by Allen C. Guelzo

No one seemed less well-cast for the role of reformer, in an age of reform, than Abraham Lincoln. To begin with, he was a stranger, emotionally and intellectually, to evangelical Christianity, the great engine of reform in the nineteenth century. Raised in a household of uncompromisingly Calvinistic Baptists who abhorred slavery, the young Lincoln rejected the authority of any religion and never joined any religious congregation. His stepmother, Sarah Bush Lincoln, remembered that her stepson “had no particular religion,” and when pressed on the subject, Lincoln himself would only say that “when he did good he felt good, when he did bad he felt bad.” That, said Lincoln, “is my religion.”

Lacking that impetus, Lincoln had little interest in the network of reform movements spun-off by evangelical revivals. He was a tee-totaller, but largely on the grounds of health rather than moral purity, since drink, to him, tasted “unpleasant and always leaves me flabby and undone.” He shunned all of the temperance societies of his day, except for the Washington Temperance Society, and even then, he espoused the Washingtonian movement only because of their secularized strategy of persuasion rather than condemnation. “The warfare heretofore waged against the demon of Intemperance, has . . . been erroneous,” Lincoln said to a gathering of the local Washingtonians in 1842. “Too much denunciation against dram sellers and dram‑drinkers was indulged in,” and precious few flies were attracted by the vinegar of damnation, compared to the Washingtonians’ preference for the sugar of persuasion.

No would-be reformer should demand such a moral volte-face from the sinner; this would be to “expect a reversal of human nature,” and Lincoln had none of the reformers’ enthusiastic confidence that people could be upbraided into acts of disinterested benevolence. “What an ignorance of human nature does it exhibit, to ask or expect a whole community to rise up and labor for the temporal happiness of others,” Lincoln warned.[1]

In the same way, Lincoln opposed slavery, going on record against it for the first time in 1837 when he joined with one other member of the Illinois state legislature in criticizing “the institution of slavery” as “both injustice and bad policy,” and twenty-seven years later, he would still be insisting that “I am naturally anti‑slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I cannot remember when I did not so think, and feel.”[2]

But he joined no anti-slavery society, and he condemned as reckless the abolitionists’ demands for an immediate elimination of slave-holding. His 1837 protest against slavery was followed immediately by the balancing concession that “the promulgation of abolition doctrines tends rather to increase than to abate its evils.” As late as 1862, he told Horace Greeley that the most effective way to end slavery was through a stage-by-stage buy-out by the federal government. Ending slavery should have “three main features – gradual – compensation – and [the] vote of the people,” and should be urged “persuasively, and not menacingly, upon the South.”[3]

There was, deep in the grain of Lincoln’s temperament, a prudence that resisted the demand that conversion and enlightenment be embraced now, totally, without any reckoning of the cost. He chided “Free Soil men” in 1848 for “declaring that they would ‘do their duty and leave the consequences to God,’” since this proclamation of the relentless principle of fiat justitia ruat coelum (“do justice though the heavens fall”)

merely gave an excuse for taking a course that they were not able to maintain by a fair and full argument. To make this declaration did not show what their duty was. If it did we should have no use for judgment, we might as well be made without intellect, and when divine or human law does not clearly point out what is our duty, we have no means of finding out what it is by using our most intelligent judgment of the consequences.

Much as he might cheer-on temperance and emancipation, Lincoln was too much a “fatalist,” too much a believer that human behavior was guided by selfishness and self-interest, to be confident that the key to the new Jerusalem lay within Americans’ grasp, if only they would put forth the will to seize it.[4]

Abolitionists feared that view as the real enemy to their cause. The Brahmin abolitionist Wendell Phillips complained angrily against “these men” who “are ever parading their wish to draw a line between themselves and us, because they must be permitted to wait, - to trust more to reason than feeling,to indulge a generous charity,to rely on the sure influences of simple truth, uttered in love, &c., &c.” It was the duty of convinced abolitionists, wrote Arthur Tappan (the wealthy bankroller of the American & Foreign Anti-Slavery Society) in 1832, to “inculcate everywhere, the great fundamental principle of immediate abolition,” to “insist principally on the sin of slavery,” and “reprobate the idea of compensation to slave holders, because it implies the right of slavery. . . . The duty of whites in regard to this cruel prejudice is not to indulge it, but to repent and overcome it.” Let “the woful, blood-stained facts” about slavery “be spread out” and “let the tale of a slave’s wrongs enter the ear,” declared Elizur Wright a year later, and converts to the gospel of abolition would “rise up” to overthrow the idol of slavery—and, as Lincoln feared, “trust God for the consequences.”[5]

No wonder, then, that so many of the abolitionist faithful found Lincoln unexciting. “I do not believe in the anti-slavery of Abraham Lincoln,” wrote the black Illinois abolitionist H. Ford Douglass, “because he is on the side of this Slave Power . . . that has possession of the Federal Government.” Wendell Phillips dismissed Lincoln as “not an Abolitionist, hardly an antislavery man,” and tolerable only to the extent that he “consents to represent an antislavery idea.”[6]

And yet, it is the name of Abraham Lincoln that appears at the bottom of the most sweeping act of reform in the American nineteenth century, the Emancipation Proclamation; and it was Abraham Lincoln who, as president, strong-armed a reluctant Congress to adopt a Thirteenth Amendment to the federal Constitution banning slavery completely. “There are four millions of people in this country who now regard Abraham Lincoln as their deliverer from bondage,” declared Massachusetts Congressman George Boutwell, four days after Lincoln’s death, “and whose prosperity, through all the coming centuries, will render tribute of praise to his name and memory.” But the contrast between the reality of a chilly and uncommitted Lincoln on one hand and the image of the Great Emancipator on the other continues to pose far more difficulties for placing Lincoln in the line of reformers than Boutwell anticipated.

The principal difficulty in understanding Lincoln’s place as a reformer may lie in how easy it is to miss his enthusiasm for a kind of reform that later generations have not often classified as a reform at all, but which was the real engine behind Lincoln’s anti-slavery beliefs. When the American republic emerged from its colonial cocoon as an independent nation, its economic structure remained very much as British imperial planners had designed it—overwhelmingly agricultural, chronically dependent on imported manufactures, with poor internal transportation, and very little in the way of banks and investment capital to fund economic growth. When the United States went to war a second time with Great Britain in 1812, its feeble economic infrastructure virtually collapsed under British pressure.

As early as the 1790s, Alexander Hamilton, the first secretary of the Treasury, argued for the promotion of manufacturing and banking by the federal government as the surest road to security from the great empires all around America’s frontiers. But Hamilton encountered strenuous resistance from Thomas Jefferson, the first secretary of state, who argued that an agricultural economy was precisely what promoted civic virtue and discouraged a different kind of peril to liberty within, from concentrations of too much economic power in too few hands. In a republic where farmers made up 90 percent of the population, Jefferson’s arguments had long innings.

However, the debacle of the War of 1812 convinced many Americans that economic backwardness spelled an imperiled future for American liberty and independence. By the mid-1830s, American politics had become polarized into two well-organized political parties, Democrats (the heirs of Jefferson and acolytes of Andrew Jackson) and Whigs (led by Henry Clay). The Whigs promoted a three-point program of banking (to generate the capital needed for creating new manufacturing enterprises), tariffs (to protect the new manufactures from foreign competition) and “internal improvements” (transportation projects, funded by the government, to connect the rural hinterlands with manufacturers, and connect farmers with markets instead of merely subsisting on their own produce). And from his first moments of political awakening, it was the Whigs to whom Lincoln gravitated. When the Whig Party foundered in the mid-1850s, Lincoln attached himself to the new Republican Party because of its anti-slavery stance; but he was also attracted by how the Republicans embraced the Whigs’ economic policies.

What the Republican agenda offered Lincoln was an entirely different species of reform—the transformation of the self. People like Lincoln, born in backwoods poverty, could climb the economic ladders of opportunity offered by markets and economic development to make for themselves landscapes entirely different from the isolated drudgery of the hinterlands. “We stand at once the wonder and admiration of the whole world,” Lincoln said in 1856. And why? “This cause is that every man can make himself.” Liberty, for Lincoln, was economic liberty, and the genius of the American republic was the allowance it made for everyone to re-make themselves. And no better example of that re-making existed than Lincoln himself. “There is no permanent class of hired laborers amongst us,” Lincoln insisted in 1859:

Twenty-five years ago, I was a hired laborer. The hired laborer of yesterday, labors on his own account to-day; and will hire others to labor for him to-morrow. Advancement — improvement in condition — is the order of things in a society of equals.[7]

Lincoln was less afraid than his Democratic peers that a society in which some people could transform themselves into the prosperous and wealthy meant that others would be transformed downward into poverty. “I don’t believe in a law to prevent a man from getting rich,” he told an audience of workingmen in 1860, “We do not propose any war upon capital.” What he wished instead was to give “the humblest man an equal chance to get rich with everybody else.” And he did not mind aiding “the humblest man” through the three-fold government-sponsored mechanism of “internal improvements,” banking, and tariffs. Government could—and should—“do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but cannot do, at all, or cannot, so well do, for themselves — in their separate, and individual capacities.” But that responsibility pointed government in the direction of economic enablement, not (as the Jacksonians wanted) economic restraint, and if after all the efforts of enablement had been expended, some people still remained mired in poverty, Lincoln saw no virtue in shedding tears over the failures. “If any continue through life in the condition of the hired laborer, it is not the fault of the system,” he told the Wisconsin State Agricultural Fair in 1859, “but because of either a dependent nature which prefers it, or improvidence, folly, or singular misfortune.”

Some of you will be successful, and such will need but little philosophy to take them home in cheerful spirits; others will be disappointed, and will be in a less happy mood. To such, let it be said, “Lay it not too much to heart.” Let them adopt the maxim, “Better luck next time;” and then, by renewed exertion, make that better luck for themselves.[8]

It was exactly the unpredictable spiraling of “better luck” in markets and manufacturing that appalled Jacksonian Democrats and fueled their resistance to banks, tariffs, and highways. And among slaveholders in the American South, the Whig agenda generated fears that a government big enough to build roads, levy tariffs, and charter banks would also turn out to be a government big enough to emancipate their slaves. And so a fateful alliance was struck between Jackson’s Democrats and the plantation oligarchy of the South that persisted all the way to the doorstep of the Civil War.

But it was also Lincoln’s advocacy of a market-driven society that lay at the root of his hostility to slavery, for if slavery was anything, it was a loathsome determination on the part of the slaveholder to deny at least one class of human beings—namely, black slaves—all hope of self-transformation, or even to deny that African Americans had even the capacity to improve themselves. Like most white Americans of his day, Lincoln took the superior “intellectual endowment” and “physical difference” of white people for granted; unlike many white Americans, however, he also insisted that “there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence,” and that especially included the right to economic self-improvement—“to eat the bread, without the leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns.” What slavery symbolized to Lincoln was stasis—a society in which people were assigned a status, and in which government existed to preserve that status and prevent any disruption of it, using either the carrot of subsidy (for poorer whites who did not own slaves) or the stick of force (to suppress slave restlessness and restrain the possibility of black-white alliances).[9]

Slavery was the badge of a society that looked with suspicion upon self-transformation, as well as the labor that made it possible. Slavery “betokened not only the possession of wealth but indicated the gentleman of leisure who was above and scorned labour.” Slaveholding was “highly seductive to the thoughtless and giddy headed young men” of America because it taught them that work, enterprise, and money-making was “vulgar and ungentlemanly.” It represented a receding from the high promise of the American republic into “a British aristocratic” pattern. And when the Southern states attempted to secede from the Union in order to insulate slavery from federal tampering, he made very clear what he thought the stakes in the ensuing Civil War were about, at the highest level:

On the side of the Union, it is a struggle for maintaining in the world, that form, and substance of government, whose leading object is, to elevate the condition of men — to lift artificial weights from all shoulders — to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all — to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.[10]

Lincoln, unlike Wendell Phillips, saw slavery as an economic problem more than a racial one. But on either count, he found it difficult to prescribe a means for ending it. Slavery was legal in fifteen states in 1860, when Lincoln was nominated for the presidency, and in each case, its legalization was a matter of state statute, rather than federal law. “According to our political system, as a matter of civil administration, the general government had no lawful power to effect emancipation in any State,” he acknowledged. Back in 1856, when he was prominent only in Illinois political circles, he had admitted that “If all earthly power were given me, I should not know what to do, as to the existing institution.” He clung to the hope that “systems of gradual emancipation might be adopted,” especially if slavery was prevented from expanding into the western territories. But legalizing slavery in the territories was precisely what had been sanctioned by the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 (the event that galvanized Lincoln politically) and been protected by the Supreme Court’s decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford in 1857.[11]

Even after his election as president, Lincoln understand all-too-clearly that he had no civil authority to interfere with slavery; and if the South was successful in its fight to tear away from the Union, slavery would be even further beyond the reach of the United States government to deal with. Lincoln’s impulse, in 1861, was to implement his federally funded buy-out plan in Delaware (one of the four slave states that remained loyal to the Union), as a way of showing how state legislatures could back their way painlessly out of slavery. But the Delaware legislature failed to act, and in the spring of 1862, the other loyal slave states—Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri—rejected Lincoln’s proposal with contempt. By the summer of 1862, Lincoln’s mind revolved to a different, but much more constitutionally controversial strategy—a “war powers” proclamation of emancipation, issued on the strength of his constitutional designation as Commander in Chief, and based on the premise that freeing the South’s slaves would constitute a legitimate blow to the Southern ability to carry on the war.

No such proclamation had ever been issued by an American president—no such “war powers” had even been defined judicially—but by that time Lincoln “had about come to the conclusion that we must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued.” On July 22, 1862, Lincoln laid before his Cabinet a preliminary draft of an Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that “all persons held as slaves within any state, or designated part of a state, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” His secretary of state, William H. Seward, urged him to sit on the proclamation until a Union military victory could bolster its credibility. But when such a victory came at Antietam on September 17, 1862, Lincoln waited only until he had confirmation of the event before re-assembling his Cabinet and issuing the proclamation as military law, to become effective on January 1, 1863.

On the other hand, invoking the “war powers” as a justification limited Lincoln to freeing slaves only “within any state, or designated part of a state, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States,” and so he was forced to exempt Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware, and Missouri from its application (they were not, after all, at war with the United States) plus a number of zones within the South occupied by federal forces that were already under the civil jurisdiction of “reconstruction” governments. As he explained to his impatient abolitionist secretary of the Treasury, Salmon Chase, he could not extend the Proclamation further than “any state, or designated part of a state” actually in rebellion without undermining the legal rationale of using his “war powers.” And that would leave the whole emancipation project liable to interference from the same Supreme Court that had given the nation the Dred Scott decision. “The exemptions were made because the military necessity did not apply to the exempted localities,” Lincoln explained. If, as Commander in Chief, he tried to emancipate slaves outside the war zones, he would have no more justification for doing so than saying, “I think the measure politically expedient, and morally right.” This would surrender “all footing upon constitution or law” and plunge him into “the boundless field of absolutism.” Abolitionists might not worry about the consequences of absolutism, but he did.[12]

At the same time, though, as many slaves as he could free, would be free forever. He assured one inquirer in July 1863, that “I think [the Proclamation] is valid in law, and will be so held by the courts,” but even if not, “I think I shall not retract or repudiate it. Those who shall have tasted actual freedom, I believe, can never be slaves, or quasi-slaves again.” And he frankly warned Congress in his annual report at the end of 1864 that any move which required him to step back from the Proclamation would result in his resignation. “If the people should, by whatever mode or means, make it an Executive duty to re-enslave such persons, another, and not I, must be their instrument to perform it.” Finally, in January 1865, he was able to obtain from Congress what he described as the “king’s cure for all the evils” of slavery—an amendment to the Constitution, not merely emancipating slaves, but abolishing the entire legal institution of slavery throughout the nation.[13]

Perhaps it was only an after-thought on Lincoln’s part to have included in the Emancipation Proclamation a recommendation to the newly freed slaves that their next step as free men and women should be into the openness of the markets, that “in all cases when allowed, they labor faithfully for reasonable wages.” Even in what he termed “an act of Justice,” Lincoln still saw the ultimate realization of freedom in economic terms. This raises the potent question for modern Americans about what constitutes reform itself, and whether the emergence of the United States as a great world market-power in the 150 years since Lincoln’s day should be considered a reform, or the object of reform—whether the operation of market-driven forces carries within it more hope of ameliorating injustice than political ones. These divergent strategies formed the substance of the great debate between W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington over civil rights in the early twentieth century; it formed the core of the argument over the New Deal and the Great Society; and it continues to agitate voices all along our political spectrums. At least we know where Lincoln placed himself in this debate, and where he believed the ultimate reformation of American life would always lie.[14]

[1] William Henry Herndon interview with Sara Bush Lincoln (September 8, 1865) and Dillard C. Donnohue interview with Jesse Weik (February 13, 1887), in Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews and Statements About Abraham Lincoln, eds. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998), 107, 602; Herndon, in Jesse Weik, The Real Lincoln: A Portrait (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1922), 110; Lincoln, “Temperance Address” (February 22, 1862), in Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, ed. Roy F. Basler et al (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 1:271-272, 274.

[2] Lincoln, “Protest in Illinois Legislature on Slavery” (March 3, 1837) and “To Albert G. Hodges (April 4, 1864), in Collected Works, 1:75, 7:281.

[3] Lincoln, “To Horace Greeley” (March 24, 1862), in Collected Works, 5:169.

[4] Lincoln, “Speech at Worcester, Massachusetts” (September 12, 1848), in Collected Works, 2:3-4.

[5] Phillips, “Philosophy of the Abolition Movement” (January 27, 1853) in Speeches, Lectures, and Letters (Boston: J. Redpath, 1863), 100; Tappan, “Particular Instructions,” to Theodore Dwight Weld, in Letters of Theodore Dwight Weld, Angelina Grimke Weld, and Sarah Grimke, 1822-1844, eds. G. Barnes and D.L. Dumond (New York: D. Appleton-Century, 1934), 1:124-128; Elizur Wright, The Sin of Slavery and its Remedy; Containing Some Reflections on the Moral Influence of African Colonization (New York: Elizur Wright, 1833), 9, 39.

[6] H. Ford Douglass, in James M. McPherson, The Negro’s Civil War: How American Negroes Felt and Acted during the War for the Union (New York: Pantheon Books, 1965), 7; Phillips, “Lincoln’s Election” (November 7, 1860), in Speeches, Lectures, and Letters, 294.

[7] Lincoln, “Speech at Kalamazoo, Michigan” (August 27, 1856) and “Fragment on Free Labor” (September 17, 1859), in Collected Works, 2:364 and 3:462.

[8] Lincoln, “Fragment on Government” (July 1, 1854), “Address before the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society, Milwaukee, Wisconsin” (September 30, 1859), and “Speech at New Haven, Connecticut” (March 5, 1860), in Collected Works, 2:220, 3:479, 481, and 4:24.

[9] Lincoln, “First Debate with Stephen A. Douglas at Ottawa, Illinois” (August 21, 1858), in Collected Works, 3:16.

[10] Joseph Gillespie to W.H. Herndon (January 31, 1866), in Herndon’s Informants, 183; Lincoln, “Fragment on Free Labor” (September 17, 1859) and “Message to Congress in Special Session” (July 4, 1861), in Collected Works, 3:462 and 438

[11] Lincoln, “Speech at Peoria, Illinois” (October 16, 1854) and “Annual Message to Congress” (December 8, 1863), in Collected Works, 2:255-256 and 7:49

[12] Gideon Welles, diary entry for July 13, 1862, in The Diary of Gideon Welles, ed. John T. Morse (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1911) 1:70; Lincoln, “Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation” (September 22, 1862) and “To Salmon P. Chase” (September 3, 1863), in Collected Works, 5:434, 6:428-429.

[13] “To Stephen A. Hurlbut” (July 31, 1863) and “Annual Message to Congress” (December 8, 1864) and “Response to a Serenade (February 1, 1865) in Collected Works, 6:358 and 8:152, 254.

[14] Lincoln, “Emancipation Proclamation (January 1, 1863), in Collected Works, 6:30

Allen C. Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era and director of the Civil War Era Studies Program at Gettysburg College. He received the Lincoln Prize in 2000 for Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President (1999) and in 2005 for Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America (2004).


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