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Abraham Lincoln and His Changing Views on Slavery, Essay Example

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Essay

When Abraham Lincoln became the 16th President of the United States in 1861 when the American Civil War was in its infancy, his personal views on slavery in the United States were solidly on the abolitionist side of the argument, meaning that he felt that human slavery was patently wrong and must be eradicated, especially in the South where the institution of slavery had been in effect for well over a hundred years and which determined all aspects of the Southern economy via indentured servitude to those who operated the vast plantation system. After conducting quite a bit of research, it seems that Lincoln’s personal views on slavery did not alter much over the years, beginning roughly in the mid 1850’s and up until April of 1864, only one year before his assassination in 1865 by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C.

However, one thing that did occur during this time frame was Lincoln’s slow progression from withholding his true feelings on slavery to openly condemning it as President. Thus, as supportive evidence, we will examine four specific documents that either discuss or focus on Lincoln’s personal views on slavery–his letter to Joshua Speed (August 24, 1855), his House Divided speech (June 16, 1858), and his letters to Horace Greeley (August 22, 1862), and Albert G. Hodges (April 4, 1864).

In 1854, Lincoln resigned his position in the Illinois State Legislature to run for the U.S. Senate but was roundly defeated, thus leading him to abandon the Whig Party to become a standing member of the newly-created Republican Party. Many of the members of the Whig Party were staunchly against slavery, something that possibly influenced Lincoln to join up with them. At this time, Lincoln was busy “stumping” or advocating the re-election of Richard Yates who as the representative of the 7th Congressional District was a strict opponent of the Kansas-Nebraska Act which allowed settlers in these territories to decide if they wanted slavery. Lincoln, by all accounts, was also against this act and in order to understand it and the issue of slavery more clearly, he studied numerous congressional debates from the past and visited the Illinois State Library.

On August 24, 1855, Lincoln wrote a rather long and detailed letter to his friend and confidant Joshua Speed who at the time was living in Kentucky, Lincoln’s home state, as plantation and slave owner. This letter seems to indicate that Speed, rather than give up his slaves, would like to see the Union dissolved; however, like Lincoln, he realizes that slavery is wrong. Lincoln openly admits in this letter that he opposes the extension of slavery in Kansas and Nebraska “because my judgment and feelings so prompt me”; he also notes that if Kansas attempts to enter the Union as a slave state, he will oppose it (Johnson, 21).

However, Lincoln, despite his views on opposing slavery, confesses that he often “bites his lip and keeps quiet” concerning how he hates to see “the poor creatures hunted down and caught and carried back to their stripes and unrewarded toils” (Johnson, 21). Thus, at this point in his life, Lincoln was quite reluctant to reveal his true inner feelings about the institution of human slavery which is shown by his remark about biting his lip, an indication that he truly wanted to speak up but dared not, due to the possible ramifications on his future political career in Washington and the re-election of Mr. Yates.

In the early summer of 1858, almost a hundred Illinois Republican county conventions named Lincoln as their first and only choice for U.S. Senator, and when the Republican State Convention met in the city of Springfield on June 16, the members unanimously adopted a resolution with Lincoln as their sole successor to Stephen A. Douglas. However, this was not a nomination because all state senators were elected by state legislatures and within party caucuses. Lincoln fully expected to be endorsed by the Republicans at the state convention and as a result wrote a sort of acceptance speech now referred to as the “House Divided” speech which contains several references to Lincoln’s personal (or perhaps political) views on slavery.

For example, at about seven lines into his speech, Lincoln declares that the looming crisis, i.e., the possible dissolution of the Union, has caused the nation to become “a house divided against itself” with the abolitionists on one side and the slave owners on the other. Lincoln adds that “I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free” (Johnson, 32), a clear sign of Lincoln’s belief that the nation cannot last when slavery is allowed in one location, such as the states in the Deep South, and is banned in another, such as in the North.

Lincoln also points out one of his greatest fears concerning slavery in the United States. He notes that “the decision is probably coming, and will soon be upon us” related to slavery becoming the law of the land, and that if this comes to fruition, “we shall awake to the reality. . . that the Supreme Court has made Illinois a slave State” (Johnson, 32). Thus, in this speech, Lincoln for the first time reveals his true feelings about slavery by stressing that if slavery was to become legal throughout the nation, it would be like living under the rule of a despot, being the Supreme Court, which would effectively prevent Americans from choosing whether slavery should be present in their own states.

In 1862 as President of the United States and while the Civil War raged with the Union against the Confederacy, Lincoln wrote a short and concise letter to Horace Greeley, the famous editor of the New York Tribune. At this time, Greeley was not very supportive of President Lincoln; in fact, his lack of support was clearly outlined in his editorial called “The Prayer of Twenty Millions” in which he informed Lincoln that most Americans wanted him to wage a full-scale war against slavery. Little did Greeley or most Americans know that Lincoln had already written his Emancipation Proclamation which in effect freed all of the slaves in the United States via the abolition of indentured servitude.

Compared to his comments and observations in his letter to Joshua Speed and in his “House Divided” speech, the contents of this letter appear to be based solely on politics, rather than on personal feelings and beliefs. Of course, one has to take into consideration that Lincoln was the Commander-in-Chief of the Union military machine and that the pressure was great and overwhelming from politicians and abolitionists to make a bold decision about slavery. For instance, Lincoln makes some rather startling declarations about saving and preserving the Union and abolishing slavery–

“If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown. . . and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views” (Johnson, 21).

In effect, President Lincoln the politician is attempting to say that his main concern is saving the Union at all costs, and that if this means allowing slavery to exist, then so be it. However, he admits that from time to time he may be wrong in his views and assumptions and as a result is willing to “adopt new views” in order to help save the Union from becoming split in two. Lincoln also points out that his opinions in this letter as based on his “official duty” as President, an indication that he cannot express what he truly feels in public. But nonetheless, Lincoln adds at the conclusion that he has no intention of modifying his “oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free” or perhaps should be free.

On January 1, 1863, President Lincoln made his Emancipation Proclamation public through an executive order. In basic terms, this document decreed that all slaves in the Confederacy and other areas of the country that allowed slavery to exist should be free forever. Not surprisingly, the reaction from slave owners and plantation masters in the South was one of outrage, for they felt that Lincoln had betrayed them. Some of the abolitionists in the North were not satisfied with the proclamation, due to feeling that it did not go far enough in simply freeing the slaves.

But nonetheless, this proclamation demonstrates Lincoln’s deep hatred of slavery and seems to bolster his comment in his letter to Horace Greeley via “If I could save it (the Union) by freeing all the slaves, I would do it.” Certainly, Lincoln must have felt that this was his only moral option, knowing all along that it would add fuel to the fire in relation to the war which was at its height and would soon explode into unparalleled violence in a little town called Gettysburg in Pennsylvania in July of 1863.

On April 4, 1864 and while Union forces were fighting the rebels in the Battle of Elkin’s Ferry in Arkansas, Lincoln wrote a long and detailed letter to Albert G. Hodges of Kentucky and the editor of the Frankfort Commonwealth newspaper. In his opening paragraph, Lincoln declares to Mr. Hodges 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.” This indicates that Lincoln was always anti-slavery, even before he became President and perhaps going back as far as his days in Springfield as a lawyer.

Also in this letter, Lincoln admits that he never intended to control as President events related to slavery; rather, he confesses that “events have controlled me” (Johnson, 178), meaning that his decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation was due to the complexity of the slavery issue and that his moral beliefs and principles forced him to go in the direction of freeing all of the slaves. Lincoln also notes that the institution of slavery is a “great wrong” and warns Mr. Hodges that “we of the North and well as you of the South” might in the future “pay fairly for our complicity in that wrong” (Johnson, 178), an indication that Lincoln possessed fears of retaliation from God because of being a willing accomplice to the evils of slavery.

In essence then, it appears that Lincoln’s personal views on slavery did not alter or change considerably over the years as shown in his letters to Joshua Speed, Horace Greeley, and Albert G. Hodges, and in his “House Divided” speech. However, the greatest change in his stance on slavery was his slow progression from skirting the issue without providing his true feelings to his blatant admission in his letter to Mr. Hodges that he has always felt that slavery was a great wrong. Ironically, in mid 1864, Lincoln’s fellow Republicans, perhaps influenced by his proclamation, were calling for a constitutional amendment that would prohibit slavery in the United States, but for Lincoln, he would not live long enough to see this prohibition become a reality.

Works Cited

Johnson, Michael P. Abraham Lincoln, Slavery, and the Civil War: Selected Writings and Speeches. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2010.

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