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The origin of Slavery can be traced back to the trans-Atlantic trade, where the main commodity from the African coast was the slaves. Enslaved people were a source of cheap labor for American plantations, especially in the South. Slavery was still practiced at independence and produced the wealth of the Southern States. However, there were already signs that this New Nation would not thrive with enslaved people. In the Declaration of Independence, the founding father stated that “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, among these are life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness” (Jones, 2016). Based on this creed, any genuine American would view the Institution of Slavery as awkward. Because of its contrast to the declaration of independence and despite it being the backbone of the southern economy, Lincoln advocated against the Institution of Slavery.
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Lincoln’s View on Slavery
Abolitionists’ approach towards Slavery was different from Lincoln’s view. The inclusion of the fugitive slave clause and the three-fifths clause in the Constitution made it difficult for Lincoln to denounce Slavery publicly. While the abolitionist advocated for the immediate abolition of Slavery, Lincoln didn’t know what should be done to Slavery within the existing political structure. However, he made his moral, legal, and economic opposition to Slavery (Hesling, 2015). Lincoln did not consider himself an abolitionist, but he saw himself working with them toward the end of Slavery. Emancipation, and Lincoln’s subsequent backing of the 13th Amendment, was the only thing that could win over the most ardent abolitionists.
Emancipation did not mean suffrage for the black. Lincoln maintained that the founding fathers used the phrase “All men are created equal” to apply to both black and white people, but this did not mean he believed they should have the same social and political rights. In a series of debates in 1858, his ideas were laid bare during his campaign for the U.S. Senate in Illinois against Stephen Douglas, who had charged him of favoring “negro equality.” In their fourth debate at Charleston, Lincoln said he was not in favor of bringing about the social and political equality of the white and Black races in any way. Instead, he believed those Black men, like all men, should have the opportunity to better themselves and their communities and share in the rewards of their efforts. Slavery was wrong because it treated people differently based on the color of their skin.
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In his fight against Slavery, Lincoln supported colonization as a means to end Slavery. Lincoln thought that the best way to deal with Slavery was for most African Americans to leave the United States and settle in Africa or Central America. While Lincoln would not openly support colonization until 1852, by 1854, he urged that if given a chance, his first inclination would be “to free all the slaves and transfer them to Liberia” (Jones, 2016). As a result, Liberia was established as a home of formerly enslaved people in 1821. However, black leaders and abolitionists were outraged by Lincoln’s backing of colonization because they believed African Americans were just as indigenous to the United States as whites and should enjoy the same legal protections.
Lincoln and Emancipation
Slavery was at the heart of what triggered the Civil War. Lincoln believed that Emancipation, if and when it occurred, would need to be phased in since stopping the Southern revolt from permanently splitting the Union was paramount. However, thousands of enslaved persons fled Southern plantations to Union lines as the Civil War entered its second summer in 1862. The federal government did not have a program for dealing with such slaves (The White House, 2006). Lincoln realized that by freeing the slaves, the Union would get a new pool of soldiers to smash the Confederacy. Thus, Emancipation not only freed enslaved people but also added a pool of soldiers to the Union line. This addition would ensure total victory for the Union.
Limited Emancipation paved the way for the 13th Amendment, which abolished Slavery. The slave States loyal to the Union were exempted from Emancipation. These States included Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri. Lincoln also made exceptions for certain formerly Confederate areas that had fallen under Union authority (Jones, 2016). This was done to win over the white populations of those states. Since the Emancipation Proclamation only applied in states at war with the United States and the Southern States, it did not immediately free any enslaved people. Despite its shortcomings, Lincoln’s proclamation was a watershed moment in the growth of his ideas on Slavery and the Civil War (Schwartz, 2013). About 200,000 Black men served in the Union Army and Navy during the war. This fact gave a fatal blow to the Institution of Slavery and laid the path for its eventual abolition by the 13th Amendment.
Even though Lincoln had mixed views on the Institution of Slavery, it is clear that he looked to a nation where “all men” would be “equal.” He used his authority as the President to give executive orders for Emancipation. The order, however, had limited application. His major contribution toward the eradication of Slavery is in the signing of the 13th Amendment, which by law, eradicated Slavery. Even though some later leaders shaped policies that were pro-slavery, his efforts to free the Negro remained in the heart of Americans.
- Hesling, W. (2015). Lincoln: A man for too many seasons? Rethinking History, 19(3), 506-511.
- Jones, D. E. (2016, December 12). The Unknown Legacy of the 13th Amendment. The Gettysburg Compiler: On the Front Lines of History. 187. https://cupola.gettysburg.edu/compiler/187/
- Schwartz, B. (2013). Our Lincoln. Society, 50(5), 503-505.
- The White House. (2006). Abraham Lincoln: The 16th President of the United States. The White House. https://www.whitehouse.gov/about-the-white-house/presidents/abraham-lincoln/