Abraham Lincoln was not an original advocate of abolition. In fact we know that his journey to what he called “the central act of my administration, and the great event of the nineteenth century” was a relatively slow, though continuous, one. Emancipation was a complex process that involved the actions of the slaves, the Union Army, Congress, and the President. Historians have argued over the relative roles of the slaves and Lincoln in the coming of emancipation. It is my purpose to shift the terms of this debate by drawing attention to a third group of emancipators—abolitionists, particularly black abolitionists, and Radical Republicans.
African Americans had demanded freedom from bondage as early as the American Revolution, and in the thirty years before the Civil War a strong interracial movement had called for the immediate abolition of slavery and for black rights. Lincoln himself came under enormous pressure from abolitionists and radicals within his own party during the first two years of the war to act against slavery. But when it comes to the contemporary history of emancipation, the influence of abolitionists has been somewhat undervalued.
Black and white abolitionists, as both supporters and critics of the President, played a crucial part in leading the movement for emancipation. Abolitionists enjoyed unprecedented access to the White House during Lincoln’s presidency. Lincoln’s famous ability to listen to all sides of the story may not have served abolitionists well when it came to border state slaveholders and Northern conservatives, but it did bode well for their own role as the staunchest supporters of emancipation. Not only did black abolitionists strenuously advocate the cause of the slave, they also made the President give up on his long-cherished plan of colonizing free blacks outside the country and to contemplate civil and political rights including suffrage for African Americans. Abolitionist influence on Lincoln must be gauged in terms of ideology and philosophy. In their view, the Civil War was a revolutionary struggle against slavery, not, as Lincoln argued early on, just a war for the Union, but an abolition war, a position that he came to accept in the last years of the war.
Lincoln, of course, was not an empty receptacle into which others poured their views or a man who had no prior convictions. We know that Lincoln held at least two beliefs on slavery and race on the eve of becoming the president of the United States. He abhorred slavery as a moral and political blot on the American republic even though he did not advocate political equality for black people. Like most nineteenth-century Americans who revered the Union and the Constitution, Lincoln did not sympathize with the abolitionist goal of immediate emancipation. But in viewing slavery as an unmitigated evil, he already shared important ground with abolitionists. Lincoln, a moderate, anti-slavery Republican, was committed only to the non-extension of slavery, the lowest common denominator in anti-slavery politics, with a rather nebulous hope in its “ultimate extinction.” But it was a position that he adhered to with great tenacity. Without these prior anti-slavery convictions, it is difficult to imagine how Lincoln would have come to accept the logic of emancipation during the Civil War.
Lincoln’s position on black rights on the eve of the Civil War put him behind many abolitionists and radical Republicans and led him to flirt continuously with the idea of colonization, but it put him far ahead of most hardened racists in the North and South who would expunge African Americans from the human family. Ironically, it was Lincoln’s belief in a democratic America that made him an opponent of slavery as well as a believer in the colonization of African Americans because his ideal republic would not accommodate inequality. It was precisely in this area that black and white abolitionists would exercise their greatest influence on him, pushing him to come to grips with civil and political rights for African Americans and the consequences of emancipation. African American leaders, abolitionists, and radical Republicans, who had long envisioned the establishment of an interracial democracy in the United States, played an indispensable role in pushing the President to accept the logical outcomes of his own views on slavery and democracy: abolition, black rights, and citizenship.
With the outbreak of the Civil War in April 1861, abolitionists and radical Republicans immediately urged Lincoln to use his war powers to strike against slavery. They were doomed to disappointment. Preoccupied with retaining the loyalty of the border slave states and engendering Northern unity and support for the prosecution of the war, Lincoln insisted that his primary goal was the reconstruction of the Union and he gave short shrift to the abolitionist agenda. Lincoln’s revocation of John Fremont’s and David Hunter’s emancipation orders, the appearance of the President lagging behind Congress, and what was perceived as his general tardiness to move on the slavery question aroused strong criticism among abolitionists. The government’s refusal to enlist black men in the Union Army further dampened African American and abolitionist enthusiasm for the war.
Other actions, which did not garner so much attention, however, indicated that the President was not averse to the idea of emancipation. He approved of General Benjamin Butler’s policy of designating runaway slaves “contraband” of war and the rescinding of the Dred Scott decision, he signed the two Confiscation Acts that confiscated slaves used for military purposes by the Confederacy and all slaves of rebels and the acts abolishing slavery in the District of Columbia and the federal territories, and proposed plans for gradual, compensated emancipation for the border states. Most African Americans were pleased with the initial anti-slavery steps taken by the Republicans. Furthermore, the Lincoln administration, pledged to enforce the suppression of the African slave trade, hanged the first American slave trader for participating in the illegal trade and extended diplomatic recognition to the black republics of Haiti and Liberia. African Americans hailed the news of emancipation in the capital especially as a portent of general emancipation.
By the summer of 1862, Lincoln decided to issue an emancipation proclamation. It was not simply that he was wisely biding his time and waiting for Northern anti-slavery sentiment to mature in order to move on emancipation. He himself had to be convinced of the failure of his appeasement of border state slaveholders and Northern conservatives and of the military necessity to free the slaves and enlist black men. The emancipationist arguments of abolitionists and radical Republicans, especially those who shared a personal relationship with the President, like Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, made headway when border state slaveholders proved to be completely obdurate regarding the President’s proposals for gradual, compensated emancipation, and the war reached a stalemate amid heavy Union losses. Abolitionists realized that Lincoln’s presidency and the war presented them with a golden opportunity to make their case for emancipation anew. During the Civil War, the long-reviled abolition movement gained new respectability in the eyes of the Northern public. Abolitionist leaders, branded as disunionists and fanatics until the very eve of the war, acquired public authority as influential proponents of the policy of emancipation especially as the war dragged on. They revived their earliest tactics and deluged Congress with petitions as they had not done since the 1830s. The crucial difference was that an anti-slavery party now controlled Congress and their petitions were read with respect rather than gagged as incendiary documents. Abolitionists, who had been political outsiders as radical agitators throughout the antebellum period, now walked the halls of power as influential advocates for the slave, though a sizeable minority advocated emigration outside the United States in the 1850s.
Lincoln also became one of the first American presidents to receive African Americans in the White House and the first to solicit their opinion in matters affecting them. African Americans had served as domestic workers in the White House since the inception of the republic and the presidency but they had never before been consulted on matters of state. (One exception was James Madison who met with the black Quaker captain Paul Cuffe, whose ships had been impounded during the 1812 war.) For black abolitionists, as much as their white counterparts, a Republican presidency meant having for the first time the political opportunity to pressure the federal government to act on abolition. Perhaps no other black abolitionist leader was more influential in this regard than Frederick Douglass, who used his monthly magazine and speeches to vent his views on abolition, black rights, and military service. When Lincoln met Douglass, he acknowledged having read his criticisms of Lincoln’s slowness to act on emancipation. African Americans who struggled to have their voices heard both within and outside the abolition movement had gained the President’s ear and Lincoln’s ability to meet with black people without any condescension impressed them. It also enabled him to listen to the opinions of black abolitionists on some important occasions.
While black abolitionists formed one part of the chorus of voices that pressured Lincoln to act on emancipation, they were foremost in opposing his ideas on colonization. The President had long recommended the colonizing of all free blacks outside the country. Colonization was a project that had been supported by the founding fathers like Jefferson, Madison, and prominent politicians such as Henry Clay, Lincoln’s “beau ideal” of a statesman. Lincoln’s support for colonization was not merely a clever tactic to win support for emancipation, but a long-held belief predating the Civil War on how to solve the country’s so-called race problem. On the other hand, black abolitionism had come of age in the 1820s by opposing the American Colonization Society, which was founded in 1816.
Well aware of abolitionist antipathy toward colonization, Lincoln invited five African Americans, four of whom were former slaves and none of whom were prominent in black abolitionist circles, to persuade them to support his plans for the colonization of black Americans in August 1862, just before issuing his preliminary proclamation. The reaction among black abolitionists was swift and hostile. Strong black opposition to colonization did not deter Lincoln from experimenting with questionable plans to colonize African Americans in Chiriqui in Panama, Liberia, and Haiti. The failure of the Lincoln administration’s many colonization schemes, African American non-compliance, and abolitionist pressure forced the President to give up on colonization as a viable option for freed people. Lincoln’s eventual abandonment of colonization after he had decided to free the slaves was a triumph of abolitionism, particularly black abolitionism. Black abolitionists had played no small part in uncoupling colonization from emancipation in his mind.
On January 1, 1863, when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, he had come to abolitionist ground. For abolitionists, the President would become permanently identified with the moment of liberation, living on as an icon of black freedom in African American celebrations of emancipation in years to come. By this time, Lincoln came to share the abolitionist and African American view of the Civil War as a providential, apocalyptic event that would not only end slavery but also redeem the American republic and its founding principles. The abolitionist insistence on tying the cause of the slave with that of American democracy influenced Lincoln’s overall conception of the war. He would immortalize this understanding of the war in the Gettysburg Address as the second American Revolution, as representing a “new birth of freedom” in the republic. The abolitionist interpretation of the war gave meaning and purpose to it in a way that simply a war for the Union never could. Lincoln eloquently gave words to the abolitionist view of the Civil War in his Second Inaugural Address.
Even more than emancipation, it was in regard to black rights and citizenship that Lincoln “grew” during the war. The contributions of African American soldiers to Union victory made him amenable to the idea of black citizenship. The exigencies of the war and shortage of manpower as the conflict dragged on led the Lincoln administration to recruit African Americans, including slaves, and grant freedom to those who served and their families. Abolitionists like Massachusetts Governor John Andrews and the wealthy George L. Stearns, a proponent of black military service, hired prominent African American abolitionists like Douglass, William Wells Brown, Charles Lenox Remond, John Mercer Langston, Henry Highland Garnet, and Martin Delany as recruiting agents. By the end of the war, nearly 200,000 black Americans had served in the Union Army and Navy. Despite initial inequalities in pay and rank, abolitionists supported recruitment of black soldiers. Protests over racial inequalities in the Union Army prepared African Americans and abolitionists for the long fight for equality and citizenship rights. Black heroism at the battles of Fort Wagner, Milliken’s Bend, and Port Hudson impressed both the President and the Northern public. Indeed Lincoln adopted nearly all the abolitionist arguments on the value and significance of black military service. When peace arrived he wrote, “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 onto this great consummation; while, I fear, there will be some white ones, unable to forget that, with malignant heart, and deceitful speech, they have strove to hinder it.”
Lincoln soon came to sympathize with the idea that one could not possibly deny citizenship rights to black soldiers who had fought on behalf of the Union. According to the precepts of republicanism, in which Lincoln, abolitionists, and the soldiers themselves were well versed, one deserved the rights of citizenship after performing the duties of citizenship. As early as November 1863 New Orleans’s politically active free blacks asked the military governor for the right to vote. Lincoln received their two representatives, Jean Baptiste Roudanez and Arnold Bertonneau, and their visit must have made some impression on the President. Soon after, Lincoln penned his famous letter to Louisiana’s Governor Michael Hahn, suggesting that “the very intelligent, and especially those who have fought gallantly in our ranks” be given the franchise.
By the time of his death, Lincoln’s views on slavery and racial equality had evolved greatly. Abolitionists, African Americans, and radical Republicans challenged him to abandon colonization and accept both abolition and black rights. Their ideas on interracial democracy and equal citizenship, largely forgotten in the history of emancipation, forced both the President and the nation to accept the consequences of abolition and helped set the agenda for Reconstruction. Precisely because Lincoln had come around to the idea of immediate, uncompensated abolition and black rights during the war, his historical legacy would be inextricably bound with the African American struggle for freedom and with the movement to abolish slavery.
Manisha Sinha is an associate professor of Afro-American Studies and History at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is the author of The Counterrevolution of Slavery: Politics and Ideology in Antebellum South Carolina (2000) and co-editor of African American Mosaic: A Documentary History from the African Slave Trade to the Twenty-First Century (2004) and Contested Democracy: Freedom, Race and Power in American History (2007).
Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History
Already have an account?
Please click here to login and access this page.
How to subscribe
Otherwise, click here for information on a paid subscription for those who are not K-12 educators or students.
Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History
Become an Affiliate School to have free access to the Gilder Lehrman site and all its features.
Click here to start your Affiliate School application today! You will have free access while your application is being processed.
Individual K-12 educators and students can also get a free subscription to the site by making a site account with a school-affiliated email address. Click here to do so now!
Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History
Why Gilder Lehrman?
Your subscription grants you access to archives of rare historical documents, lectures by top historians, and a wealth of original historical material, while also helping to support history education in schools nationwide. Click here to see the kinds of historical resources to which you'll have access and here to read more about the Institute's educational programs.
Individual subscription: $25
Click here to sign up for an individual subscription to the Gilder Lehrman site.
Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History
Upgrade your Account
We're sorry, but it looks as though you do not have access to the full Gilder Lehrman site.
All K-12 educators receive free subscriptions to the Gilder Lehrman site, and our Affiliate School members gain even more benefits!
How to Subscribe
K-12 educator or student? Click here to edit your profile and indicate this, giving you free access, and here for more information on the Affiliate School Program.
Not a educator or student? Click here for more information on purchasing a subscription to the Gilder Lehrman site.
Related Site Content
- Multimedia: Lincoln and the Rights of Black Americans
- Multimedia: Lincoln and Race
- Essay: “Rachel Weeping for Her Children”: Black Women and the Abolition of Slavery
- Video Series: Lifetimes
- Interactive: Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation
- Video Series: Lincoln Prize Winners
- Essay: Race and the American Constitution: A Struggle toward National Ideals
- Essay: “Your Late Lamented Husband”: A Letter from Frederick Douglass to Mary Todd Lincoln
- Interactive: Abraham Lincoln: A Man of His Time, A Man for All Times
- Video Series: Essential Questions in American History