Skip to Main Content

Abraham Lincoln and Emancipation

Written by: Allen Guelzo, Princeton University

By the end of this section, you will:

  • Explain how Lincoln’s leadership during the Civil War impacted American ideals over the course of the war

Suggested Sequencing

Use this Decision Point in conjunction with The Rhetoric of Abraham Lincoln DBQ Lesson to have students analyze Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

No one ever doubted that Abraham Lincoln hated slavery. He said so repeatedly, from his first entrance into political life until his death. As a state representative in Illinois in 1837, he made one of his earliest motions on the floor of the Illinois legislature by resolving “that the institution of slavery is founded on both injustice and bad policy.” That slavery existed as a form of labor at all was a testimony to “the selfishness of man’s nature,” whereas “opposition to it is in his love of justice.” And years later, as president, Lincoln repeated even more forcefully, “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, although Lincoln “always hated slavery, I think as much as any Abolitionist,” he was not, in fact, an abolitionist or an advocate for the immediate liberation of all American slaves without qualifications or any form of financial compensation to their owners. By temperament he was simply suspicious of hasty solutions and all-or-nothing answers to complicated problems. “If all earthly power were given me, I should not know what to do, as to the existing institution,” he said, because the existing slave population was African American, and not only slaveowners but ordinary whites across the country harbored deeply antagonistic attitudes toward black people, free or slave. “My first impulse,” Lincoln said, “would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia, to their own native land.” But this would be impractical. “What next? Free them, and make them politically and socially, our equals?” He knew that “the great mass of white people” would never accept this, even if freedom and equality “accords with justice and sound judgment.”

Lincoln faced a momentous decision upon assuming the presidency in March 1861. The Deep South had already seceded, and civil war threatened to divide the country further. Lincoln reasoned that slavery was a grave moral evil and was greatly opposed to it. However, he was also a constitutionalist who took seriously his duties to faithfully execute the laws of the United States. The Constitution did not authorize the president to interfere with slavery where it existed in the states, as Lincoln asserted in his First Inaugural Address. Many additional considerations claimed his attention, too, such as preserving the Union, suppressing the rebellion, keeping the border states on the Union side, and maintaining the support of the North. Lincoln had to find a way to free the slaves in a lawful manner that could not simply be overturned by the Supreme Court. Therefore, as much as he personally might want to end slavery—and as much as abolitionists pressured him to act immediately—he trod a narrow path on the way to the Emancipation Proclamation.

Lincoln hoped the southern states, where legalized slavery prevailed, might adopt “systems of gradual emancipation.” And in general, he thought the best path toward eliminating slavery had to include “three main features—gradual [emancipation]—compensation—and vote of the people.” These requirements, he admitted, would make for a slow process, but slowness might have the benefit of allowing the “two races” to “gradually live themselves out of their old relation to each other, and both come out better prepared for the new.”

Still, for most of his career, Lincoln took few public steps in any of these directions. In his solitary term representing Illinois in the U.S. House of Representatives, he formulated a bill for the ending of slavery in the District of Columbia, but it was never formally introduced. He was convinced that the Constitution, as well as the restrictive legislation adopted in the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850, would inevitably ensure the “ultimate extinction of that institution.”

Figure (a), titled “The Home of the Oppressed,” shows shackled slaves walking in front of the Capitol building. Figure (b) is a picture of young Abraham Lincoln.

The existence of slavery in the nation’s capital was viewed with disgust by many antislavery proponents. (a) This drawing depicting slaves in front of the Capitol building dates from 1836. (b) After Lincoln was elected to House of Representatives in 1846, he formulated a bill to end slavery in the District. But he never introduced the bill, and he served only one term in the House.

The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 jolted Lincoln out of this complacency, because the act repealed the Missouri Compromise’s restrictions on the expansion of slavery into the western territories and opened the possibility that future states carved out of those territories could be aggressively occupied by slaveowners. “We were thunderstruck and stunned; and we reeled and fell in utter confusion,” Lincoln recalled. He joined a new antislavery political party, the Republicans, and was further shaken by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford in 1857, which seemed to allow for the reintroduction of slavery into the free states as well. In 1858, Lincoln challenged the architect of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Stephen A. Douglas, for Douglas’s U.S. Senate seat from Illinois. In the seven public debates Lincoln held with Douglas, he denounced slavery as “the same spirit” as that of “a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor.” Lincoln lost the election, but the debates made him nationally famous and led the Republicans to make him their presidential nominee in 1860.

This composite image includes a photograph of Lincoln on the left and a photograph of Douglass on the right.

This composite photographic image depicts Lincoln and Douglass at the time of their debates in the contest for the Illinois senate in 1858.

Lincoln was elected president on November 6, 1860, and almost at once, 11 of the 15 states in the American Union where slavery was legal began making threats and preparations to secede. Between December 1860 and February 1861, seven of them did secede, and they created an alternate government, the Confederate States of America. Lincoln struggled to calm the storm, reminding slaveholders that, as president, he had no authority “directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists.” But when Confederate forces bombarded the U.S. Army installation at Fort Sumter, in Charleston harbor, into submission, Lincoln denounced the attack as pure rebellion and called out “the war power of the government” to suppress the secessionists.

At first, Lincoln seemed determined to conduct the war purely as a police action, to suppress the Confederate insurrection. In August 1861, the Federal commandant of the District of Missouri, John Charles Fremont, attempted to declare martial law throughout the state and threatened to emancipate the slaves of any who resisted. Lincoln asked Fremont to revise his order to conform with the First Confiscation Act. When Fremont declined, Lincoln at once countermanded Fremont’s order, arguing that it would push Missouri (a slave state but still loyal to the Union) into the arms of the Confederates: “There is great danger that. . . the liberating slaves of traitorous owners, will alarm our Southern Union friends, and turn them against us.”

Nevertheless, Lincoln also understood that the war provided an opportunity to begin undermining slavery. In November, he proposed a federally financed buyout of the 1,700 slaves living in Delaware (another slave state that had remained in the Union), hoping this would provide a model for encouraging the emancipation of slaves in Missouri and the other two loyal slave states, Kentucky and Maryland.

These “border states,” however, threw the buyout plan back in Lincoln’s face. By July, Lincoln was convinced he needed a new strategy, and he found it in the constitutional provision that made him “Commander-in-Chief of the army and navy of the United States” (Article 2, section 2). Although the Constitution did not specify what “war powers” he possessed as commander-in-chief, Lincoln was persuaded that they must include whatever measures would effectively weaken an enemy, and emancipating the Confederacy’s slaves would surely do that. Congress had just passed a Second Confiscation Act calling on Confederates to surrender or have their slave property seized, but Lincoln thought it was of dubious legality.

On July 22, 1862, Lincoln introduced to his cabinet a preliminary draft of an Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the Confederacy’s slaves (although not the border states’ slaves) as a “military necessity.” The cabinet generally agreed, but Secretary of State William H. Seward urged Lincoln to withhold the Proclamation until the Union armies had won a significant military victory, lest the Proclamation appear to be a sign of desperation.

Figure (a) shows part of the handwritten first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. Figure (b) is a painting depicting the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation. In the center surrounding a table are Abraham Lincoln, Gideon Welles, and William Seward, who sits with his legs crossed. Abraham Lincoln holds the document and a pen. Other leaders fill the room.

The first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation Lincoln shared with his cabinet in July 1862 was written in his own handwriting. (b) New York artist Francis Bicknell Carpenter deeply respected Lincoln and painted his “First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Lincoln” in 1864, two years after Lincoln had shared the draft with his cabinet. Secretary of State Seward, who advised the president to wait for a Union victory before issuing the Proclamation, is shown with crossed legs, facing Lincoln.

Lincoln relented. But as soon as Union forces had checked an attempted invasion of Maryland at the Battle of Antietam in September 1862, Lincoln believed the time had come. As he explained to his cabinet, once the rebels had been driven out of Maryland, he had made a “vow” to God “to issue a Proclamation of Emancipation.” The “rebel army is now driven out,” he said, “I am going to fulfil that promise.” Lincoln had concluded that “God had decided this question in favor of the slaves. He was satisfied it was right,” and “was confirmed and strengthened in his action by the vow and the results.” On September 22, he released the Proclamation with a warning that unless the Confederates submitted by January 1, 1863, the Proclamation would go into effect. The rebels only scoffed, and on January 1, 1863, Lincoln signed the Proclamation into law.

The cartoon shows a man in a tree labeled “slavery.” Another man (Lincoln) is holding an ax in the air, ready to cut the tree down. The caption reads “Lincoln’s Last Warning. ‘Now, if you don’t come down, I’ll cut the Tree from under you.’”

This political cartoon, depicting the Emancipation Proclamation as Lincoln’s last warning to the South, appeared in Harper’s Weekly in October 1862. If the rebel does not come down (surrender), then Lincoln will destroy the tree of slavery with the Proclamation.

The Proclamation had its limitations, especially because it emancipated only those enslaved people in territory still under Confederate control. In other words, emancipation became a reality once these territories were retaken by Union forces. Because it was a “war powers” measure, and the border states were not at war with the government, slaves in the border states remained slaves. Nor was the Proclamation a particularly eloquent document, like the Gettysburg Address, but Lincoln feared intervention from a federal court system that still had strong adherents of Dred Scott thinking on its benches. Lincoln suspected Chief Justice Roger Taney would overturn the Proclamation and that his constitutional power over slavery would end when the war ended. Many people believed he intended the proclamation only as a bargaining chip for negotiations with the Confederates.

Lincoln, in fact, had no intention of either bargaining with the Confederates or rescinding the Proclamation. “I should be damned in time & in eternity for so doing,” he insisted. He assured Confederate representatives that he would “never would change or modify the terms of the proclamation in the slightest particular.” He told a general in July that “I think it is valid in law, and will be so held by the courts.” But even if not, “I think I shall not retract or repudiate it. Those who shall have tasted actual freedom I believe can never be slaves, or quasi slaves again.”

If anything, Lincoln looked for ways to make the Proclamation permanent, opening recruitment in the Union army to black volunteers, making acceptance of the Proclamation a condition for the restoration of the Union, urging new state governments in the South to consider giving freed men the vote, and ultimately pushing through Congress an amendment to the Constitution that abolished slavery everywhere in the United States. The Proclamation thus became not only a monument on the path to freedom but the culmination of Lincoln’s lifelong abhorrence of slavery.

Review Questions

1. Lincoln’s first political act, which demonstrated his hatred of slavery, was

  1. formulating a bill to end slavery in the District of Columbia
  2. pushing the Thirteenth Amendment through Congress
  3. proposing a resolution in the Illinois legislature that included a denunciation of slavery
  4. opening recruitment in the Union Army to black volunteers

2. Lincoln’s strong feelings against the institution of slavery were reinforced by the issuance of the

  1. Compromise of 1850
  2. Fugitive Slave Act
  3. novel titled Uncle Tom’s Cabin
  4. Dred Scott decision

3. Lincoln’s first move as president for emancipating slaves was

  1. a military order in Missouri
  2. a federally financed buyout of slaveholders in Delaware
  3. congressional legislation
  4. a request for a favorable Supreme Court decision

4. Lincoln believed the best path toward eliminating slavery should include all the following except

  1. gradual emancipation
  2. compensation for slaveholders
  3. voluntary emancipation
  4. abolition and deportation of slaves to Africa

5. Lincoln waited until the fall of 1862 to issue the Emancipation Proclamation because

  1. he had agreed to wait for a Union military victory
  2. Congress was not yet in session
  3. he had been waiting for the slaves to stage a rebellion
  4. the border states petitioned him to wait

6. The Emancipation Proclamation did not free the slaves of the border states, because

  1. those states had declared their neutrality in the Civil War
  2. the Proclamation applied only to the states at war with the United States
  3. Lincoln was not interested in the slaves of the border states
  4. the border states threatened to sue in federal court

Free Response Questions

  1. Explain the evolution of President Lincoln’s stance on slavery.
  2. Explain why Lincoln waited until January 1, 1863—a year and a half into the Civil War—to free the slaves.

AP Practice Questions

“If I were to suggest anything it would be that as the North are already for the measure, we should urge it persuasively, and not menacingly, upon the South. I am a little uneasy about the abolishment of slavery in this District, not but I would be glad to see it abolished, but as to the time and manner of doing it. If some one or more of the border-states would move fast, I should greatly prefer it; but if this can not be in a reasonable time, I would like the bill to have the three main features—gradual—compensation—and vote of the people—I do not talk to members of congress on the subject, except when they ask me. I am not prepared to make any suggestion about confiscation. I may drop you a line hereafter. Yours truly A. LINCOLN”

Abraham Lincoln, “Letter to Honorable Horace Greeley,” March 24, 1862

Refer to the excerpt provided.

1. The phrase “vote of the people” in the excerpted letter suggests Lincoln’s solution to the slavery issue would be decided by

  1. presidential decree
  2. an act of Congress
  3. a poll of slaveholders
  4. a Supreme Court decision

2. Based on the letter, Lincoln’s ideas regarding emancipation were less radical than those of which of the following?

  1. Henry Clay
  2. John C. Calhoun
  3. Daniel Webster
  4. William Lloyd Garrison

Primary Sources

Lincoln, Abraham. “Drafts of a Bill for Compensated Emancipation in Delaware.” November 1861.;view=fulltext

Lincoln, Abraham. “Peoria Speech, October 16, 1854.”

Lincoln, Abraham. “To Albert G. Hodges.” April 4, 1864.

Lincoln, Abraham. “To Horace Greeley.” March 24, 1862.;view=fulltext

Lincoln, Abraham. “To Stephen A. Hurlbut.” July 31, 1863.;view=fulltext

The Emancipation Proclamation. National Archives.

Suggested Resources

Franklin, John Hope. The Emancipation Proclamation. Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, 1963.

Guelzo, Allen C. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004.

Masur, Louis P. Lincoln’s Hundred Days: The Emancipation Proclamation and the War for the Union. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012.

Related Content