Abraham Lincoln And Slavery
On April 14, 2015 it will be the 150 year anniversary of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Shot by actor John Wilkes Boothe while attending the theatre, America’s 16th president passed away in the early morning hours the following day from mortal wounds. Near the top of any list of the greatest presidents of the United States, Lincoln was at the helm for the bloodiest war in U.S. history, yet managed to preserve the Union, abolish slavery, bolstered the federal government and brought the economy more in line with the Industrial era. An intriguing man, Lincoln, was raised on the edge of the frontier in Kentucky and Indiana as a young man, Lincoln was largely self-educated, was known to have a keen sense of humor and was often very self-deprecating. When he spoke to the crowd assembled at his second Inauguration a mere six weeks before his death, Lincoln said he felt the Civil War was ordained by God and therefore, could not have been avoided. Lincoln’s theory, however, could not have been more wrong for he was the recipient an evil that should have been rectified when the Founding Fathers ratified the Constitution. It was inevitable the institution of slavery must be abolished for it morally, spiritually, ethically and inherently was wrong, yet the Founding Fathers left this reprehensible issue to be dealt with by future generations. Essentially, the situation landed in Lincoln’s lap and he managed it successfully with the utmost class, dignity, intelligence and grace. Hence, his legacy as the Great Emancipator.
Twenty two years before Abraham Lincoln was born, the Founding Fathers gathered in a sweltering room in Philadelphia on July 16, 1787 to commence their debate regarding the newly prepared Constitution. It appeared as if the delegates were deadlocked, but finally they reached a compromise. This compromise, however, ensured slavery would be embraced under the new government rather than be removed as many members of the Continental Congress had hoped it would. Unfortunately, many of these men were willing to ‘deal with the devil’ by allowing the Southerners to persist with the institution of slavery. Known as the 3/5ths Compromise, this enabled the Southern colonies to be represented in government through their white population in addition to each African slave counting as 3/5ths of a person. Desperate for the success of the Constitution, “The approach of the Founders was we’ll fix it now and let posterity sort it out. It’s like slapping a patch on your tire.”
Not all the delegates felt when they made this decision that the South would continue to rely on slavery more. Many felt the institution had run its course and with changes in agriculture, surely the practice would just die out. Therefore, all they must do is bide their time before slavery would remove itself from their newly forged nation without any definitive action. The problem, however, is the delegates never could have foretold of Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin just six years later. Maynard writes, “Between 1793 and 1805, as profits rose, cotton production in the South exploded thirtyfold, increasing the demand for humans to plant, tend the fields, and pick the bolls.”
Another error by the Founding Fathers that left Lincoln to deal with the ramifications was allowing the international slave trade to continue. While Virginia sought to end the slave trade, which consisted of ships filled to the brim with Africans many of which died on the voyage, South Carolina vehemently protested. They contended Virginia only wanted to terminate this activity so they could cash in on what South Carolina considered to be the lucrative slave trade by breeding their own slaves and then selling them. Again, many of the Founding Fathers had ulterior motives, so they conceded to South Carolina. Eventually terminated in 1808, the year before Lincoln’s birth, the slave trade imported an additional 200,000 African slaves. This was highly significant and not anticipated. Maynard claims, “The more blacks in the South, the less likely they could be liberated, because many whites “had an acute discomfort seeing them as free men.”
A year after the international slave trade was finally outlawed, Abraham Lincoln was born in a log cabin within the confines of Hardin County, Kentucky. He was the son of Thomas Lincoln and Nancy Hanks Lincoln with an older sister, Sarah and a younger brother Thomas who died in infancy. The Lincolns were members of a Baptist congregation, but left their former church because it supported slavery and Kentucky was a slave state. When their son was seven, the Lincolns moved to southern Indiana, but two years later his mother died from cow sickness and his father brought a new stepmother, Sarah Bush Johnston Lincoln home within 12 months. Lincoln had a strong and loving relationship with the new Mrs. Lincoln.
Throughout his youth, Lincoln rarely went to school. In fact, he spent less than a year in a formal education program, but he adored reading and would hide from field chores just to devour pages in books he had borrowed. When was nineteen, his sister passed away during childbirth and the young Lincoln took his first flatboat trip down the Mississippi to New Orleans and two years later the family moved to Illinois. After taking another trip down South, Lincoln moved to New Salem, Illinois, where he resided for seven years. While in his new town he worked as a postmaster, surveyor and the manager of a general store while toiling on his own behalf to learn the law. He became a lawyer in 1836 and first ran for the Illinois legislature as a member of the Whig Party in 1832, but predictably was defeated. He campaigned again in 1834, 1836, 1838 and 1840 and won on every occasion. This was undoubtedly because ‘Honest Abe,’ as the townspeople called him was well liked and thought highly of shortly after his arrival. He even wrestled the town bully.
Lincoln met his future wife, Mary Todd, in Springfield, Illinois, in 1839. The couple was married three years later and were the parents to four sons, Robert, Edward, William and Thomas. Lincoln made a pretty good living as an attorney and the family purchased a home at the corner of Eighth and Jackson in 1844. Two years later, Lincoln made a bid for a seat in the House of Representatives and once again won.
During his sojourn in Washington, Lincoln became recognized for his strong stand against the Mexican War and slavery. After his four years in the house ended, he returned home and was intent on concentrating solely on his law practice, as his interest in politics was diminishing. After the Kansas-Nebraska act was implemented in 1844, however, Lincoln had a renewed vigor for politics and campaigned for a seat in the Senate in 1856. Although he lost the election, he did receive mention as a candidate for Vice President.
It was in 1856, that Lincoln gained national attention. That was the same year he regaled the public with his “Lost” speech and began to form the Illinois Republican Party with other individuals that were dissatisfied with the Kansas-Nebraska Act as well as the Missouri Compromise. He stumped ardently for the Republican presidential candidate James Fremont and ardently opposed the Dred Scott decision in 1857. It was in 1858, however, Lincoln addressed the Illinois Republican convention to begin his Senate campaign with his “House-Divided” speech.
He felt the Supreme Court’s decision was some kind of conspiracy to institute slavery throughout the entire continent. Lincoln lost the Senate seat to Stephen A. Douglas and was certainly not the favorite to win the 1860 Presidential election, but he did win the Republican nomination on the third ballot over William Seward. Then on November 6, 1860 he defeated John C. Breckenridge, Douglas and John Bell to become the nation’s 16th President. After being sworn into office in March of 1861, the rest as they say was history.
It is important to note throughout Lincoln’s entire life slavery was a contentious issue that divided the United States. The legacy handed down from the Founding Fathers had long been smoldering and by the time Lincoln became re-invigorated by politics the situation was ready to burst into a conflagration. Oddly enough, there has always been much debate amongst scholars about how Lincoln truly felt about slavery and if it was a goal of his as President to rid the nation of this evil institution.
Many academics argue that Lincoln was never an abolitionist and although he was morally opposed to slavery, he was willing to allow it to continue in order for the Union to remain intact just as long as it was contained in the areas where it was already legal. Other scholars such as Nagler, point out that Lincoln loathed slavery from the time he was a child and as his entire lifetime was spent with this situation always prevalent it is difficult to discern how Lincoln truly felt about racism and the future of race relations.
Nagler then discusses how Lincoln had felt slavery was morally and legally reprehensible as a small child. In fact, his parents instilled this within him as they broke away from their church over the issue of slavery and moved from the area as a result of their hatred of it. Lincoln never really much contact with African-American slaves until his flatboat trips to New Orleans and it was then he formulated his own opinions on slavery. Lincoln always wanted to free the slaves, but he was also man of the law and would not abuse his powers as the President to abolish the institution. That decision was up to the American people and he felt in order for slavery to end it must go through the proper legal channels.
In the beginning of his presidency, however, Lincoln was still unsure whether he favored the policy of colonization once the slaves were freed. He did not feel they would be able to integrate into American society successfully and it might be best for them to reside away from this country in a new location. As the war went on though, Lincoln began to alter his impression of the colonization policy and became more and more convinced, slaves could be integrated into society for they were Americans. His meetings with Frederick Douglass and with African-American soldiers that fought in the war swayed his decision. At the beginning of his presidential terms his goal was to keep the Union intact, but at the end of his life he acknowledged the real reason for the war was because of slavery.
Ultimately, Abraham Lincoln was responsible for freeing more than four million slaves and resolving the issue through much bloodshed the Founding Fathers had left for future generations to contend with. Was he the greatest U.S. President? Only Franklin Roosevelt, George Washington and possibly George W. Bush were confronted with such dire circumstances during their time in office, so if Lincoln is not perched atop the list, he is not very far down from the premier slot. There is no question he made the correct decision when he implemented the Emancipation Proclamation and that his goal of abolishing slavery was not only morally just, but legally valid. In a country founded on democratic principles it is a shocking blight slavery was allowed to exist for as long as it. It is truly a tremendous tragedy that the world will never know how Lincoln would have approached Reconstruction had he survived. What is known, however, is certainly did the right thing for the slaves and for the future our nation. It is only unfortunate the cost was so high.