Abraham Lincoln has been depicted as the American Hero who abolished slavery.
The American public, even today still believe that ‘Honest Abe’ was exactly that. Modern historians though have started to question this myth. Was Lincoln using the slavery issue to promote a ‘United States of America’? Was he really bothered about the slaves or was he a closet racist? The one thing that is unquestionable is that after the civil war slavery was abolished and America was united. Unfortunately, Lincoln did not see this as he was assassinated on 14th April 1865. The fact that Lincoln was President for only five years has left a lasting impression on Americans’ even today.
Even today, Americans still look to Abraham Lincoln as the Icon of Americas’ past. They believe that they are right, honest and lawful in all their actions, especially on moral grounds. This indoctrination starts virtually at birth, continues throughout their academic careers and beyond.
It is now even shown in animated television programmes like “The Simpsons”.1 The crowd around Lincoln’s memorial asking for his advice is huge., however when the character “Lucy” went to Jefferson’s memorial there was nobody around. The answer to her question, which she had to reproduce in class, caused uproar. This shows that the writers of this program see Lincoln as the ideal role model for American society today and possibly as their First President.The morality of slaves is not an issue. We all know that it is wrong.
The truth though is that approximately twelve million2 slaves were exported from their homelands, against their wishes across the Atlantic. The slave trade started to die out in the 1830’s after Britain abolished slavery and used the Royal Navy to police the high seas to enforce this decision. Unfortunately, the southern states of America already had a self sustaining slave population. Slave owners had no inhibitions about slaves reproducing as after just a few years they had another slave to either work for them or to be sold on. These rich southern slave owners did not want to lose there free labour. As new states were formed they were given the choice on whether to be a ‘Free state’ or ‘Slave state’. Both sides of the argument rushed people into new territories in the hope of swaying the vote.
Even a ‘Free State’ hurt the southern slave owners as this enabled runaway slaves a respite from persecution. Abraham Lincoln a Republican was elected President in 1860. The southern states were concerned that Lincoln would abolish slavery and consequently started to leave the Union. As far as they were concerned, the constitution had elected,”…a man to High Office of President of the United States whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.
..”3Lincoln however was not an abolitionist and he refused to compromise on keeping slavery out of the territories. He had throughout his campaign opposed any other anti slavery policies, and also promised to enforce the highly unpopular (in the north) Fugitive Slave act and respect the existing slave states. None of the politicians that ran for the presidency at that time advocated the abolition of slavery. They all thought that to do so would have been political suicide.
Lincoln was elected President of the United States of America with 40% of the popular vote, but did not carry any of the southern ‘slave’ states. In his first inaugural address, he announced,”I have no purpose, directly or indirectly to interfere with the institution of slavery in the state where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so and I have no inclination to do so.
(Emphasis added)”4With this statement, Lincoln is trying to endear himself to both sides of the issue. He does not say that he is going to abolish slavery, nor does he say that it would be allowed to expand. Lincoln did however oppose the expansion of slavery into new territories and this probably alienated him from the southern states.The extension that Lincoln was opposed to was in the formation of new states. Lincoln and the Republican Party believed in ‘white’ only states. They used the excuse that slaves (blacks) would compete with the white labour force. When Lincoln spoke in Peoria, Illinois in October 18545 he made it quite clear that these new territories should be whites only,”..
.we want them for the homes of free white people. This they cannot be to any extent, if slavery shall be planted with them.
Slave states are the places for poor white people to move from…
New Free states are the places for poor people to go and better their condition.”6This statement defined the Republican parties’ views on slavery. It proved that the people that were against the expansion of slavery were protecting the ‘white man’ and not out of any concern for the ‘black man’.Lincoln appeared to be a very pragmatic man with his dealings on slavery. In 1852 he delivered a eulogy to Henry Clay where he praised Clays’ policies on the slave issue. In this eulogy Lincoln claimed that like himself, Clay had a “deep down devotion to the cause of human liberty”7 Even though Clay was a slave owner, he believed that to end slavery would cause greater problems than it would solve.
It appears that Lincoln was playing both sides of the issue. On one hand saying that it is wrong to own slaves but on the other saying that it is not worth ending slavery. As Dilorenzo puts it, “…a clearer example of circular reasoning.
“8 There is no doubt that Lincoln was opposed to the abolitionists that wanted to grant immediate racial equality to the slaves. The idea of colonisation though was acceptable to Lincoln, but once again this followed the ideas of Henry Clay.In a speech in Peoria in 1854, Lincoln stated that the only way to emancipation was by colonisation. In 1858 during the senatorial campaign, Lincoln conceded that there was,”A physical difference between the two (races), which in my judgment will probably forbid them living together upon the footing of perfect equality.
..”9This statement according to Fredrickson has been used by historians over the years to prove that Lincoln was technically a racist. Lincoln does however again prove that he was intent on colonisation. In 1862 he invited a delegation of ‘Blacks’ to the White House in an attempt to arouse ‘Black’ interest in this idea. Lincoln again repeated his view that “racial equality was impossible on American soil.”10The Free slaves of the northern states could not really be called ‘Free’.
They were now treated as second class citizens, discrimination was rife, a perfect role model for the future South Africa. A Negro could not marry a white, could not testify in court or hold political office. They could not earn a living in any kind of business. New territories prevented ‘Blacks’ from living within their borders by imposing impossible laws for them to abide to.Gabor Borit paints Lincoln in a totally different light than other historians. He says that Douglas, the leader of the Democrats during the 1850s’ that the Republicans did not want to stop slavery but wanted equality for all. Lincoln replied,”That he desired no civil rights for black people, only the right to the fruit of their own labor.
“11Borit argues that had Lincoln not said this, we would never have heard of Abraham Lincoln. Dilorenzo is quite scathing about Borit and others like him by saying,”Historians like Borit have created a literary and historical fog bank that makes it extremely difficult to understand the real Abraham Lincoln” 12In 1863 Lincoln did actually issue a proclamation freeing the slaves. This Americans saw as the first step to ending slavery. The proclamation itself actually freed no slaves what so ever, it only applied to ‘rebel’ held territory and any territory that was held by the union was exempt. Lincoln claimed that this proclamation was a war measure with the hope of instigating a rebellion in the south by the slaves. Probably the main reason that Lincoln issued the proclamation was the fear of European intervention.
Europe had emancipated slaves peacefully and Lincoln feared that if he still supported slavery that the European powers would side with the confederacy and help to end the war with a negotiated settlement. This would have resulted in a split Union.Lincoln time and time again argued that the Civil War was not about slavery. His main concern was forcing the Secessionists to remain within the Union. In a letter public letter to the editor of the New York Tribune, Horace Greeley in 1862, he states.”My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race I do because I believe it helps to save the Union,.
..”13This shows that Lincoln was willing to do anything to save the Union. It also reflects his thinking and attitude to the slaves. In fact, Lincoln does not really seem bothered what happens to them at all as long as the Union is saved. His emancipation proclamation shows his true feelings about slavery; they would remain slaves as long as their owners were loyal to the Union.
Throughout his political career Lincoln does refer to the constitution, saying about equal rights for all men. Being a realist he keeps the issue of slavery at arms length. Yes he agrees that it is wrong, but also says that they cannot be the white mans equal. Even when he does free the slaves he manages it so that it does not affect the people that voted him into office.
He does want to free the slaves as long as they leave America. Lincoln in a sense was right, even today there is not total equality throughout America. The first ‘Black’ President may well change that but until that time ‘The Blacks’ in some American eyes will always be second rate.