For Lincoln, opposition to slavery a slow build

John O'Neill

One hundred and fifty years since he was assassinated (on April 14, 1865), Abraham Lincoln is considered by many historians as our greatest president. The praise Lincoln garners from historians borders on deification.

To be sure, Lincoln was by any measure a great president. He abolished slavery and restored the Union. And he accomplished these feats in the face of great adversity.

But Lincoln was also very human. His opposition to slavery was a work in progress throughout the Civil War. Indeed, as president-elect from 1860-61, Lincoln tried to assure southern slave states that he had no intention of abolishing slavery, vowing that he only intended to contain slavery to the states where it already existed.

As for the Civil War itself, Lincoln stressed in the early years that his only aim was to preserve the Union. He went so far as to say he would make every state a free state or make every state a slave state or make some free states and others slave states, depending on which measure advanced the cause of his beloved Union.

Yet Lincoln would in time become a dedicated abolitionist. His turning point was the Emancipation Proclamation, the executive order issued on Jan. 1, 1863. Lincoln claimed authority to issue the order as a war measure afforded the president. Viewing human cargo of slaves as a war resource harbored by the Confederate states, Lincoln sought to deprive the Confederacy of this resource.

The problem with the Emancipation Proclamation is that it did not apply to the four slave states which remained in the Union (Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware). Indeed, in these states were by no means marginal numbers who sympathized with the Confederacy (including John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated Lincoln and was from Maryland).

What moved Lincoln from his pragmatic opposition to slavery to moral opposition was the sight of former slaves in the ranks of the Union Army. Lincoln stressed that the former slaves in the Union Army could not be expected to fight if they weren’t fighting for their own freedom.

The odyssey in Lincoln’s opposition to slavery put him on course to guide through Congress the 13th Amendment prior to the end of the war in 1865, thereby stamping out slavery throughout the land. Lincoln had come a long way from his position at the beginning of the war when his sole purpose was to preserve the Union.

But whereas Lincoln is praised by historians today, his contemporaries were hyper-critical. Lincoln found himself the object of scorn between ardent abolitionists and pro-slavery forces in both the North and South. One journalist, New York abolitionist Horace Greeley, criticized Lincoln from both sides of the issue, denouncing early in the war Lincoln’s seeming indifference to slavery then later in the war denouncing Lincoln for being on an anti-slavery crusade.

Of course, even unfair criticism is part of the job in politics. And presidential politics is by no means an exception. But Lincoln possessed an all too rare ability to endure criticism and not let it be his guide. That Lincoln was able to maintain this trait at the most crucial juncture in this nation’s history ensures his place as one of the great presidents and earns for him our praise 150 years after his death.

John O’Neill is an Allen Park freelance writer. He has a degree in history from Wayne State University.