Abraham Lincoln's Great Awakening: From Moderate to Abolitionist

How the Civil War president came to abolish slavery.

President Abraham Lincoln

President Abraham Lincoln

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Abraham Lincoln is often admired for being the very model of the progressive politician, a crusading visionary who sealed his place in history with his farsighted, morally righteous decision to emancipate the slaves during the Civil War.

The truth, historians say, is more complicated. Lincoln certainly deserves credit for signing the Emancipation Proclamation and for throwing his weight behind the 13th Amendment, banning slavery, but many historians are quick to point out that the Great Emancipator's civil rights achievements weren't entirely of his own volition. In a series of recent books and essays, scholars argue that Lincoln, like most presidents, had to be pushed—in his case, by black abolitionists and "radical" Republicans—to listen to his own "better angels" and took action only when it became politically feasible.

There is no doubt, of course, that Lincoln hated the institution of slavery. "A blind man can see where the president's heart is," Douglass said. But when Lincoln took office, he was no abolitionist, a position that was considered radical at the time. Lincoln had campaigned against the expansion of slavery into new states and territories, but he didn't believe the Constitution allowed the federal government to eliminate it outright.

Through his first year as president, he stood the same ground, steering a centrist course between slaveholding Southerners and their opponents in the North. In his first inaugural, in which he offered a delicately worded olive branch to the seven Southern states that had seceded from the Union, he made no mention of the issue. "We are not enemies, but friends," Lincoln said. "We must not be enemies."

In the span of only a few years, though, as war consumed his presidency, Lincoln's views on slavery dramatically shifted. He surprised his own cabinet in 1862 with his plans to issue an emancipation proclamation. And though he still occasionally floated the idea of "colonizing" African-Americans, in the months before he died, Lincoln had not only given slaves their freedom; he'd also begun to promote full equality, including voting rights, for blacks.

The decision, sadly, would prove to have dire consequences. When John Wilkes Booth, a young actor sympathetic to the Southern cause, heard Lincoln's promises, he told a friend: "That means nigger citizenship. Now, by God, I'll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make." Three days later, Booth shot Lincoln at Ford's Theatre in Washington.

Historians have been wrestling, ever since, with what it was, exactly, that changed Lincoln from an antislavery moderate to the Great Emancipator, and more and more scholars have come to believe that it wasn't just Lincoln's own great compassion. "It was not simply that he was wisely biding his time and waiting for Northern antislavery sentiment to mature in order to move on emancipation," writes Manisha Sinha, an associate professor of Afro-American studies at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, in Our Lincoln: New Perspectives on Lincoln and His World. "He himself had to be convinced."

Lincoln had his reasons, of course, for avoiding the subject of slavery. The greatest good, he felt, was preserving the Union, and he knew the war would be lost before it began without the slaveholding border states. "I hope to have God on my side," Lincoln said. "But I must have Kentucky."

Lincoln also believed he was constitutionally bound, as president, to leave slavery alone. "If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that," he wrote in a letter to Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune. But he felt his oath of office would not permit it. "I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty," Lincoln wrote, "and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free."

Wishes are one thing, though, and actions another. And, more than anything, historians say, what changed between the first year of the war, when Lincoln was silent on the subject of slavery, and the second, when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, was the political climate. "Lincoln himself insisted that he did not claim to have controlled events—that events controlled him," says Eric Foner, a professor of history at Columbia University. "He may have been deeply antislavery, but he was no abolitionist. Before he became one, he had to be pushed."