Abraham Lincoln: Not the Great Emancipator

Since the Civil War, many historians have regarded President Abraham Lincoln as the great emancipator of African American slaves. However, scholars like W.E.B. Dubois began to question this notion based on the character of Lincoln throughout his life.


Since the Civil War, many historians have regarded President Abraham Lincoln as the great emancipator of African American slaves. However, scholars like W.E.B. Dubois began to question this notion based on the character of Lincoln throughout his life. Some have referred to him as a typical politician and accuse him of taking credit for the emancipation of African American slaves when he himself was against it altogether. Abraham Lincoln should not be regarded as the Great Emancipator of African Americans because he was not an abolitionist when he was elected president and because he did not choose to act on slavery until he was urged to by fellow Republicans in Congress at the time.

At the time Lincoln took the office of the presidency, he was not regarded as an abolitionist. Wilbert Jenkins argued in Climbing Up to Glory that “Lincoln held a mixed record on the issue of black freedom at the time he took office.” For example, while he disliked slavery, he represented a slaveholder in a case of a runaway slave, eventually, he lost the case. In his early years as a congressman, Lincoln drafted a bill that would end slavery in the District of Columbia but the bill was worded in a way not a offend slaveholders and only called for the gradual emancipation of slaves and not the immediate emancipation. Clearly, Lincoln was on the fence in regards to his own opinion on the institution of slavery as he did not want to damage his image in the mind of white slaveholders in an effort to not lose any votes. In addition to the particular wording of the bill, Lincoln also called the law to a referendum so that it would go into effect if a majority of voters supported the law. In doing this, Lincoln could not receive any political backlash and at the time, must have known that the law would not pass because only white men were allowed to vote. However, if it did, he could cash in on the success of the law but is not, his political career would not take a hit. Adding more mixed positions to Lincoln’s view of slavery is the fact that throughout the 1850’s, Lincoln was consistent in opposing the spread of slavery into the new territories but he never did anything to advocate for its abolition in the Southern states.

While Southern slaveholders were fearful of Lincoln abolishing slavery when he took office, much of this fear was irrational based on Lincoln’s past record towards slavery and because according to Steven Oates, “Republicans had pledged to leave the peculiar institution alone where it already existed.” Despite this pledge, the Southern states began to succeed. Sensing a need for the Union to take a strong stand against the Confederacy, a few Republican Senators became outspoken against the succession and urged Congress and Lincoln to stand up to the Confederacy. These Senators were Lyman Trumbull of Illinois, Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, Zachariah Chandler of Michigan and Ben Wade of Ohio. Each had various tones towards the Confederate states but all had an undertone of disgrace. Trumbull called the Southern states “mad,” and Sumner called on the free states to “stand firm in the crisis” (Oates). Senator Chandler and moreover, Senator Wade used even more incendiary language toward the south. Chandler called for the Union to “whip the south back into the Union” while Wade essentially predicted the end of Southern slavery saying, “The first blast of civil war is the death warrant of your institution.” That April, the Battle of Fort Sumter would take place and in light of these events, these Senators, that later became known as the “more advanced Republicans” as the Detroit Post and Tribune named them, often spoke with Lincoln about slavery and the Southern rebellion. Each of these men had a history that was anti-slavery. Sumner was one of the few Republicans that spoke out for total Black equality. Chandler had a history of urging his colleagues to “not surrender another inch of territory to slaveholders.” It is documented that once the civil war started, he called for the Union to “suppress the armed traitors of the South with all-out warfare.” Before the succession, the “advanced Republicans” were on board with the party’s hands-off slavery promise but that quickly changed. Their argument was that Congress had no constitutional power to end slavery as a state institution and that it could only prevent its spread into new territories. Their hope was to contain it to the South and that it would die out. However, the civil war quickly changed their beliefs and they then argued that the President, as Commander-in-Chief now had the power to remove the institution of slavery from the Confederacy. Oates revealed that while Lincoln was sympathetic to this idea, he wanted to preserve his political standing with Republicans on Capitol Hill, for he needed their support to carry out the war and he chose not to carry out the advanced Republicans’ plan of Emancipation. Lincoln feared that an abolitionist policy “would splinter that coalition (Northern Democrats and Republicans), perhaps even cause a civil war behind Union lines” (Oates). If Lincoln is to be regarded as the “Great Emancipator” of the African American race, he should have used his political power to emancipate the slaves at the first chance he got. That chance came at the start of the Southern succession and he did not follow through. Instead, he worried more about his political standing with his fellow party members. In this regard, Richard Hofstader even goes as far as calling Lincoln a “slick politician.” Judging from his policies toward the institution of slavery and his choice not to act until it was in his own interest make me inclined to agree with such a statement.

Furthermore, the first Confiscation Act was a bill that was intended to take away the slaves that the Confederacy was forcing into the war effort on their behalf. Such slaves were referred to as contraband and after awhile this Southern strategy became problematic to the Union war effort. Their response was the Confiscation Act. Republicans unanimously supported the bill which would authorize the seizing of Rebel slaves. Border state Democrats were not happy with the decision and referred to it as a general emancipation act. Democrats of the Midwest opposed the bill because they feared the increase of African Americans in their region. Republicans argued that it would not happen because it was a war measure and would be controlled and that it was not an emancipation act because it did not end the institution of slavery in the states. Lincoln signed the bill into law but when racial tensions increased, he reiterated that emancipation was not the goal of the war. Shortly after, Missouri passed a bill allowing the seizure of slaves and that all be declared free men. Lincoln blocked this bill because his goal was to preserve the coalition of border Democrats and Republicans in the war effort. This further proved that his goal was not emancipation, but the preservation of the Union.  Starting in the spring of 1862, Lincoln and the Republicans started to draft bills that would target the institution of slavery. The first bill that Lincoln supported was a bill that forbade the return of fugitive slaves to the Confederacy. The real reason that Lincoln supported this bill was because it would help ensure a Confederate military defeat, which would accomplish his mission of preserving the Union. He also supported a bill that contained slavery and outlawed it in all federal territories. Even so, Lincoln still remained severely opposed to the military emancipation of slaves in the Confederacy. This point is emphasized by his revoking of an issue by General David Hunter that declared slaves on Union-held islands off of South Carolina to be free. By the summer of 1862, Congress was increasing its efforts to outlaw slavery and to persuade Lincoln to do the same. They passed the Second Confiscation Act which declared all rebels to be traitors and after sixty days, slaves of those arrested rebels were granted freedom. Lincoln immediately showed opposition to this bill because he did not believe that Congress had the power to free slaves within a state. After edits to the law, Lincoln finally signed it but his opposition to it makes it clear that his goal was not the emancipation of slaves but the preservation of the Union and therefore, he should not be regarded as the “Great Emancipator” of the slaves.

Eventually, by the end of the summer of 1862, Lincoln would realize that military emancipation was a prerequisite for Union victory. That being said, the idea of him being regarded as the “Great Emancipator” is not consistent with his views towards slavery throughout his entire political career. First and foremost, he out rightly claimed that his goal was the preservation of the Union and not the emancipation of slaves. The way he voted for various laws relating to slavery is the largest indication of this. Some of the bills had provisions that would essentially outlaw slavery in some way were opposed by Lincoln until those provisions were removed or amended. Secondly, Lincoln was not supportive of ending slavery at all and bought into the Republican vow that they would not make any law toward ending slavery in the South and in addition, not let it spread elsewhere. The only way that Lincoln began to support the abolition of slavery was after he finally deemed it a military necessity in order for the Union to win the war. This was after much debate and urging from other Republicans in Congress, primarily from the “advanced Republicans.” They urged Lincoln that emancipation was necessary from the start but Lincoln did not see to their opinions until he felt it was a necessity. Historians have long regarded Lincoln as the “Great Emancipator” and hero of the African Americans. However, as we have seen based upon his record toward slavery, Lincoln was much undecided on the issue until it was politically in his interest to emancipate the slaves. Lincoln should not be called the “Great Emancipator” because it seems as if he did it for himself and only for the preservation of the Union whereas a true emancipator does it for the sheer belief that slavery is wrong and all are created equal.



Works Cited

Jenkins, Wilbert. Climbing Up to Glory.

Oates, Steven B. How Lincoln Freed the Slaves.

Dubois, W. E. B. Abraham Lincoln. Ed. Eric J. Sundquist.

2 thoughts on “Abraham Lincoln: Not the Great Emancipator”

  1. I made no attempt to be witty. My goal was to generate positive discourse on a particular topic of history. The fact that great scholars like W.E.B. DuBois question the credit that American history books give Lincoln for the emancipation of slaves proves that a conversation is needed. Whether that conversation is productive and allows us to look at history without any bias, or whether it leads to name calling, remains to be seen. Although, I see what side you are on. Please feel free to take a look at the references as well. It would do well for everyone to question everything and look to primary sources for the answers. I hope you will continue reading.


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