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The Lincoln Myth

Updated on December 31, 2014

Lincoln's Real Position on Slavery

For over a century and a half Abraham Lincoln has been studied, admired and deemed as a larger than life character who played a pivotal role in keeping the United States whole. He freed millions who were once in bondage and by doing so lost his life for a cause greater than himself. For the most part that would be a correct assessment of history; however, over the years people have forgotten his true stance on the issue of which he is famous for.

Without question, Lincoln desired an America that was free for all men, in all places, throughout the country but to what extent he was willing to go to make such a dream possible is debatable. We all know the outcome of what transpired but it was in all actuality the war that brought about the end of slavery and not who was in the oval office. The reasons for its abolishment were many but two reasons in particular stand out as key factors in Lincoln's decision to execute the Emancipation Proclamation during his presidency. One of these reasons was to destroy the southern economy to such an extent that their war effort could not be sustained. The second reason was to rid the country of the very problem that brought about the conflict in the first place; as a means to help ease the tensions between the states on both sides once the war was over. The slavery issue had to be completely dealt with and eradicated if the country was to heal. Such quarrels over the issue had been detrimental to its foundation and Lincoln sought to rid the land of such discord, of which was brought about by this one barbaric practice.

There was no denying Lincoln had a strong disdain for slavery. He spoke on many occasions against the practice not just in public but in private conversations as well. His personal views on the subject never changed as he believed it to be a cruel and unjust policy; something a civilized society should shun not embrace. His belief was that no man should be placed in chains because of the color of his skin. His views on slavery were progressive for his time, even though, it was a mindset that was shared by many of his northern brethren. Sadly his belief that slavery should be abolished was partially responsible for what drove the southern states to succeed from the Union, which inevitably brought about the Civil War. Ironic that he gets credit for keeping the Union together but doesn't get blame for being the very thing that tore it apart in the first place.

During the 1860 Republican Convention, the Republican Party's platform was based around stopping the plague of slavery from spreading to the newly formed states in the western territories. Sectionalism amongst those serving in the federal government brought about the Kansas-Nebraska Act which allowed the newly formed states the rights to choose whether or not slavery would be legalized. This law played a crucial role in instigating a conflict between the north and south as it basically repealed the Missouri Compromise which was created to regulate slavery in the western territories. Lincoln was one of many who adamantly oppoed this compromise, as it was clearly biased, since only free, white men could vote. This automatically gave those supporting slavery the advantage, something that ruffled the feathers of Lincoln and others who supported the abolitionist philosophy.

This Election of 1860 was significant as it marked the divide of the country as a whole. Slavery was not abolished in the Northern states because they felt it was a despicable practice but only because the Northern and Midwestern states had become more industrialized compared to that of the south. This industrialization led to an economic philosophy built on free labor capital which grew leaps and bounds and along with it the newly formed Republican Party began to take root in the hearts and minds of this section of the United States. The republicans had presented an alternative to the pro-slavery democrats whose base was primarily in the southern states.

Before the election even began the highly favored Democratic Party suffered a break amongst its constituents bringing about two democratic challengers. This split would prove significant to the final outcome of the election as it gave the underdog Lincoln a path to the White House. During the run-up to the election Lincoln's challengers tried to paint him as an abolitionist, a claim he fervently denied. While there was little doubt that Lincoln opposed slavery he ran a campaign based off of stopping its advances not abolishing it all-together. That was a campaign promise he would eventually rineg on.

Many historians believe that the slavery issue was the one major factor that led to the demise of the Union after the election of Lincoln in 1860, however, if he was sincere about keeping his campaign promise of hindering but not abolishing slavery then this would mean that while he was not an advocate of slavery, he certainly had no intention of abolishing it altogether. Making the argument that states rights a plausible key factor of many Southern states breaking free.

His campaign promises doesn't paint him as a champion for the abolitionists movement like many claim him to be. In fact, one could imagine and rightfully so, slavery extending well past his presidency if the south had not seceded. Slavery was a touchy issue and one that the pre-Civil War Lincoln didn't care to be apart of. One could also, argue he would have been a status quo president if given the opportunity. Circumstances led him to decree the Emancipation Proclamation, not a sense of profound, progressive bravery on his part.

Some historians even argue that the south had more leverage when dealing with Lincoln by staying in the Union then they did in breaking away. In fact, the south was in all actuality the ones that brought about the demise of slavery, not Lincoln, as in trying to prevent the economic turmoil that would surely come about by abolishing slavery, they ended up hammering the death nail into the very thing they were trying to protect.

When most think of the south and of the confederate flag they think of racism, however, the slave trade was less about keeping the black man down and more about profit. The average southerner didn't own slaves and those that did owned enormous plantations, which had to be supplied with a sufficient amount of laborers working around the clock. These plantation owners were able to become wealthy beyond recognition for the simple reason that they didn't have to pay those who worked for them. If slavery was abolished these plantations would be out of business as the cost of running them would exceed the profit of the supply. This would not only hurt the rich but devastate the average southerner as supply and demand economics has a trickle down effect.

If the south would have remained in the Union during the Lincoln years it is almost a certainty that the massive amount of support and money from wealthy Southern politicians and plantation owners would have managed to defy Lincoln at every turn and have posed a serious dilemma for his re-election bid. To remain in office he would have had to play ball with those he vehemently disagreed with and by doing so would have had to allow slavery to continue. However, with the south becoming an enemy during the war, Lincoln was capable without opposition to end slavery altogether, without fearing Southern opposition.

War Blunders

At the start of the Civil War, Union blunders were not only destroying the morale of the north but debilitating what advantages they assumed they had by already having an established armed force and government. At first, the coalition of Confederate States, while large in numbers and led by some of the best military minds in the United States at the time, was not perceived as a credible threat. Some Northern politicians believed this to be nothing more than a hissy fit by the south and that once military might was shown to them they would fall back in line. However, Lincoln understood the severity of the situation and as the war effort began to take a turn for the worse, his patience began to wear thin.

During the beginning of the war effort Lincoln made a crucial mistake, one that has destroyed many military campaigns in the history of the world before. His mistake was in appointing people with non-military backgrounds as high ranking officers. Most of these men had never even picked up a gun before much less, led an army into battle. In all fairness, Lincoln's strategy was to unite the Union with strong political backers and what better way to gain the support of the aristocracy but by making them feel special.

Lincoln's biggest failure during the war was one that plagued him throughout the conflict, this was not a failure in policy but a failure in leadership. He lacked the ability to surround himself with competent commanders and advisors during the war. Those who he trusted because of their military expertise failed him on almost every occasion. Making him doubt whether winning the war was even possible given the lack of leadership within the ranks. Since, Lincoln lacked the military experience to win a war, he instead, heavily relied upon Winfield Scott, a highly decorated and revered general but one that was up in age by the time of the start of the war. Scott's health soon began to fail at the start of the conflict, causing Lincoln to have to replace him with Gen. Irving McDowell but after McDowell's disastrous defeat at the Battle of Bull Run, where his men folded under confederate pressure leading to a bloodbath, he too was soon replaced by Gen. George B. McClellan. McClellan proved to be a disastrous pick as he was an overly cautious commander, who refused to take the advantage when it was given to him. Sadly, McClellan was not alone in being hesitant to fight, most of Lincoln's top generals seemed to fail under the stress and burden of the spotlight.

Lincoln once again had to replace his top commander with a Gen. John Pope. Unlike his predecessor, Pope was all too willing to fight and boasted to his troops that no longer would they be retreating. However, he broke his word when he first viewed the massive Southern army coming towards him and retreated. Unfortunately, for him and his northern counterparts, the Southern army caught up to him and a massive battle took place near the same river where McClellan suffered his horrendous defeat. This Battle was called the Second Battle of Bull Run and once again resulted in the Union forces being routed.

Angry at the outcome Lincoln replaced Pope, giving McClellan a second opportunity to lead. However, even after accomplishing a victory over the south, Lincoln had already lost full faith in McClellan's ability to lead and soon replaced him for a second time. Three more generals were hired and fired until finally, Lincoln settled on Ulysses Grant to lead the Union forces. After four years of fighting Lincoln finally saw the results he had expected all along. However, Lincoln's inability to persuade his generals to fight in the beginning, led to years of turmoil and countless lives lost.


None of this is to say that Lincoln is undeserving of his place as one of the greatest United States Presidents of all time but, it is instead, supposed to inform the reader that history is at times white washed. During his time, before, during and after the Civil War, Lincoln was not showered with praises and his popularity amongst the people was fickle at best. This is reasonable since almost everyone in America had a loved one fighting and dying in the war effort. Which, almost always leads even the most ardent supporter to rethink his current position regarding those whom he supports. Especially, if the party he supports is in charge. This again, isn't a jab at Lincoln, as this kind of behavior is to be expected of the voters during war and has absolutely nothing to do with his leadership during this troubling time. However, it was the outcome of the war and the assassination shortly afterwards that led to his high favorability and his place as a martyr for freedom and unity.


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    • Brett Hoover profile imageAUTHOR

      Brett Hoover 

      3 years ago from Livingston

      Most of my family moved to Texas after the Civil War because of Sherman's march. My mother got to meet one of her great aunts when she was a child that lived through it and she spoke of Union soldiers killing their chickens, slaughtering their livestock, burning their crops before moving along. By the time the war was over they had no choice but to pack up their things and move. Strange how such things in history are overlooked especially by the victors. In history books you hear of the South being sore losers, but, at least in my opinion it wasn't that they were sore losers it was the war was more personal for them because most of it was fought in the South and the Southern soldiers not only had to worry about bullets flying at them but also had to worry about their families at home. There is no doubt that those in the North fought bravely but I have a feeling that if their families had witnessed the same atrocities their would have been a call to end the war which would have led to two different nations.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image

      David Hunt 

      3 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Very interesting article, Brett. If the North didn't have such an abundance of resources and manpower to throw away for years before getting it right there would likely be at least two countries where the U.S. is now. Voted up and interesting.


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