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Abraham Lincoln is well known in the American history for this role in the abolition of slavery and many a historians believe that Lincoln transformed from being a moderate to being an abolitionist#. He was a visionary leader who crusaded for the emancipation of slaves during the American Civil War. Undoubtedly, Lincoln hated the slavery institution but by the time he took office, his position towards abolition was more radical as compared to the position of an abolitionist. He might have been deeply opposed to the issue of slavery but his gradual actions depict that he was not an abolitionist and he only became an abolitionist after being pushed by circumstances. For instance, Lincoln campaigned against the issue of slavery spreading into new territories and states having in mind that the American Constitution did not support outright elimination of slavery. His first inaugural speech did not mention anything to do with abolition of slavery but he did not hesitate in reminding Southerners and Northerners that they were friends and not enemies. His position regarding slavery was not only influenced by the Constitution but also his support for the union. However, his actions and reactions towards prove that he was a gradualist and an abolitionist at the same time.

Lincoln's abolitionist views developed from the effects brought about by the American Civil War. In the fall of 1861 and again in the spring of 1862, he had disallowed the orders of field commanders who sought to free slaves in areas occupied by their forces, thus angering abolitionists and the strongly antislavery Republicans known as Radicals#. In 1862, Lincoln's cabinet was surprised by his decision of issuing an emancipation proclamation that proclaimed the freedom of slaves. In this emancipation, Lincoln stressed that he supported the idea of compensated emancipation and the restoration of the Union but did not plan to abolish slavery entirely#. In his defense against criticisms for failing to abolish slavery in all regions, Abraham Lincoln argued that the power and authority to end slavery was bestowed upon Border States and the Congress. In a tentative move toward emancipation, Congress in July 1862 authorized the government to confiscate the slaves of masters who supported the Confederacy#. This decision was intended to put pressure on the southern government and provide a source of manpower for the union.

Lincoln's attitudes clearly distinguished him from abolitionists although he openly advocated for the abolition of slavery by acknowledging the rights of slaves. Were it not for the effects brought by the civil war, Lincoln had done nothing to end slavery. Instead, he cited that the Constitution had the authority to protect slavery but not the president. If Lincoln was an abolitionist, he could have denounced the constitutional authority of protecting slavery by repudiating it. True abolitionists were more concerned with ending slavery in all regions but Lincoln's agenda during his ran to office in 1860 promised not to disturb slavery in regions where it existed. Lincoln also believed that as the president, he was constitutionally bound not deal with issues relating to slavery. This could be evidenced in the letter he wrote to New York Tribune editor, Horace Greeley, that if he had the powers of saving the Union without letting any slave free he would and similarly, he would not object if he had the powers of saving the Union by freeing some slaves and letting others free#.

Even though slavery was morally wrong in Lincoln's eyes, he believed that slave-owners were not inherently evil. This can be evidenced from his 1854 Peoria speech when he argued that slave-owners owned slaves because slavery existed during their time and that they (slave-owners) should not be blamed for the act of owning slaves#. Instead of agitating for the speedy removal of slavery, Lincoln developed prudent plans intended for preventing the spread of slavery believing that slavery would eventually expire if it were prevented from expanding into other territories. His election to presidency was marred by disagreements with abolitionists over the issue of secession of southern states. Lincoln acted gradually by urging abolitionists to wait until the government made popular support for addressing the issue of slavery. This led to the use of emancipation to end slavery on military grounds#.

The gradual emancipation of slaves shows that Lincoln managed to transform from being a gradualist into becoming an abolitionist. His reluctance to take prompt actions regarding the abolition of slavery is an issue that made Lincoln's rule to be subjected to many debates in addition to receiving varied interpretations from historians. During the Douglas-Lincoln debates of 1858, Lincoln publicly showed his anti-slavery sentiments but was heavily criticized for failing to be consistent in his fight against slavery. Douglas argued that Lincoln tailored his agendas and stands on slavery based on political grounds. The anti-slavery sentiments were also believed to attract appeals from the Northern audiences who were more opposed to slavery. The Emancipation of slavery was an issue that Lincoln preserved secretly and treated the matter with utmost care.

In Early 1862, Lincoln broached the Emancipation subject to his cabinet who were surprised by his decision. Interestingly, Seward H. William, the US Secretary of State at the time had cautioned him against announcing the emancipation by urged Lincoln to delay the announcement until the stabilization of military fortunes because the proclamation of freed slaves could be viewed as a move towards desperation#. The Battle of Antietam in September 1862, led to the preliminary issuance of the proclamation for emancipation. Early January 1963 marked the implementation of the emancipation order whereby all slaves had to be freed in all regions that opposed the federal government#. Once more, Abraham Lincoln repeated his position of preserving the Union as opposed to the entire abolition of slavery. In this regard, Lincoln argued that compensated emancipation was the best solution.

The Emancipation Proclamation was received by mixed reactions including the Republicans who feared that the emancipation would weaken the support of the Party when it came to polls. Additionally, Northern workers were concerned that the emancipation would make them to lose their jobs. After supporting its inclusion as a central plank in the Republican platform of 1864, Lincoln used all his influence to win congressional approval for the new Thirteenth Amendment#. The Thirteenth Amendment did provide a solution when it was ratified in 1865#. According to the Amendment, Lincoln used his power to order and declare the freedom of slaves.


Lincoln's attitudes towards slavery changed significantly throughout his presidential term but he played a major role in helping the federal government to end slavery in addition to enabling him champion for the rights of blacks. Even though his earlier years in office were characterized by reluctance to make reforms, Lincoln's attitudes and plans seemed to be calculated and planned as evidenced from the gradual change in decisions. He did begin by fighting against the spread of slavery to different US territories and went to the extent of offering compensated emancipation. He used the presidential war powers to issue Emancipation Proclamation during the American Civil War. He justified the final proclamation as an act of 'military necessity' sanctioned by the war powers of the president, and he authorized enlistment of freed slaves in the Union army#.

Lincoln's attitudes clearly distinguished him from abolitionists although he openly advocated for the abolition of slavery by acknowledging the rights of slaves. Although Abraham Lincoln did not openly support abolitionism, his gradual actions towards the end to slavery prove that he was an abolitionist and a gradualist at the same time. His role in the abolition of slavery makes his position towards slavery to be questioned but many a historians believe that Lincoln grew from a moderate to an abolitionist.


Blair, Jayne E. The Essential Civil War: A Handbook to the Battles, Armies, Navies, and Commanders, 2006

Leland, Godfrey Charles. Abraham Lincoln and the abolition of Slavery in the United States 1881. G.P Putnam's sons, 2007

Michael Vorenberg. Final Freedom: The Civil War, the Abolition of Slavery, and the Thirteenth Amendment 2001

Sebastian, N. Page, "Lincoln on Race," American Nineteenth Century History, Vol. 11, No. 1, March 2010

UMUC History. Retrieving the Past UMUC for HIST 156. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education, n.d.

Wendell Phillips to William H. Herndon, undated, Douglas L. Wilson, and Rodney O. Davis, eds., Herndon's Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998, 704.