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Think About It: Was Lincoln an Abolitionist?

Think About It: Was Lincoln an Abolitionist?

Author: Sophia Tutorial

Given several statements, determine which best characterizes Abraham Lincoln's views on slavery.

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what's covered
The acquisition of new western territories, the political crises of the 1850s, the presidential election of 1860, and the secession of the southern states caused sectional tension over slavery to explode. At the center of the turmoil was Republican president Abraham Lincoln, who faced the unenviable task of holding together a Union that no longer seemed to want unity.

This tutorial explains Lincoln’s public position on slavery as a young Illinois politician, a Whig Congressman, and as a Republican Congressman and Presidential candidate in the late 1850s:

  1. Lincoln in his Early Years
  2. Lincoln on the Kansas-Nebraska Act
  3. The Lincoln-Douglas Debates

1. Lincoln in his Early Years

Abraham Lincoln was born in a one-room log cabin in Kentucky in 1809. Kentucky was a slave state populated by small farmers and independent producers, not large slaveholders. His family later moved to Indiana and, when he was 21, moved again to Illinois. Both states had been organized under the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which prohibited slavery. Lincoln spent his childhood and entire adult life, with the exception of his time in Washington D.C., living in the border regions between slave and free states.

did you know
Lincoln’s parents were strict Calvinists who opposed slavery, but his father’s uncle owned 43 slaves, and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, belonged to one of the leading slaveholding families in Kentucky.

Lincoln’s most direct encounter with slavery came between 1828 and 1831, when he helped transport surplus farm produce from Illinois to New Orleans by way of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. On his journeys, it can be assumed that Lincoln encountered slaves working the large cotton and sugar plantations along the Mississippi River. In New Orleans, he experienced a diverse and vibrant city of 50,000 people, including 17,000 slaves and 12,000 free blacks.

These experiences, and later excursions through slaveholding states, had a strong impact on the young Lincoln and helped shape his views on slavery. In a letter to his friend Joshua Speed in 1855, he wrote the following:

Abraham Lincoln, Letter to Joshua Speed

“In 1841 you and I had together a tedious low-water trip, on a Steam Boat from Louisville to St. Louis. You may remember, as I well do, that from Louisville to the mouth of the Ohio there were, on board, ten or a dozen slaves, shackled together with irons. That sight was a continual torment to me; and I see something like it every time I touch the Ohio, or any other slave-border. It is hardly fair for you to assume, that I have no interest in a thing which has, and continually exercises, the power of making me miserable. You ought rather to appreciate how much the great body of the Northern people do crucify their feelings, in order to maintain their loyalty to the constitution and the Union.”
did you know
As president, Lincoln would state “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel."

As a member of the Illinois state legislature in the 1830s and later, as a Whig member of the House of Representatives from 1847-1849, Lincoln developed a moderate antislavery stance that combined free labor ideology with moral opposition to the institution:

  • He believed that slavery was unjust because it deprived blacks the opportunity for self-improvement and degraded the dignity (and wages) of white workers. Moreover, he believed that sectional tensions over slavery limited the nation’s economic potential by distracting government from economic development and investment in internal improvements.
  • He supported measures to prevent slavery’s spread into western territories (including the Wilmot Proviso), and to limit slavery in the District of Columbia, but did not believe that the federal government had the Constitutional authority to interfere with slavery or slave owners’ property rights in areas where it existed.
think about it
When Lincoln writes in his letter to Joshua Speed, “You ought rather to appreciate how much the great body of the Northern people do crucify their feelings,” does he include himself in that body?

2. Lincoln on the Kansas Nebraska Act

Lincoln's arguments against slavery began to crystallize in 1854, following passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

term to know
Kansas-Nebraska Act
Created the territories of Kansas and Nebraska; applied the principle of popular sovereignty to both territories, which meant that the settlers of these territories would decide whether to adopt slavery.

The Act’s implications for the westward expansion of slavery alarmed Lincoln. In 1854, he spoke out against the Act and its champion in Congress, Stephen A. Douglas. His speeches made Lincoln a nationally-recognized politician with a reputation for stirring oratory.

In a speech in Peoria, Illinois in 1854, Lincoln stated his moral, political and legal arguments against slavery and popular sovereignty. Read the two excerpts from this speech, below:

Abraham Lincoln, Excerpt from Speech in Peoria, Illinois (1854)

“Equal justice to the south, it is said, requires us to consent to the extending of slavery to new countries. That is to say, inasmuch as you do not object to my taking my hog to Nebraska, therefore I must not object to you taking your slave. Now, I admit this is perfectly logical, if there is no difference between hogs and negroes. But while you thus require me to deny the humanity of the negro, I wish to ask whether you of the south yourselves, have ever been willing to do as much? . . . there are in the United States and territories, including the District of Columbia, 433,643 free blacks. At $500 per head they are worth over two hundred millions of dollars. How comes this vast amount of property to be running about without owners? We do not see free horses or free cattle running at large. How is this? All these free blacks are the descendants of slaves, or have been slaves themselves, and they would be slaves now, but for SOMETHING which has operated on their white owners, inducing them, at vast pecuniary sacrifices, to liberate them.”
think about it
Who and what is Lincoln referring to when he says “you thus require me to deny the humanity of the negro”?

“But one great argument in the support of the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, is still to come. That argument is “the sacred right of self government.” . . . The doctrine of self government is right — absolutely and eternally right — but it has no just application, as here attempted. Or perhaps I should rather say that whether it has such just application depends upon whether a negro is not or is a man. If he is not a man, why in that case, he who is a man may, as a matter of self-government, do just as he pleases with him. But if the negro is a man, is it not to that extent, a total destruction of self-government, to say that he too shall not govern himself? When the white man governs himself, and also governs another man, that is more than self-government--that is despotism. If the negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that "all men are created equal . . .”.”

think about it
How does Lincoln feel about the popular sovereignty, or “the sacred right of self-government”, in relation to the slavery question?
What do you think Lincoln had in mind when he said there is “SOMETHING which has operated on their white owners”? Could it be more than one thing?

By 1854, Lincoln clearly envisioned and desired a future without slavery. He shared the goal of abolitionists, but differed from militants like William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass in that he opposed civic, social, and political equality for blacks. “My own feelings will not admit of this,” he stated, “and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not.”

did you know
As a member of the Illinois state legislature, Lincoln voted to uphold restrictions that barred black men from voting in the state.

Like many of his contemporaries, Lincoln disliked slavery but did not know how to end it or what to do with slaves once they were freed. He confessed as much in his speech when he said “If all earthly power were given to me, I should not know what to do, as to the existing institution. My first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia,” a reference to political efforts that began with the American Colonization Society in 1816 to resettle freed slaves in Africa.

Lincoln ultimately settled on a combination of voluntary, gradual emancipation, and federal compensation of slave owners for their lost property, as the best way to end slavery. He would promote his plan throughout the first years of the Civil War. In the meantime, he helped organize a new Republican party around the principle of the non-extension of slavery.

3. The Lincoln-Douglas Debates

In 1856 Lincoln abandoned the Whigs and threw his support to the Republican Party, which pledged itself to preventing the spread of slavery into the western territories. Distressed by the violence in Kansas, and the Supreme Court’s decision in Dred Scott, Lincoln ran for the U.S. Senate against Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas in 1858.

Throughout 1857 and 1858, Lincoln followed Stephen Douglas around Illinois, delivering speeches in towns Douglas had previously visited. He accused Douglas of conspiring with the “Slave Power” to promote slavery, and attacked the Supreme Court’s decision in the Dred Scott case as a violation of the spirit of the Declaration of Independence. Douglas eventually agreed to a series of formal debates against Lincoln, known as the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, which took place in Illinois the fall of 1858.

term to know
Lincoln-Douglas Debates
Seven debates between Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas and Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln in which they argued the issue of slavery and its expansion.

In 1858, Abraham Lincoln (a) debated Stephen Douglas (b) seven times in the Illinois race for the U.S. Senate. Although Douglas won the election, the debates propelled Lincoln into the national political spotlight.

In the debates, Lincoln reiterated his position on the immorality of slavery and its affront to republican principles, as well as his rejection of full political and civil rights for blacks, including the right to vote, hold political office, serve on juries, and intermarry with whites. He had come to see the battle between slavery and freedom as imminent, and one in which there could only be a single victor.

He made this point most clearly in his “House Divided” speech, delivered in Springfield, Illinois at the Republican State Convention in 1858. Here is an excerpt from that speech:

Abraham Lincoln, Excerpt from his "House Divided" Speech

“If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it. We are now far into the fifth year, since a policy was initiated, with the avowed object, and confident promise, of putting an end to slavery agitation. Under the operation of that policy, that agitation has not only, not ceased, but has constantly augmented. In my opinion, it will not cease, until a crisis shall have been reached, and passed. "A house divided against itself cannot stand." I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved -- I do not expect the house to fall -- but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.

Either the opponents of slavery, will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new -- North as well as South.

Have we no tendency to the latter condition?”
think about it
  1. What is Lincoln referring to when he says “a policy was initiated, with the avowed object, and confident promise, of putting an end to slavery agitation”?
  2. What evidence from the 1850s would support Lincoln’s statement of the nation’s “tendency to the latter condition”? What about evidence from before the 1850s?
  3. Why does Lincoln think the nation cannot endure half slave and half free?

Lincoln interpreted the Dred Scott decision and the Kansas-Nebraska Act as efforts to nationalize slavery: to make it legal everywhere in the United States. The Supreme Court ruled that the federal government did not have the authority to ban slavery from any territory, nor violate slave owners’ property rights by granting freedom to slaves who resided in a free state. “We shall lie down,” he cautioned, "dreaming that the people of Missouri are on the verge of making their State free; and we shall awake to the reality, instead, that the Supreme Court has made Illinois a slave State.”

In his final debate with Douglas in October, 1858, Lincoln likened slavery to a cancer overspreading the body of the Union:

Abraham Lincoln, Final Debate with Stephen Douglas

“What is it that we hold most dear amongst us? Our own liberty and prosperity. What has ever threatened our liberty and prosperity save and except this institution of Slavery? If this is true, how do you propose to improve the condition of things by enlarging Slavery — by spreading it out and making it bigger? You may have a wen or cancer upon your person and not be able to cut it out lest you bleed to death; but surely it is no way to cure it, to engraft it and spread it over your whole body. That is no proper way of treating what you regard a wrong.”


If you were a southern slave owner, how would you feel about the election of Lincoln as president in 1860? Would you believe his promises to leave slavery alone in areas where it existed?
Lincoln’s views on slavery were complex, evolving, and ultimately incomplete (cut short by his assassination in 1865). As a moderate, antislavery Whig turned Republican, Lincoln’s perspective was informed by the region in which he grew up, the dominant racial attitudes of the time, and the free labor ideology of his fellow northerners. Although he lost the election of 1858 to Douglas, he won the presidency two years later. As southern states seceded and the Civil War began, Lincoln found himself required to not just talk about limiting slavery, but to act on it.

This tutorial curated and/or authored by Matthew Pearce, Ph.D

Source: All Abraham Lincoln writings retrieved from The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. The Abraham Lincoln Association. Retrieved February 16, 2017, from Individuals may freely copy these texts for personal use, research, and teaching., Derived from Openstax tutorial 14.3 Some sections edited or removed for brevity.

Terms to Know
Kansas-Nebraska Act

Created the territories of Kansas and Nebraska; applied the principle of popular sovereignty to both territories, which meant that the settlers of these territories would decide whether to adopt slavery

Lincoln-Douglas Debates

Seven debates between Democratic senator Stephen Douglas and Republican hopeful Abraham Lincoln where the two men argued the central issue of slavery and its expansion

People to Know
Abraham Lincoln

Prominent antislavery politician in the 1850s and Republican presidential candidate in the election of 1860; his victory led to the secession of the Confederate States of America from the Union and the eventual outbreak of the Civil War; author of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Dates to Know

Abraham Lincoln is born in Kentucky.

1847 - 1849

Lincoln serves as a member of the House of Representatives during the Mexican-American War.


Congress passes the Kansas-Nebraska Act; The Republican Party forms.


The Dred Scott Supreme Court decision rules that African Americans are not American citizens.


Abraham Lincoln runs against Stephen Douglas for U.S. Senate; The Lincoln-Douglas Debates involves the issue of slavery and its expansion. 


Republican Abraham Lincoln wins the Election of 1860; South Carolina secedes.