Was Lincoln an Abolitionist?
Lincoln's views on race were motivated and influenced greatly by his own political ambitions. Though Lincoln was a "political" abolitionist is personal views of the Negro question prevented him from adhering to the views of the moral abolitionists. The main influence driving Lincoln's desire to liberate the slaves was political and his fist priority was to preserve the "great experiment." Lincoln's attempt to ban the expansion of slavery was for the benefit of the superior whites and was not a first step towards Negro liberation and suffrage. On the eve of the war of secession Lincoln viewed the slaves as a labor force that was essential to the southern resistance.
Lincoln was not interested in direct intervention within the slave states, he saw slavery as a political hot potato and Lincoln was merely adhering to republican politics. He made the remark that if he could save the Union and not free slaves he would, he also stated that if he could save the union and free all slaves or even just a few he would (Hattaway & Jones, How, 270). When he did express a hatred of the expansion of the "peculiar institution" in the Lincoln Douglas debates he said nothing about the abolition of the south's beloved institution. By avoiding the issue of liberation he could secure the support of non abolitionists and not risk losing the anti-slavery vote. One of the foundations of the Republican Party was free soil and labor opportunities for whites; the prevention of the expansion of slavery was one of the methods to accomplish this. Lincoln took it as his duty to hold to the party principles. Without such a strong corner stone to unit the party it would surely fall (Fonner, Free, 215-216). When elected to office Lincoln continued to use slavery as a political tool in an attempt to put an end to the secession crisis. On the eve of the crisis's climax Lincoln admitted that he was willing to give in to Southern demands, such as ending Northern resistance to an internal slave trade. If it were not for the strong stance of many Republican radicals the war of preservation may have been postponed (Fonner, Free, 220). Lincoln made it a point to stress to the slave holding states that he had no intention of re-structuring race relations (Clinton & Silber, Divided, 78).
The real purpose for barring the expansion of slavery was to provide more land for the white settlers, not to improve the living conditions of savage subordinates. Armed with this idea of the isolation of slavery for the benefit of the white man Lincoln and his party were billed as "the only white mans party in the country." The National Era reported that many Americans opposed slavery. The reason that slavery was so strongly opposed by so many whites was due to its negative effects on national honor and labor. There was little to no consideration for the well being or equality of the Negro (Fonner, Free, 265). Though Lincoln did believe that the Negro was a man, he knew that he was perceived as a lesser man than whites. However even a lesser man was entitled to the basic natural rights of man, however he did know that equality among whites was not a natural right the populace would allow. He did proclaim that the Negro deserved a chance to better himself, but equality among his masters did not seem an attainable goal for the Negro (Fonner, Free, 290). Lincolns plan was to alter the white mans perception of the Negro. In August 1862 Lincoln approved the recruiting of Negro soldiers. This was the first step toward altering the perception of the Black man in the White mans eyes. Lincoln hoped that Negro soldiers would be seen as soldiers, not a Negro, a first step towards changing perception. One observer remarked that seeing the Negro in uniform made him seem more confident and self assured, he no longer seemed the submissive slave (Hattaway & Jones, How, 270-72).
Lincoln saw the slave labor force as a back bone to the southern economy witch was fueling the Confederate war effort. An important motivation behind his Emancipation Proclamation had les to do with slave rights and Negro equality and was intended to cripple the Southern economy. On 13 July 1862 Lincoln informed some of his aides and colleagues that he intended to issue the, arguably, unconstitutional document. The reasons that he gave for his actions was as a measure to weaken the Southern resistance. Slaves were an extremely important element of strength in the southern infrastructure (McPherson, Battle, 504). The Confederate army was even using slave labor to build and repair fortifications (Clinton & Silber, Divided, 78). Lincoln had a plan to confiscate southern slaves and employ their own labor source against them. Some of his staff tried to argue that this action was unconstitutional, but Lincoln brushed this aside. He reminded his staff that the country is at war and that under war powers if he could order the destruction and seizure of enemy rails he could just as easily order the confiscation of the contraband Negro. Through this action Lincoln was acknowledging the public view of the Negro as a contraband property. Through this policy Lincoln was striking blows at the South and providing the Negro with the opportunity to improve himself while warming the North to the idea of emancipation. In 1862 at the White House Lincoln told a group of black leaders, including Fredrick Douglas, that though slavery was a great wrong inflicted on their people the race would only suffer trying to live as equals in the superior white culture. Lincoln admitted that the Negro deserved a chance to prove themselves as equals and capable of bettering themselves. Unfortunately it was unlikely that they would get that chance here in America (McPherson, Battle, 508). Lincoln's solution was colonization. Central America was one of the selected territories. Through colonization the US could be freed of the inferior Negro in a sort of National enema (McPherson, Battle, 507-508).
In the Antebellum year's views of the Negro as an inferior race were well established. Lincoln's abolitionist actions were politically motivated and done mostly out of white interest. Lincolns used the question of slavery to further his own political ambitions and to preserve the Union making him the nation's greatest hero. The slave was seen by Lincoln had to acknowledge the common perception of the slaves as a labor force, not as an independent race of man. In promoting the idea of colonization Lincoln acknowledged national views that the Negro was unworthy of the respect and opportunities afforded by the white race. It was clear to him that the only way to guarantee Negro suffrage was to change the common perception of the Negro.
Fonner, Eric. Free Soil Free Labor Free Men. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995This page published 12/11/04RETURN TO ESSAY PAGE
Herman Hattaway and Archer Jones, How the North Won: A Military History of the Civil war Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1991.
McPherson, James M. Battle Cray of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Ballantine Books, 1989.
Silber Nina & Clinton, Catherune. Divided Houses: Gender and the Civil War: New York: Oxford University Press,1992