leave them alone about it.
I believe our government was thus framed because of the necessity springing from the actual presence of slavery, when it was framed.
That such necessity does not exist in the teritories[sic], where slavery is not present.
…It does not follow that social and political equality between whites and blacks, must be incorporated, because slavery must not.
March 1, 1859: Speech at Chicago, Illinois
I do not wish to be misunderstood upon this subject of slavery in this country. I suppose it may long exist, and perhaps the best way for it to come to an end peaceably is for it to exist for a length of time. But I say that the spread and strengthening and perpetuation of it is an entirely different proposition. There we should in every way resist it as a wrong, treating it as a wrong, with the fixed idea that it must and will come to an end.
April 6, 1859: Letter to Henry L. Pierce
This is a world of compensations; and he who would be no slave, must consent to have no slave. Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves; and, under a just God, can not long retain it.
September 17, 1859: Speech at Cincinnati, Ohio
I say that we must not interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists, because the constitution forbids it, and the general welfare does not require us to do so.
We must prevent the revival of the African slave trade and the enacting by Congress of a territorial slave code.
September 17, 1859: Fragment on Free Labor
We know, Southern men declare that their slaves are better off than hired laborers amongst us. How little they know, whereof they speak! There is no permanent class of hired laborers amongst us.
Free labor has the inspiration of hope; pure slavery has no hope. The power of hope upon human exertion, and happiness, is wonderful. The slave-master himself has a conception of it; and hence the system of tasks among slaves. The slave whom you can not drive with the lash to break seventy-five pounds of hemp in a day, if you will task him to break a hundred, and promise him pay for all he does over, he will break you a hundred and fifty. You have substituted hope, for the rod.
February 1, 1861: Letter To William H. Seward
I say now, however, as I have all the while said, that on the territorial question — that is, the question of extending slavery under the national auspices, — I am inflexible. I am for no compromise which assists or permits the extension of the institution on soil owned by the nation. And any trick by which the nation is to acquire territory, and then allow some local authority to spread slavery over it, is as obnoxious as any other.
April 11, 1865: Last Public Address
In Lincoln’s last public address, he recommended extending the right to vote to the African Americans who had fought for the Union. This expressed his belief that African Americans should be granted full political equality.
It is also unsatisfactory to some that the elective franchise is not given to the colored man. I would myself prefer that it were now conferred on the very intelligent, and on those who serve our cause as soldiers.