The Central Question

Lincoln believed slavery was wrong. In 1854 his commitment to political service was reinvigorated, in large part, by the danger that slavery would expand into the United States’ western territories. His failed bid for a seat in the Senate in 1858 rested on his opposition to that expansion, and the Republican Party that selected Lincoln as its presidential candidate included a vocal contingent of Northern abolitionists.

Yet Lincoln’s national political survival depended on his ability to appease a wide range of public opinion, at a time when most Americans did not believe in equality between the black and white races. As President, he needed to walk a careful line between striking against slavery too quickly and decisively—an act which he believed would lead to more border states seceding from the Union and the Confederates winning the war—and betraying his own personal belief that all men should be free.

It was the war itself that gave Lincoln the tools he needed to strike at the roots of slavery. As President, Lincoln made a succession of calculated moves—frequently using his wartime powers as Commander in Chief—to undermine slavery’s foundations. His efforts included a proposal to compensate border states if they would free their slaves; the first and second Confiscation Acts, which authorized the confiscation of any Confederate “property” by Union forces; the freeing of all slaves in the District of Columbia; the preliminary and final Proclamations of Emancipation; and ultimately the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Most historians agree that Lincoln’s thoughts on slavery evolved over the course of his presidency, from a position that placed the preservation of the Union above all other ends, to one that would insist upon both the preservation of the Union and the end of slavery in the United States.

Abraham Lincoln. Manuscript. Letter to Members of Congress Regarding the Emancipation of Slaves in the District of Columbia. April 16, 1862.

Nearly nine months before President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, he signed a bill ending slavery in the District of Columbia. In this memo to members of Congress, he outlines his support for the bill, and offers his perspective on the need for “an amendatory or supplemental act” to extend the ninety-day limit slave owners had to request $300 per enslaved person in compensation from the government. This bill freed over 3,000 slaves, expending more than one million dollars in federal payments. The District of Columbia is the only U.S. jurisdiction that compensated slave owners for freeing slaves.

Gift of Nicholas H. and Marguerite Lilly Noyes

Message of the President of the United States. Transmitting a Draft of a Bill to Compensate Any State Which May Abolish Slavery Within its Limits, and Recommending its Passage [Washington, 1862].
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In March of 1862, seeking compromise with the South, Lincoln proposed gradual emancipation in the Southern states, with slave owners to be compensated by the government.

Collection of Andrew Dickson White

A Bill abolishing slavery in the District of Columbia having passed both houses of Congress early in April, 1862...[Washington, 1862].

This rare broadside was apparently issued to notify Washington’s African American community that Congress had passed a bill abolishing slavery in the District of Columbia: “No people ever entertained a greater or more ardent appreciation of the boon of freedom than we the recently emancipated slaves of the District of Columbia, and thank God for that glorious act of justice towards poor down-trodden humanity.”

From the Collection of Andrew Dickson White

The Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. General Orders No. 139. September 22, 1862.
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Lincoln wrote a first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation during the summer of 1862, but he waited to publish the controversial statement until after the Union victory at the Battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862). He issued the statement in the form of General Orders for the Army on September 22. Because the President could dictate the actions of the military as Commander in Chief, the Proclamation did not need the sanction of Congress. This statement, known as the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, announced Lincoln’s intention to free slaves in Southern states still at war with the Union within 100 days.

William P. Stein Memorial Endowment

War Department. General Order No. 252. Washington: July 31, 1863.

This Presidential order asserts that for every Union soldier who is killed, or for any soldier who is enslaved by the enemy, a rebel soldier will also be killed or put to hard labor. The order was issued in response to Confederate threats to treat captured black Union soldiers as contraband and return them to slavery or execute them.

Gift of Gail and Stephen Rudin

Abraham Lincoln. The Opinions of Abraham Lincoln Upon Slavery and its Issues: Indicated by his Speeches, Letters, Messages, and Proclamations [New York: Union League of America, 1863].
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This assemblage of Lincoln’s thoughts and statements about slavery was published to inform voters and the general public of Lincoln’s position on the subject.

From the Collection of Andrew Dickson White

“The True Issue or That’s What’s the Matter.” Currier & Ives. August, 1864.

In 1864, Lincoln’s firm belief that the Union could only be saved by winning the war almost cost him reelection. Weary of suffering through more than three years of death and deprivation, much of the country was in favor of putting an immediate end to the Civil War with a negotiated truce. Published just after the 1864 Democratic Convention, this cartoon shows President Lincoln and Confederate President Jefferson Davis symbolically rending the country in two. General George B. McClellan, who had just won the Democratic nomination for President with a platform arguing for compromise, is portrayed as a peacemaker, intervening to prevent further destruction.

Susan H. Douglas Collection of Political Americana

“Your Plan and Mine.” Currier and Ives. October, 1864. In Andrew Dickson White. Rebellion Miscellany Scrapbook, Vol. 3.

Published just a few weeks before Lincoln’s reelection, this cartoon reflects the doubt, shared by many Northerners, as to whether the Emancipation Proclamation would stand if Democratic nominee George McClellan were to become president.

From the Collection of Andrew Dickson White

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