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President Lincoln's Hatred of Slavery

Updated on August 30, 2018
Leland Johnson profile image

Leland is a student of history, religion, politics, and current events. He wishes to respectfully engage readers on those focus points.

President Abraham Lincoln: The Great Emancipator and Architect of the 13th Amendment

Understanding the many complexities of the Civil War requires a few things we are very short of in our country at this time.

  1. Patience
  2. Study
  3. Open and honest dialogue
  4. A willingness to listen

I have studied this topic for years and I still feel as though I know a fraction of a fraction of all there is to know. The more I study, obviously the more I learn. The more I learn the more I see there is to learn to the point that I have become somewhat of a scoffer whenever I hear the phrase "expert on the Civil War." Can there be such a thing? Even the experts disagree on many points. If you want to see a humdinger of an argument just put two historians in a room together and watch the fur fly. One will constantly try to out do the other. Eyes will roll, heads will shake in contrary belief as battle names and dates fly about. The need to understand this conflict, as any, must extend beyond the academic. It must become a personal matter, a personal need to know the truth because only a love for the truth can uncover the truth.

So let us take up this bookmark on the pages of historic commentary that accuse Abraham Lincoln of being essentially indifferent to the plight of the slave by looking at, not what Lincoln's detractors say about him, but what Lincoln himself had to say about slavery. And let us do so in the spirit of transparency regarding the context of his statements. It is true that the 16th president made remarks about slavery that would make him appear moderate in regard to the evil institution. It is our contention that Lincoln said certain things, made certain statements to that effect under the auspices of playing the politician. He had seen the failure of John Brown's assault on Harper's Ferry, an assault aimed at liberating slaves and engaging in a war to end slavery. Perhaps that's exactly what Brown did. However greatly opposed Lincoln was to slavery he knew that for ultimate success in its destruction to be a possibility he must retain an air of ambiguity. Even the modest remarks he had made regarding simply the containment of slavery had led to the secession of several Southern states. He wanted to avoid a war. He hoped he could avoid it, but those hopes were fading fast as will be seen in the quotations included in this article.

Joshua Speed: Best Friend, Room-mate, and Business Partner of President Lincoln

Joshua Speed and Abraham Lincoln had been friends and confidants since 1837. The following excerpts are from their last correspondence dated August 24th, 1855. In these excerpts we see glimpses of Lincoln's position on several political and social issues, all revolving around slavery. In this letter Lincoln makes reference to The Nebraska Act, Kansas being admitted into the Union, and the infamous "Know Nothings" a branch of the Whig party set against immigrants.

Morally, and in theory, Speed was against slavery. However, as it is where business interests are concerned, morality is often trumped by pragmatism, peer pressure, and outright greed. Speed, therefore would not take a stand against slavery and criticized his old friend for his ever increasing abolitionist leanings.

Interestingly, Lincoln never assails his old friend or insults him yet he makes perfectly clear the fact that Speed is inconsistent in his practices, and that his stated views do not align with his actions.

Lincoln to Speed: "In 1841 you and I had together a tedious low-water trip on a steamboat 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 continued torment to me, and I see something like it every time I touch the Ohio or any other slave border." (emphasis mine.)

Here, in 1855, we can see that Lincoln is quite disturbed about slavery and had been since as early as 1841, the year he himself references for Speed. This desire to do something, to act against it in some way had been in his bosom for many years, but what could he do? If he did not occupy a position of power his efforts at ending slavery would end as fruitlessly as John Brown's. Lincoln did not want to squander his chances of success. He moved forward slowly, cautiously, with glacial trepidity. And just as a glacier will change the topography of a mountain, so would Lincoln's slow, but steady movement towards abolition yield monumental dividends.

Lincoln continues: "It is not fair for you to assume that I have no interest in a thing which has, and continually exercises, the power of making me miserable."

The "thing" of which he speaks is of course, slavery.

Lincoln continues: "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. I do oppose the extension of slavery because my judgement and feeling so prompt me, and I am under no obligation to the contrary." (emphasis mine)

Here he is referring to the extension of slavery into Kansas, a state not yet admitted to the Union and one whose status as a free or slave state was still undetermined. Note how Lincoln's view of slavery evolved over time. Here he is only opposing its extension, but why oppose it at all unless you are totally against it? In other words, if he were indifferent to it he wouldn't even have opposed its extension. There was the belief at this time that if slavery could be contained it would fizzle and die. However, this was not the case and Lincoln, a true visionary, could see as much before most of his contemporaries.



artistic rendering of Lincoln's viewing of slaves on the Ohio river
artistic rendering of Lincoln's viewing of slaves on the Ohio river

Whigs/Wilmont Proviso/Know-Nothings

Lincoln continues his discourse with Speed: "You inquire where I now stand. That is a disputed point. I think I am a Whig; but others say there are no Whigs, and that I am an Abolitionist. When I was at Washington, I voted for the Wilmot proviso as good as forty times; and I never heard of any one attempting to unwhig me for that."

The Wilmot Proviso was a bill put forward in 1846 by David Wilmot. The point of the bill was for Congress to ban slavery in territory acquired from Mexico in the Mexican War. As shown, Lincoln voted in favor of the proviso demonstrating his opposition to slavery even at this early date in his political career.

Lincoln continues: "I am not a Know-Nothing; that is certain. How could I be?"

The so-called "Know-Nothings" refer to a branch of the dying Whig party known for their anti-immigrant policies.

Lincoln Continues: "How can any one who abhors the oppression of Negroes be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation we began by declaring that 'all men are created equal.' We now practically read it 'all men are created equal, except Negroes.' When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read 'all men are created equal except Negroes and foreigners and Catholics.' When it comes to this, I shall prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty- to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy."

In the above statements Lincoln points out the hypocrisy of the United States in saying that it stands for freedom and loves liberty, yet will not acknowledge black people as equal. Lincoln loved this country, but he hated its hypocrisy and points out as much to his good friend, Joshua Speed. Speed no doubt understood that Lincoln was calling him a hypocrite, but this was a time and these were people who could withstand such sobering dialogue. Lincoln ends his letter with the closing,

"Your friend forver, A. Lincoln."

I am impressed and astonished that Lincoln could be so vigorously opposed to his friend and yet remain his friend. Perhaps it was that very optimism that made Lincoln hope there was another avenue for the liberation of the slaves other than war. Optimistic...idealistic...but not naive.

The Wilmot Proviso

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© 2018 Leland Johnson

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    • Leland Johnson profile imageAUTHOR

      Leland Johnson 

      11 months ago from Midland MI

      Audrey- thank you for reading and commenting. Lincoln is definitely one of my favorite personalities. I think what I love most about him was his drive to do what he knew was right even when it meant he would lose popularity.

    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 

      11 months ago from Idyllwild Ca.

      Excellent history on Lincoln! He rose to the occasion at a most difficult time. "It is not fair for you to assume that I have no interest in a thing which has, and continually exercises, the power of making me miserable."

      Thank you for this informative, well-written article.

    • Leland Johnson profile imageAUTHOR

      Leland Johnson 

      11 months ago from Midland MI

      Yes, he had a fascinating capacity for growth and learning, and adjusting. Those are some of the things that impress me about Lincoln. He had all the usual distractions of any president plus the knowledge that hundreds of thousands of Americans were dying. Had the 13th amendment failed to pass those deaths would've been in vain. It all weighed very heavily on him.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 

      11 months ago from USA

      This is an excellent history article. Although he wasn’t perfect, he was a righteous and honorable individual who used his position of power wisely to enact positive change for the country.

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