View on Slavery

Lincoln’s View on Slavery

"First reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln" was painted in 1864 by Francis Bicknell Carpenter. The painting is located at the U.S. Capitol in Washington DC.

The evolution of Lincoln’s view on slavery was a complex process. Like his view on emancipation, his position on social and political equality of blacks and whites would evolve over the years taking a turning point during his two terms as president.

On September 18, 1858 at Charleston, Illinois during his race to the senate with Stephen Douglas Lincoln stated:

“I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality… I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied every thing. “

Source: 4th debate between Lincoln and Douglass, Charleston, Illinois, 1856

On April 11, 1865 days after having been elected for a second term Lincoln addressed a group that had gathered outside the White House. In a speech that was to be his last one he let know his plans of reconstruction for the entire nation based on the one already adopted by Louisiana.

“Some twelve thousand voters in the heretofore slave-state of Louisiana have sworn allegiance to the Union, assumed to be the rightful political power of the State, held elections, organized a State government, adopted a free-state constitution, giving the benefit of public schools equally to black and white, and empowering the Legislature to confer the elective franchise upon the colored man. Their Legislature has already voted to ratify the constitutional amendment recently passed by Congress, abolishing slavery throughout the nation.”

Source: Last speech of Abraham Lincoln, White House, 1865.

Immoral practice

Lincoln’s family did not own slaves and never considered owning any, in fact his father, Thomas, viewed this practice as immoral.

The first direct encounter with southern slavery for the future 16th president was in 1830 at age 20 during his employment with Denton while transporting goods to New Orleans.

Before the 1840s Lincoln did not think much of slavery, other than it was morally incompatible with his principles and founded on both injustice and bad policy. He was antislavery but not abolitionist. Abolitionists sought the end of slavery and the assimilation of African Americans to society. They were not interested in working within the frame of the Constitution or the political system as Lincoln was.

In the 1840s he elaborated more on his views and stated that slavery was a dying institution if it remained confined to where it already existed. He believed that if slavery would expand it would become so unprofitable that it would be abandoned. As a practicing lawyer Lincoln had several cases in which he represented the slaves. In 1841, in Bailey vs Cromwell he represented a black woman and her children who were free and could not be sold back to slavery. In 1845, in People vs Pond he defended Marvin Pond for giving help to a fugitive slave, John Harvey. Lincoln had no problem representing the other side, the slave owner. In 1847, in Matson vs Rutheford, he represented the slave owner and lost.

The Constitution

Lincoln did not support antislavery measures in states where it was legal affirming that “the Congress of the United States has no power, under the constitution, to interfere with the institution of slavery in different states”.

From the beginning until the end of his days Lincoln believed on the constitutionality of slavery where it already existed so he became a firm advocate for the 13th Amendment. The constitution did not explicitly mention the word “slavery” but there were clauses protecting it.

Provisions in the Original Constitution

Article I, Section. 2 – Slaves count as 3/5 persons for the purpose of representation in government.

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons [i.e., slaves].

Article IV, Section. 2. – Free states cannot protect run away slaves, protection of the Fugitive Slave Act.

No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.

Limitation of slavery not abolition

Because of the constitutionality of slavery the government had no right to abolish slavery where it already existed, the only way was to limit its spread. Abraham Lincoln ran for the 1860 presidential elections on the Republican platform under which slavery would remain legal in the states where it was already established but would limit its expansion. He was not an abolitionist as many in his party were and was considered a moderate within his own party.


From the beginning of his political career, and for most of his life, Lincoln believed that colonization would provide the solution to slavery. He shared Henry Clay’s view on the principle of colonization by which free African Americans would be transported back to Africa, specifically to Liberia. He believed that in time southern slave holders would be willing to manumit their slaves if they were going back to Africa. Colonization would find support in the north as they would not have to compete with free white labor. Lincoln did not support deportation by force like many other colonists.

During his first term he issued theSecond Confiscation Act in 1862 supporting the recolonization of those African Americans willing to leave the U.S. to Liberia or other territories in Central America. Section 12 of the Second Confiscation Act stated:

“And be it further enacted, That the President of the United States is hereby authorized to make provision for the transportation, colonization, and settlement, in some tropical country beyond the limits of the United States, of such persons of the African race, made free by the provisions of this act, as may be willing to emigrate, having first obtained the consent of the government of said country to their protection and settlement within the same, with all the rights and privileges of freemen.”

He created the Bureau of Emigration under the Department of the Interior to oversee the colonization project. Lincoln abandoned the idea of colonization sometime in 1864 because it was an impractical plan. This plan never worked as freedmen did not consider Africa their homeland, they were born and raised in America.


Lincoln did not consider the Civil War as a struggle to free slaves but to keep the Union together. On March 6, 1862, as a last call to rebel states and prior to issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, the President announced its policy of compensated emancipation. This policy offered states fair indemnity for economic losses for emancipating its slaves. None of the Southern States complied, not even border states. By the end of the year Lincoln decided to free all slaves in Confederate States.

The Emancipation Proclamation (read text) was declared on January 1, 1863. It did not free all slaves, only those in rebel territory. Slaves in border states such as Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri were not freed. To Lincoln’s administration the emancipation proclamation was not based on principle but on policy. Volunteer recruitment in the Union was running low and conscription was not a popular policy. In order to win, the Union needed man power and that was provided by newly freed slaves from the south.

The Emancipation Proclamation marked a turning point in President Lincoln’s view of slavery. The fate of the 180,000 black men who joined the Union forces paved the road to citizenship to future generations of African Americans.