Does Abraham Lincoln deserve the accolade “The Great Emancipator”?

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The 16-th President of The United States of America, Abraham Lincoln, is an outstanding political figure not only of his time but of the US history in general. His life journey from a farmer to a summit of political power is an example of an American dream. Years of struggling, hesitating, failing and mistaking were not spent in vain. Lincoln succeeded as a politician, and even now everybody knows him as the Great Emancipator who freed black people from slavery. There is no doubt that the president made change to the American history but it was not as easy as it seems. There are many contrary points of view on his career which provoke thoughts of him as of a controversial personality. Was Abraham Lincoln the Great Emancipator or he just did a minimum effort to save the country in a crucial time? No it is important to find out his true influence on the history of American slavery.

In the first half of 19th century most of the US economy was based on slave labor. More than 12 million African slaves were brought America during the period since 16th to 19th century. Using African slaves, who were adjusted to hot climate, was profitable for plantation owners.  The life of slaves became worse when The Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850. According to the new law the citizens of all states were obliged to take part in the capture of fugitives. In case of disobedience a severe punishment was imposed. By that time, about 4 million citizens of America were slaves. And that is the time when Abraham Lincoln is elected to become the 16th president of the United States, the national hero who is going to free the country from slavery. His presidency became the start of time of change. By this time, the tension between the Northern and Southern States approaches the peak of tension, which resulted in a four-year Civil War (1861-1865). The reasons to start the war were contrary ways of regional development. Almost every state conducted an independent policy. The North chose the way of capitalism, and the South remained on the way of slavery and agriculture.

Many immigrants and entrepreneurs were trying to come to the North of the USA because a lot of plants and factories were located there. The South received huge free territories after the American-Mexican war, with a climate favorable to agriculture, for which free labor was required.

It is important to mention that the initial war aim was not the abolition of slavery but the reunion of all the states. At the beginning of the war the slavery problem was not the main issue. The president hoped to stop the war without drastic measures. Anyway, when the war was coming to its end, Lincoln understood that the reunion of the states is not impossible without the abolition of slavery. Moreover, it had to be done using extreme methods. Lincoln realized that an instant abolition of slavery would be a catastrophe for a country in a state of war because the main part of the American economy depended on the slave labor. That is why he planned gradual transition from such system to a wage labor system for black workers. It was the time for fundamental changes in the life of society. The abolition of slavery had to be secured legally. “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong” he said (Guelzo 23)

The preparation for the abolition of slavery took almost the entire year 1862 and on December 30 the president signed the “Emancipation Proclamation”, according to which Africans living in the territories in a state of insurrection “now and forever” are free (Foner ). After the proclamation the war for the unity of the country gradually transformed into the war of liberation, in the name of the most fundamental constitutional right of every person in the country – freedom. It was this proclamation that served as a kind of impetus for the adoption of the 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution, which completely abolished slavery in the United States. Forced labor was used only as a punishment for a crime.

Nonetheless, not everybody agrees that Lincoln’s intentions were so clear. Many scholars argue the accolade “The Great Emancipator”. They say that the “Emancipation Proclamation” was a political document needed only to prevent the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Confederation and European countries, which helped the Union win the war with the rebels. In his book “The American Political Tradition and The Men Who Made It”, a historian Richard Hofstadter states that Proclamation didn’t save any slaves (Hofstadter 100-104).  In editor of the book “Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln” Roy P. Basler underlines that the proclamation just promised freedom. Indeed, according to Lincoln’s document only African-Americans living on the territories of Confederation were proclaimed free. It was not legal for the slaves who lived on the territory of the Union. The author of the book “Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincolns White Dream”, Lerone Bennett emphasized on the fact that Lincoln freed slaves only on the territories where he was able to do that but did nothing to free them on the territory of the Union, where it was impossible to do. So what was Lincoln’s “white dream”? He was a white person of his time. In the first half of the 19th century it was usual to treat black people as slaves. Most of the Americans of that time didn’t consider slavery to be a country’s disgrace and in spite of his political beliefs, Lincoln was one of them (Bennett).

The historians divide Lincoln’s biography into two parts: 1830 -1850th and 1850 – 1860th. It is the second part of his political life that is the most interesting. That was the part of his career when he presented himself as an outstanding politician caring for human rights, fighting rebels and started abolition of slavery (Lind 117-121).

The 16th President of The United States of America died being a popular politician and became a saint of the American nation. That is why all the mistakes and the horrible events of the Civil War were instantly forgotten. Due to the circumstances of his sudden death, the idealization of his personality became an obstacle to critically observe Abraham’s presidency. In the opinion of most people he was a person who sacrificed his life to preserve the integrity of the country and to fight slavery. However, Lincoln himself was rather contradictory political figure. On one hand, he spoke out against slavery, and on the other hand he didn’t support the idea of social and political equality between white and black race. Nonetheless, Abraham Lincoln understood and loved his people. With his own example, he demonstrated respect towards human dignity through freedom. He was the one who initiated the legal abolition of slavery which lead to the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution.

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  1. Basler, Roy P. The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln.  Rutgers University Press, 1953. Accessed 23 January 2018.
  2. Bennet, Lerone. Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream. Johnson Publishing Company, 2007. Accessed 23 January 2018.
  3. Foner, Eric. The Emancipation of Abe Lincoln. New York Times, Dec. 31, 2012. Accessed 23 January 2018.
  4. Foner, Eric. The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. W. W. Norton & Company, 2010. Accessed 23 January 2018.
  5. Guelzo, Allen C.. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America. Simon and Schuster, 2005. Accessed 23 January 2018.
  6. Hofstadter, The American political tradition and the men who made it. A Vintage Book, 1974. Accessed 23 January 2018.
  7. Lind, Michael. What Lincoln Believed: The Values and Convictions of America’s Greatest President. Knopf  Doubleday Publishing Group, 2007. Accessed 23 January 2018.
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