Look Out Below – Lincoln and His Changing Views on Slavery


Nine out of ten times, when people think of Abraham Lincoln, they immediately think of him as the man who sought to end and accomplished ending slavery. However, while Lincoln was the one to give the Emancipation Proclamation as well as the Gettysburg Address, and while he and his administration did ultimately pass the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, the slaves did a lot themselves, especially in getting the ball rolling for their freedom.

Early on in the Civil War, fugitive slaves were beginning to become a big annoyance for the Union. They held great excitement – since the Union was at war with the place that they would be returned to upon their being found, they believed that they would be free in the North. In his letter to the secretary of war, General Ambrose Burnside wrote concerning fugitives overrunning towns, “They seem to be wild with excitement and delight – they are now a source of very great anxiety to us; the city is being overrun with fugitives from surrounding towns and plantations” Their presence was becoming a serious problem and a decision needed to be made. Lincoln responded by reversing the Dred Scott Decision, meaning that the federal government could now regulate slavery, and also by abolishing the Fugitive Slave Act. These two steps toward freedom for blacks were indeed achieved by the blacks themselves.

This is not to say that Lincoln did nothing to bring about the abolition of slavery. However, it was more a political move than a moral one. In the beginning of the war, Lincoln’s aim was to preserve the Union, although he gave two main reasons why he was not doing more for the issue of slavery. His first being that if he said abolishing slavery was the goal of the war, border states would join the Confederacy. His second was if he announced the above goal, he would lose many of his high-ranking officers because they were not fighting because of slavery at all, but rather for the preservation of the Union. As the war progressed, though, and Union forces were advancing into the South, and thousands of slaves were becoming the responsibility of the federal government, and many troops were dying, Lincoln needed a reason that justified his war, as many were losing faith in the “Preservation of the Union” message.  This gave Lincoln the perfect opportunity to issue the Emancipation Proclamation – not only did it change the goal of the war, but it forced England and France to side with the Union, as they could not support the Confederacy, those countries having abolished slavery already.

 In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln stated that the first priority was to save the Union, and giving freedom to slaves came second.  In his second inaugural address however, Lincoln stated that the goal of the war was to settle the debate about slavery, that the official state on slavery was to stop it from spreading, as well as explaining his moral opposition to slavery, saying that God caused the bloody conflict that was the Civil War as a punishment for carrying on slavery.

Throughout the course of the war, Lincoln’s position on slavery changed based on what was most strategically viable at the time. Slaves played a big role in this by being a nuisance to the government and simply by being in an awkward position when the South was on the losing side. Thus, in the case of slavery, freedom came from both above and below.



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