Okay so Abraham Lincoln is my absolute favorite President to study, and he’s also one of the most misunderstood Presidents when it comes to common knowledge.
See, about half of the people I talk to want to give Lincoln credit for freeing the slaves, and that’s not entirely accurate, since the abolition movement was centuries-old, and, like most of the good things Lincoln did for black people, he wouldn’t have been able to do them if Frederick Douglass hadn’t told him how.
The other half of people talk about Lincoln like he didn’t give a shit about the institution of slavery, but that he used abolition as a means to defeat the Confederacy and bring them back into the Union. This is also not true. Lincoln was a staunch, lifelong abolitionist who abhorred slavery and fought through his political campaign to limit its spread and, if possible, to put an end to it. He generally tried to distance himself from the label of “abolitionist,” because that would be like a political candidate today identifying as a socialist in terms of voter reaction, but he openly believed slavery to be an evil institution which would need to be dismantled.
The truth lies somewhere in between the two things. Lincoln knew slavery was wrong, and he did not see any moral gray area there, but he also initially did not see the war between the states as a war over the issue of slavery, and entertained the notion that the issue of abolition could be resolved diplomatically after reunification.
However, following a series of tips from his close friend and advisor Frederick Douglass, as well as some harsh, but clever and fair, criticisms by Harriet Tubman, Lincoln would realize that he needed to grow a backbone on the slavery issue and actually do something about it.
As a result, he delivered the Emancipation Proclamation, which, contrary to popular belief, did not actually free any slaves.
What the Emancipation Proclamation did do was deliver what was essentially an executive order that would grant freedom to all slaves in rebel states. Of course, the rebel states were not currently under Lincoln’s authority (hence “rebel”), meaning they would not be enforcing this proclamation, but it was essentially a message to the southern states.
Lincoln had previously said that victory would be when the south came back under the Union flag, regardless of what happened with slavery. With the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln was changing the conditions for victory: a victory could only be achieved if the southern states repatriated to the Union, and now the only way they could repatriate was if they agreed to grant freedom to their slaves.
Of course, when the Union eventually did achieve victory, this would be one of the conditions of the Confederate surrender: the traitor states could only be re-admitted to the Union if they ratified the constitution amendment abolishing slavery. To credit Lincoln entirely with the abolition of slavery would do a disservice to all the people who struggled for it for centuries, but it would also be wrong to take Lincoln out of the equation entirely.
He had a part in abolition, but if you can imagine abolition as a gun, then people had been assembling it, calibrating the sights, and loading it for centuries, and only handed it to Lincoln because he was the first person who had the power to pull the trigger and was willing to do so.
The abolitionist movement freed the slaves. That movement was full of people like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, people who were enslaved or had escaped slavery, and Lincoln’s role in the end of slavery was doing what these people told him to do, and lending his power as President to their cause.
Now, to come back to the images above. In the top image, you see Stephen Douglas (not to be confused with Frederick Douglass), who was a political rival of Mr. Lincoln. Their seven three-hour debates on the topic of slavery were so captivating that they earned Lincoln the presidential nomination for the 1860 election.
The bottom image shows a young Abraham Lincoln, saying what was more or less his core argument in all seven debates. While Douglas argued for “popular sovereignty” that would allow states to decide on their own whether or not they wanted slavery, Lincoln would argue in reply that slavery was an abhorrent evil that divided our nation, and that it didn’t matter what the states wanted in terms of slavery, since “popular sovereignty” that allowed some to decide on other’s behalf whether they would be held in bondage was not true popular sovereignty, and that the states should not even have the option of voting to uphold such an inherently evil institution.
The images are taken from Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. As a historian who’s studied Lincoln for business and pleasure, I can say that, with the exception of the vampires, it is actually a rather historically accurate film in terms of Lincoln’s character.