Abraham Lincoln's views on slavery and its abolition were clearly expressed in speeches and action throughout his political career. This online exhibition, based on a document booklet of the same title produced in partnership with President Lincoln's Cottage at the Soldiers' Home in Washington DC (www.lincolncottage.org) traces his evolution from antislavery advocate to emancipator through speeches, letters, and acts from the speech at Peoria in 1854 to his second inaugural address in 1865.
In 1854, Stephen A. Douglas’s Kansas-Nebraska Act repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and allowed settlers to choose whether slavery would exist in the new territories of Kansas and Nebraska. The possible expansion of slavery galvanized abolitionists and drew Abraham Lincoln back into politics.
In a speech in Peoria, Ill., on October 16, 1854, Lincoln asked voters to elect Congressmen who would repeal the Kansas-Nebraska Act and reinstate the limits on slavery established in the Missouri Compromise. The ideas he presented on slavery, gradual emancipation, colonization, the principles of the Declaration of Independence, and the goals of the founders continued to inform Lincoln’s thinking on slavery and American equality for the next decade.
Lincoln was selected by the Republicans in 1858 to run for U.S. Senate against incumbent Stephen A. Douglas. The campaign and the seven debates the two candidates held across the state made Lincoln famous in Illinois and across the country.
These notes were prepared by Lincoln for the stump speeches he would make throughout the campaign. They make clear his opposition to slavery and his historical perspective on the preceding generations who had long fought to end it in Britain and America.
This letter, written to the abolitionist Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, in March 1862, focuses on efforts to abolish slavery in Washington, D.C., but expresses Lincoln's preferences for the abolition of slavery throughout the United States. He hoped that the border states would move toward abolition first, "in a reasonable time," and believed that abolition should take the form of a compensated plan that would be acceptable to voters.
Only federally controlled Washington, D.C. carried out a compensated emancipation plan, established by an act of Congress and not a popular vote. On April 16, 1862, Lincoln signed the law and wrote to Congress: “I am gratified that the two principles of compensation, and colonization, are both recognized, and practically applied in the Act.” Under the law, 3,000 slaves were freed and nearly one million dollars in compensation was paid to their former owners.
When state-level legislated emancipation failed, Lincoln was left with another tool for emancipating slaves. As commander in chief, he could use his war powers to declare slaves free, but only in regions actively in rebellion against the United States. Lincoln presented his Emancipation Proclamation to the Cabinet on July 22, 1862, asking for their suggestions, but making it clear that he was resolved to issue it. The members of the Cabinet supported his decision with some reservations, and Secretary of State William Seward persuaded him to wait for a Union military victory before announcing the proclamation.
Union success at Antietam, Maryland on September 17, 1862, provided the opportune moment to announce the Emancipation Proclamation to the public. Lincoln brought his revised draft of the Proclamation to the Cabinet on September 22, 1862. Secretary of State Seward suggested several changes (shown in the transcript as words crossed out or as additions in brackets), and the Proclamation was issued that day. It appeared in major Northern newspapers on September 23, 1862
President Lincoln continued to revise the Proclamation until the day it was officially enacted. Since it was a measure authorized by his war powers as commander in chief, it was presented to the military as General Orders No. 1 on January 2, 1863. Lincoln checked with his generals and advisors up until the last minute to ensure that the Confederate regions then under Union authority—and therefore exempt from the Proclamation—were properly noted.
The two political cartoons on this slide and the next demonstrate views for and against the Emancipation Proclamation by popular contemporary commentators.
In "President Lincoln, Writing the Proclamation of Freedom," Lincoln sits in a flag-draped room at a table, with the Bible in his left hand and the Constitution on his lap. The room is filled with symbols that reaffirm the importance of his act: the scales of justice, the Presidential Oath, several petitions against slavery, and a globe and various maps. In the background, a bust of Lincoln's ineffectual predecessor, James Buchanan, hangs suggestively from a noose.
The two political cartoons on this slide and the previous one demonstrate views for and against the Emancipation Proclamation by popular contemporary commentators.
"Writing the Emancipation Proclamation" was created by a Confederate sympathizer. The artist depicts Lincoln writing the Proclamation with ink from a well held by the devil, while trampling the Constitution underfoot. On the walls are depictions of the bloody slave uprising in Haiti ("Santo Domingo") in the 1790s, and radical abolitionist John Brown’s violence in Kansas in the 1850s ("Osawatomie" was the site of a battle between pro- and antislavery settlers instigated by Brown in "Bleeding Kansas" in 1856).
The Emancipation Proclamation changed the war’s objectives on both sides, arousing a variety of responses from Union soldiers as well as Confederate. John P. Jones of Illinois, whose letter is excerpted here, celebrated the news as a turning point in the war and in American history. Jones, a lieutenant in Company F, 45th Illinois Infantry, rejoiced that "a new era has dawned, the car of liberty and civilization is rolling on. . . . We now know what we are fighting for."
Reactions in the South were predictably virulent all around, from politicians, soldiers, and civilians. Confederate General Mansfield Lovell wrote to his son Joseph predicting (wrongly, as it turned out) that the North would not support an “abolition war.
Amos Lewis, at home in Wisconsin, was a fierce abolitionist who welcomed the Emancipation Proclamation but regretted that it did not go far enough to remedy the injustice of slavery. In the ardor of his convictions, he failed to realize that the limited scope of the Proclamation was due to its design as a military measure that could only affect the states in active rebellion. Constitutionally, Lincoln had no authority to end slavery in the loyal states.
In addition to emancipating slaves in Confederate-held regions, the Emancipation Proclamation authorized the enlistment of African Americans as soldiers. In this letter to Kentucky newspaper editor A.G. Hodges Lincoln outlines his reasons for issuing the Emancipation Proclamation and his recognition that the war could not be won without the enlistment of African American troops.
When the Emancipation Proclamation allowed the enlistment of African American soldiers, black leaders such as Frederick Douglass immediately went to work recruiting men. By the end of the war, 186,000 black soldiers had served in the Union army and another 29,000 in the navy, accounting for nearly ten percent of all Union forces and 68,178 of the Union dead or missing. Sixty percent of all black troops were former slaves.
Any doubts white soldiers had regarding the abilities and courage of black troops were dispelled with the terrible battle at Fort Wagner, South Carolina, on July 18, 1863. The Massachusetts 54th Volunteers, a regiment of African American soldiers, threw themselves again and again against the entrenched Confederate forces. They lost the battle but proved their courage beyond question. This lithograph, "Storming Fort Wagner," was printed in 1890 to commemorate the heroic Massachusetts 54th.
"A just man must do hard things sometimes, that shew him to be a great man" Hannah Johnson to Abraham Lincoln, July 31, 1863 (National Archives)
Shortly after the heroic attack on Fort Wagner by the black troops of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteers, the mother of one of the surviving soldiers wrote to President Lincoln. Concerned about rumors that the Proclamation might be rescinded, Hannah Johnson told Lincoln: "Don't do it. . . . When you are dead and in Heaven, in a thousand years that action of yours will make the Angels sing your praises."
The Emancipation Proclamation had freed only slaves in states in rebellion against the United States. As a wartime order, it could be reversed. Permanent emancipation of all slaves required a constitutional amendment. In the last months of the Civil War, Lincoln worked hard for the passage of the 13th Amendment, emphasizing his support in his Annual Message to Congress in December 1864, persuading eight House Democrats to switch their votes, and encouraging several Representatives who had missed the first vote to support the amendment.
The 13th Amendment passed the House on January 31, 1865 and was ratified by the states in December 1865. By signing the resolution, Lincoln placed the authority of his office behind the abolition of slavery throughout the United States.
In the political turmoil of the times, Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation was a courageous political statement that transformed the nation's war goals into a fight to end slavery. In his second inaugural address, Lincoln offered his most profound reflections on the war. The "scourge of war," he explained, was best understood as divine punishment for the sin of slavery, a sin in which all Americans were complicit. It describes a national moral debt and calls for compassion and reconciliation. At a White House reception after the inauguration, President Lincoln encountered Frederick Douglass:
"I saw you in the crowd today, listening to my inaugural address," the President remarked. "How did you like it?"
"Mr. Lincoln," Douglass answered, "that was a sacred effort."
Related Site Content
- Interactive: Abraham Lincoln: A Man of His Time, A Man for All Times
- Interactive: John Brown: The Abolitionist and His Legacy
- Interactive: Lincoln, Douglas, and Their Historic Debates
- Teaching Resource: Essential Questions in Teaching American History
- Interactive: Freedom: A History of US
- Essay: The Failure of Compromise
- Multimedia: Lincoln and the Rights of Black Americans
- Multimedia: The Emancipation Proclamation
- Essay: “Rachel Weeping for Her Children”: Black Women and the Abolition of Slavery
- Affiliate Resource List: Abolition
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