Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809, in Hardin County, Kentucky (now LaRue County). His family attended a Separate Baptists church, which had strict moral standards and opposed alcohol, dancing, and slavery. The family moved north across the Ohio River to free (i.e., non-slave) territory and made a new start in Perry County, Indiana. Lincoln later noted that this move was "partly on account of slavery" but mainly due to land title difficulties. As a young man, he settled in the free state of Illinois.
Lincoln, the leader most associated with the end of slavery in the United States, came to national prominence in the 1850s, following the advent of the Republican Party, which opposed the expansion of slavery. Earlier, as a member of the Whig Party in the Illinois General Assembly, Lincoln issued a written protest of the assembly's passage of a resolution stating that slavery could not be abolished in Washington, D.C. In 1841, he won a court case (Bailey v. Cromwell), representing a black woman and her children who claimed she had already been freed and could not be sold as a slave. In 1845, he successfully defended Marvin Pond (People v. Pond) for harboring the fugitive slave John Hauley. In 1847, he lost a case (Matson v. Rutherford) representing a slave owner (Robert Matson) claiming return of fugitive slaves. While a congressman from Illinois in 1846 to 1848, Lincoln supported the Wilmot Proviso, which, if it had been adopted, would have banned slavery in any U.S. territory won from Mexico. Lincoln, in collaboration with abolitionist Congressman Joshua R. Giddings, wrote a bill to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia with compensation for the owners, enforcement to capture fugitive slaves, and a popular vote on the matter.
Lincoln had left politics until he was drawn back into it by the Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854, which allowed territories to decide for themselves whether they would allow slavery. Lincoln was morally opposed to slavery and politically opposed to any expansion of it. At issue was extension into the western territories. On October 16, 1854, in his "Peoria Speech", Lincoln declared his opposition to slavery, which he repeated in his route to presidency. Speaking in his Kentucky accent, with a very powerful voice, he said the Kansas Act had a "declared indifference, but as I must think, a covert real zeal for the spread of slavery. I cannot but hate it. I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world..."
Since the 1840s Lincoln had been an advocate of the American Colonization Society program of colonizing blacks in Liberia. In an October 16, 1854, speech at Peoria, Illinois (transcribed after the fact by Lincoln himself), Lincoln points out the immense difficulties of such a task are an obstacle to finding an easy way to quickly end slavery.
If all earthly power were given to me […] my first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia,—to their own native land. But a moment's reflection would convince me that whatever of high hope (as I think there is) there may be in this, in the long run, its sudden execution is impossible.
According to historian Paul Escott, Lincoln thus favored a system of gradual emancipation that would allow for controlled management of free Negroes.
In 1855, Lincoln wrote to Joshua Speed, a personal friend and slave owner in Kentucky:
You know I dislike slavery; and you fully admit the abstract wrong of it... I also acknowledge your rights and my obligations, under the constitution, in regard to your slaves. I confess I hate to see the poor creatures hunted down, and caught, and carried back to their stripes, and unrewarded toils; but I bite my lip and keep quiet. In 1841 you and I had together a tedious low-water trip, on a Steam Boat from Louisville to St. Louis. You may remember, as I well do, that from Louisville to the mouth of the Ohio, there were, on board, ten or a dozen slaves, shackled together with irons. That sight was a continued torment to me; and I see something like it every time I touch the Ohio, or any other slave-border. It is hardly fair for you to assume, that I have no interest in a thing which has, and continually exercises, the power of making me miserable. You ought rather to appreciate how much the great body of the Northern people do crucify their feelings, in order to maintain their loyalty to the Constitution and the Union. … How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that "all men are created equal." We now practically read it "all men are created equal, except negroes." When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read "all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics." When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.
Many of Lincoln's public anti-slavery sentiments were presented in the seven Lincoln–Douglas debates of 1858 against his opponent, Stephen Douglas, during Lincoln's unsuccessful campaign for a seat in the U.S. Senate (which was decided by the Illinois legislature). Douglas advocated "popular sovereignty" and self-government, which would give the citizens of a territory the right to decide if slavery would be legal there. Douglas criticized Lincoln as being inconsistent, saying he altered his message and position on slavery and on the political rights of freed blacks in order to appeal to the audience before him, as northern Illinois was more hostile to slavery than southern Illinois.
Lincoln stated that Negroes had the rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" in the first of the Lincoln–Douglas debates. Publicly, Lincoln said he was not advocating Negro suffrage in his speech in Columbus, Ohio on September 16, 1859.
This might have been a strategy speech used to gain voters, as Douglas had accused Lincoln of favoring negroes too much as well.
A fragment from Lincoln dated October 1, 1858, refuting theological arguments by Frederick A. Ross in favor of slavery, reads in part, "As a good thing, slavery is strikingly perculiar [sic], in this, that it is the only good thing which no man ever seeks the good of, for himself. Nonsense! Wolves devouring lambs, not because it is good for their own greedy maws, but because it is good for the lambs!!!"
The Republican Party was committed to restricting the growth of slavery, and its victory in the election of 1860 was the trigger for secession acts by Southern states. The debate before 1860 was mainly focused on the Western territories, especially Kansas and the popular sovereignty controversy.
Lincoln was nominated as the Republican candidate for president in the election of 1860. Lincoln was opposed to the expansion of slavery into new areas, but held that the federal government was prevented by the Constitution from banning slavery in states where it already existed. His plan was to halt the spread of slavery, and to offer monetary compensation to slave-owners in states that agreed to end slavery (see Compensated emancipation). He was considered a moderate within his party, as there were some who wanted the immediate abolition of slavery.
In a letter to Senator Lyman Trumbull on December 10, 1860, Lincoln wrote, "Let there be no compromise on the question of extending slavery." In a letter to John A. Gilmer of North Carolina of December 15, 1860, which was soon published in newspapers, Lincoln wrote that the 'only substantial difference' between North and South was that 'You think slavery is right and ought to be extended; we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted.' Lincoln repeated this statement in a letter to Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia on Dec. 22, 1860
On February 22, 1861, at a speech in Independence Hall, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Lincoln reconfirmed that his convictions sprang from the sentiment expressed in the Declaration of Independence, which was also the basis of the continued existence of the United States since that time, namely, the "principle or idea" "in that Declaration giving liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time. (Great applause.) It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance. (Cheers.)"
The proposed Corwin amendment was passed by Congress before Lincoln became President and was ratified by two states, but was abandoned once the Civil War began. It would have explicitly prohibited congressional interference with slavery in states where it already existed. In his First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861, Lincoln explained that, "holding such a provision to now be implied constitutional law, I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable." The Corwin amendment was a late attempt at reconciliation, but it also was a measure of reassurance to the slave-holding border states that the federal government was not intent on taking away their powers. Nonetheless, Lincoln was bitterly attacked throughout the secession crisis and Civil War regarding his anti-slavery views. Many of Lincoln's opponents, especially in the South, regarded him as an "abominable" abolitionist, even before the war.
Lincoln's plan was to get rid of slavery in the District of Columbia (which Congress did), and in the loyal border states of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri through compensated emancipation.
At the beginning of the war, Lincoln prohibited his generals from freeing slaves even in captured territories. On August 30, 1861, Major General John C. Frémont, the commander of the Union Army in St. Louis, proclaimed that all slaves owned by Confederates in Missouri were free. Lincoln opposed allowing military leaders to take executive actions that were not authorized by the government, and realized that such actions could induce slaveowners in border states to oppose the Union or even start supporting the enemy. Lincoln demanded Frémont modify his order and free only slaves owned by Missourians working for the South. When Frémont refused, he was replaced by the conservative General Henry Wager Halleck.
Radical Republicans such as William P. Fessenden of Maine and Charles Sumner supported Frémont. Fessenden described Lincoln's action as "a weak and unjustifiable concession to the Union men of the border states" and Sumner writing in a letter to Lincoln how sad it was "to have the power of a god and not use it godlike."
The situation was repeated in May 1862, when General David Hunter began enlisting black soldiers in the occupied district under his control. Soon afterwards Hunter issued a statement that all slaves owned by Confederates in Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina were free. Despite the pleas of Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, Lincoln ordered Hunter to disband the black 1st South Carolina Regiment and to retract his proclamation. At all times Lincoln insisted that he controlled the issue—only he had the war powers. Lincoln's view was that in order for freedmen to effectively and legally rely on the promise and declaration of freedom it had to be grounded in the president's constitutional authority.
On August 22, 1862, just a few weeks before signing the Proclamation and after he had already discussed a draft of it with his cabinet in July, he wrote a letter in response to an editorial by Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune which had urged complete abolition. Lincoln differentiates between "my view of official duty"—that is, what he can do in his official capacity as President—and his personal views. Officially he must save the Union above all else; personally he wanted to free all the slaves:
I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be "the Union as it was." If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy 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. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. 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 to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.
I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free.
Just one month after writing this letter, Lincoln issued his first Emancipation Proclamation, which announced that at the beginning of 1863, he would use his war powers to free all slaves in states still in rebellion (as they came under Union control).
Lincoln asked Congress in his State of the Union Address on December 1, 1862, for three constitutional amendment that would allow slavery to continue as late as 1900, pay compensation to loyal owners, and colonize freedmen outside the South. Republican leaders warned the proposals would not pass Congress but Lincoln argued strongly for them.
Also revealing was his letter a year later to James C. Conkling of August 26, 1863, which included the following excerpt:
There was more than a year and a half of trial to suppress the rebellion before the proclamation issued, the last one hundred days of which passed under an explicit notice that it was coming, unless averted by those in revolt, returning to their allegiance. The war has certainly progressed as favorably for us, since the issue of proclamation as before. I know, as fully as one can know the opinions of others, that some of the commanders of our armies in the field who have given us our most important successes believe the emancipation policy and the use of the colored troops constitute the heaviest blow yet dealt to the Rebellion, and that at least one of these important successes could not have been achieved when it was but for the aid of black soldiers. Among the commanders holding these views are some who have never had any affinity with what is called abolitionism or with the Republican party policies but who held them purely as military opinions. I submit these opinions as being entitled to some weight against the objections often urged that emancipation and arming the blacks are unwise as military measures and were not adopted as such in good faith.
You say you will not fight to free negroes. Some of them seem willing to fight for you; but, no matter. Fight you, then exclusively to save the Union. I issued the proclamation on purpose to aid you in saving the Union. Whenever you shall have conquered all resistance to the Union, if I shall urge you to continue fighting, it will be an apt time, then, for you to declare you will not fight to free negroes.
I thought that in your struggle for the Union, to whatever extent the negroes should cease helping the enemy, to that extent it weakened the enemy in his resistance to you. Do you think differently? I thought that whatever negroes can be got to do as soldiers, leaves just so much less for white soldiers to do, in saving the Union. Does it appear otherwise to you? But negroes, like other people, act upon motives. Why should they do any thing for us, if we will do nothing for them? If they stake their lives for us, they must be prompted by the strongest motive—even the promise of freedom. And the promise being made, must be kept. … Peace does not appear so distant as it did. I hope it will come soon, and come to stay; and so come as to be worth the keeping in all future time. It will then have been proved that, among free men, there can be no successful appeal from the ballot to the bullet; and that they who take such appeal are sure to lose their case, and pay the cost. And then, there will be some black men who can remember that, with silent tongue, and clenched teeth, and steady eye, and well-poised bayonet, they have helped mankind on to this great consummation; while, I fear, there will be some white ones, unable to forget that, with malignant heart, and deceitful speech, they strove to hinder it.
Lincoln addresses the changes to his positions and actions regarding emancipation in an 1864 letter to Albert G. Hodges. In that letter, Lincoln states his ethical opposition to slavery, writing, "I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel. ... And yet I have never understood that the Presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act officially upon this judgment and feeling." Lincoln further explained that he had eventually determined that military emancipation and the enlistment of black soldiers were necessary for the preservation of the Union, which was his responsibility as President.
In December, 1864, Lincoln named Salmon P. Chase chief justice of the Supreme Court, in part to guarantee that the Court did not challenge the constitutionality of the Emancipation Proclamation.
In December 1863, Lincoln used his war powers and issued a "Proclamation for Amnesty and Reconstruction", which offered Southern states a chance to peacefully rejoin the Union if they abolished slavery and collected loyalty oaths from 10% of their voting population.
When Lincoln accepted the nomination for the Union party for President in June, 1864, he called for the first time for the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, to abolish slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime. He wrote in his letter of acceptance that "it would make a fitting and necessary conclusion" to the war and would permanently join the causes of "Liberty and Union." and in December, 1864, Lincoln began working to have the House approve the amendment.
When the House passed the 13th amendment on January 31, 1865, Lincoln signed the amendment, although this was not a legal requirement, and said in a speech the next day, "He thought all would bear him witness that he had never shrunk from doing all that he could to eradicate slavery by issuing an emancipation proclamation." He pointed out that the emancipation proclamation did not complete the task of eradicating slavery; "But this amendment is a King's cure for all the evils [of slavery]."
He made numerous proposals for "compensated emancipation" in the loyal border states whereby the federal government would purchase all of the slaves and free them. Each state government refused to act.
President Lincoln advocated that slave owners be compensated for emancipated slaves. On March 6, 1862 President Lincoln in a message to the U.S. Congress stated that emancipating slaves would create economic "inconveniences" and justified compensation to the slave owners. The resolution was adopted by Congress; however, the Southern States refused to comply. On July 12, 1862 President Lincoln in a conference with Congressmen from Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware, and Missouri encouraged their respective states to adopt emancipation legislation that gave compensation to the slave owners. On July 14, 1862 President Lincoln sent a bill to Congress that allowed the Treasury to issue bonds at 6% interest to states for slave emancipation compensation to the slave owners. The bill was never voted on by Congress.
As late as the Hampton Roads Conference in 1865, Lincoln met with Confederate leaders and proposed a "fair indemnity", possibly $500,000,000, in compensation for emancipated slaves.
Colonization of freed slaves was long seen by many as an answer to the problem of slavery. One of President Abraham Lincoln's policies during his administration was the voluntary colonization of African American Freedmen; he firmly opposed compulsory colonization, and in one instance ordered the Secretary of War to bring some colonized blacks back to the United States. The Pre-Emancipation Proclamation offered support for the colonization of free blacks outside of the United States. Historians have debated and have remained divided over whether Lincoln's racial views (or merely his acceptance of the political reality) included that African Americans could not live in the same society as white Americans due to racism. Benjamin Butler stated that Lincoln in 1865 firmly denied that "racial harmony" would be possible in the United States. One view (known to scholars as the "lullaby" theory) is that Lincoln adopted colonization for Freedmen in order to make his Emancipation Proclamation politically acceptable. This view has been challenged with new evidence of the Lincoln administration's attempts to colonize freedmen in British Honduras after the Emancipation Proclamation took effect on January 1, 1863.
President Lincoln supported colonization during the Civil War as a practical response to newly freed slaves. At his urging, Congress included text in the Confiscation Act of 1862 indicating support for Presidential authority to recolonize consenting African Americans. With this authorization, Lincoln created an agency to direct his colonization projects. At the suggestion of Lincoln, in 1862, Congress appointed $600,000 to fund and created the Bureau of Emigration in the U.S. Department of the Interior. To head that office Lincoln appointed the energetic Reverend James Mitchell, a leader of the American Colonization Party. Lincoln had known Mitchell since 1853, when Mitchell visited Illinois. Mitchell's Washington D.C.'s office was in charge of implementing Lincoln's voluntary colonization policy of African Americans. In his annual December message to Congress that year (his second "State of the Union" Message), he reiterated his strong support for government expenditure on colonization for those who wanted to go, but he also noted that objections to free blacks remaining in the United States were baseless, "if not sometimes malicious." In 1862, Lincoln mentioned colonization favorably in his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Much concerning the controversial Bureau of Emigration is unknown today, as Mitchell's papers that kept record of the office were lost after his death in 1903.
President Lincoln first proposed a Panama colony for Blacks in October 1861. Several hundred acres of Chiriquí Province in Panama (then a part of Gran Colombia) had in 1855 been granted to the Chiriqui Improvement Company for coal mining. The Company supplied the U.S. Navy with half-price coal during the war, but required more workers. Congress gravitated towards this plan in mid-1862, and Lincoln appointed Kansas Senator Samuel Pomeroy to oversee it. Pomeroy promised 40 acres and a job to willing Blacks, and chose 500 of 13,700 who applied. Lincoln signed a contract with businessman Ambrose W. Thompson, the owner of the land, and made plans to send tens of thousands of African Americans. Pomeroy secured $25,000 from Congress to pay for transportation and equipment.
The plan was suspended in early October 1862 before a single ship sailed though, apparently due to diplomatic protests from neighboring Central American governments and the uncertainty raised by the Colombian Civil War (1860–1862). The plan also violated the 1850 Clayton–Bulwer Treaty prohibiting US and UK colonization of Central America. Lincoln hoped to overcome these complications by having Congress make provision for a treaty for African American emigration, much as he outlined in his Second Annual Message of December 1, 1862, but the Chiriquí plan appears to have died over the New Year of 1863 as revelations of the corrupt interest of his acquaintance Richard W. Thompson and Secretary of the Interior John Palmer Usher likely proved too much to bear in political terms.
In December 1862, Lincoln signed a contract with businessman Bernard Kock to establish a colony on the Ile à Vache, an island of Haiti. 453 freed slaves departed for the island from Fort Monroe, Virginia. A government investigation had deemed Kock untrustworthy, and Secretary of State William Seward stopped the plan from going forward after learning of Kock's involvement.
Poor planning, an outbreak of smallpox, and financial mismanagement by Kock left the colonists under-supplied and starving, according to early reports. 292 colonists remained on Ile a Vache in 1865; 73 had moved to Aux Cayes on Haiti. The United States Navy arrived to rescue survivors after less than one year on the island.
In addition to Panama and Haiti, Mitchell's office also oversaw attempts at colonization in British Honduras and elsewhere in the British West Indies. Lincoln believed that by dealing with the comparatively stable British Government, he could avoid some of the problems that plagued his earlier attempts at colonization with private interests.
He signed an agreement on June 13, 1863, with John Hodge of British Honduras that authorized colonial agents to recruit ex-slaves and transport them to Belize from approved ports in Philadelphia, New York City, and Boston. Later that year the Department of the Interior sent John Willis Menard, a free African-American clerk who supported colonization, to investigate the site for the government. British authorities pulled out of the agreement in December, fearing it would disrupt their position of neutrality in the Civil War.
The question of when Lincoln abandoned colonization, if ever, has aroused considerable debate among historians. The government funded no more colonies after the rescue of the Ile a Vache survivors in early 1864, and Congress repealed most of the colonization funding that July.
Whether Lincoln's opinion had changed is unknown. He left no surviving statements in his own hand on the subject during the last two years of his presidency, although he apparently wrote Attorney General Edward Bates in November 1864 to inquire whether earlier legislation allowed him to continue pursuing colonization and to retain Mitchell's services irrespective of the loss of funding. An entry in the diary of presidential secretary John Hay dated July 2, 1864, says that Lincoln had "sloughed off" colonization, though without much elaboration. In a later report, General Benjamin F. Butler claimed that Lincoln approached him in 1865 a few days before his assassination, to talk about reviving colonization in Panama. Historians have long debated the validity of Butler's account, as it was written many years after the fact and Butler was prone to exaggeration of his own exploits as a general. Recently discovered documents prove that Butler and Lincoln did indeed meet on April 11, 1865, though whether and to what extent they talked about colonization is not recorded except in Butler's account. On that same day, Lincoln gave a speech supporting a form of limited suffrage for blacks.
Much of the present debate revolves around whether to accept Butler's story. If rejected, then it appears that Lincoln "sloughed off" colonization at some point in mid-1864. If it is accepted, then Lincoln remained a colonizationist at the time of his death. This question is compounded by the unclear meaning of Hay's diary, and another article by Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, which suggests that Lincoln intended to revive colonization in his second term. In either case, the implications for understanding Lincoln's views on race and slavery are strong.
In his second term as president, on April 11, 1865, Lincoln gave a speech in which he promoted voting rights for blacks. John Wilkes Booth, a Southerner and outspoken Confederate sympathizer attended the speech and became determined to kill Lincoln for supporting citizenship for blacks.
In analyzing Lincoln's position historian Eugene H. Berwanger notes:
During his presidency, Lincoln took a reasoned course which helped the federal government both destroy slavery and advance the cause of black suffrage. For a man who had denied both reforms four years earlier, Lincoln's change in attitude was rapid and decisive. He was both open-minded and perceptive to the needs of his nation in a postwar era. Once committed to a principle, Lincoln moved toward it with steady, determined progress.
Known as the Great Emancipator, Lincoln was a complicated figure who wrestled with his own views on race. Lincoln's primary audience were white voters. Lincoln's views on slavery, race equality, and African American colonization are often intermixed. During the 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas, Lincoln expressed his contemporary view that he believed whites were superior to blacks. Lincoln stated he was against miscegenation and allowing blacks to serve as jurors. While President, as the American Civil War progressed, Lincoln advocated or implemented anti-racist policies including the Emancipation Proclamation and limited suffrage for African Americans. Former slave and leading abolitionist, Frederick Douglass once observed of Lincoln: "In his company, I was never reminded of my humble origin, or of my unpopular color". Douglass praised Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation; however, he stated that Lincoln "was preeminently the white man's President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men." In his past, Lincoln lived in a middle-class, racially mixed neighborhood of Springfield, Illinois; one of his long-time neighbors, Jameson Jenkins (who may have been born a slave), had come from North Carolina and was publicly implicated in the 1850s as a Springfield conductor on the underground railroad, sheltering escaped slaves. In 1861, Lincoln called on Jenkins to give him a ride to the train depot, where Lincoln delivered his farewell address before leaving Springfield for the last time. Through changing times successive generations have interpreted Lincoln's views on African Americans differently.