From Preserving the Union to Emancipation: President Lincoln’s Views on Slavery

President Lincoln believed that he would be best remembered for writing the Emancipation Proclamation. Although many people remember him as the president who freed the slaves, some of the facts surrounding that achievement have been clouded with the passing of time.

Although Abraham Lincoln hated slavery, his goal was not to free the slaves at the beginning of his presidency. Instead, he wanted the Southern states to remain in the Union and tried to prevent them from pulling out. He promised Southerners that he would not interfere with slavery in states where it already existed, but this assurance was not enough to prevent the Civil War.

As the war dragged on, however, Lincoln realized that freeing the slaves and preserving the Union were inseparable issues. Lincoln informed his cabinet of his plan to issue emancipation for the slaves in summer 1862, but was advised to wait for a Union army victory. When victory came, he pulled the proclamation out of his desk drawer. In his message to Congress in December 1862, he explained his actions: “In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve.”

Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. It stated that from that date “all persons held as slaves within any state or states, wherein the constitutional authority of the United States shall not then be practically recognized…shall then, thenceforward, and forever, be free.” Criticism came from within his own party. Conservative Republicans thought it was too radical, while the radicals complained that the proclamation only freed slaves in Southern states that the Union army had no authority to help.

In the military, some soldiers resented having to fight a war for the slaves and others did not want blacks to have the opportunity to join the Union army. Lincoln, however, felt that the former slaves had a stake in fighting for their freedom.  He was also impressed by the abilities of black troops on the battlefield. He wrote that when peace came, “there will be some black men who can remember that, with silent tongue, and clenched teeth, and steady eye, and well-poised bayonet, they have helped mankind on to this great consummation [eliminating slavery and saving the Union]; while…there will be some white ones unable to forget that, with malignant heart, and deceitful speech, they have strove to hinder it.” In just a few years, Lincoln transformed from a politician who wanted little to do with the issue of slavery, to a statesman who wanted to destroy it.

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