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Essay: Was Abraham Lincoln Driven by Morality or Political Pragmatism in Abolishing Slavery?

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  • Published: 1 February 2018*
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Abraham Lincoln is commonly lauded for his moral courage in leading the nation to abolish slavery and signing the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, yet even more than a century later, historians do not know if freeing the slaves was Lincoln’s plan all along. Lincoln was more likely driven by political pragmatism than high-minded morality. In excerpts of Lincoln’s later speeches, it appears his goal was always to end slavery. However, careful inspection of his earlier letters and speeches reveals more of an evolution in his thinking. The apathetic attitude of his first years of presidency eventually grew into a conviction that slavery directly opposed the foundations of American democracy. But he would act on this conviction only in the final years of his life. Abraham Lincoln may have personally seen abolition as a moral imperative, but as President of the United States, his personal beliefs often took a back seat to his perception of the needs of the nation.

In 2000, Richard Striner wrote “Father Abraham: Lincoln's Relentless Struggle to End Slavery” claiming that Lincoln's vision was always to free the slaves. He argues that it was the combination of his moral vision and his masterful leadership that allowed him to reach this goal.

Striner claims that Lincoln was a “masterful anti-slavery leader”, but at the beginning of his presidency, Lincoln prioritized the preservation of the Union and adherence to the Constitution over the abolition of slavery. In Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address of 1861, he says “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” Lincoln believes that the Constitution does not value the freedom of all men over the connectedness of the states. Under this view, Lincoln considered the abolition of slavery to be of secondary importance. In his 1862 letter to Horace Greeley, Lincoln writes “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.” As this was a private letter, one can infer it reveals a truer reflection of his thinking. Lincoln is not bending his words to please a public crowd. According to this letter, Lincoln intended to abolish slavery only if it promoted the preservation of the Union. Further, this letter was written in the middle of the Civil War, so Lincoln may have seen abolition as a useful military tactic that might help end the war as quickly as possible. Lincoln may have truly believed in the cause of abolition, but he was clearly not the relentless and masterful “anti-slavery leader” Striner makes him out to be. Upholding the Constitution as it existed and preserving the Union was more important to Lincoln than abolishing slavery.

When Lincoln met with the Anti-slavery clergy in 1862, he said he would make his decision about Emancipation as a result of the best military tactic. He says, “Nor do I urge objections of a moral nature, in view of possible consequences of insurrection and massacre at the South. I view the matter as a practical war measure, to be decided upon according to the advantages or disadvantages it may offer to the suppression of the rebellion.” Lincoln states that his moral obligation to abolish slavery does not outweigh the risk of violent insurrection in the South. Two months after this meeting, he wrote to Horace Greeley “I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free.” Lincoln is morally opposed to slavery, but he sees it as a personal belief. He does not feel he has the right to impose his personal beliefs upon the country, especially if it risks military success or the preservation of the Union. In both actions and words, Lincoln is more a Union leader than an anti-slavery leader.

Towards the end of his life and presidency, Lincoln began to change in the public eye into something closer to the “moral visionary” Striner sees. In Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address of 1863, he says “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Lincoln declares that a “new birth of freedom” will reign in the United States, not only for white men but for all men. Abolition may not have been Lincoln’s original priority, but his later works show how he worked to weave freedom of the slaves into the law of the land. As Lincoln saw the inevitability of military victory, perhaps he also believed he had the political capital to impose his personal moral values on a country of many people with very a different sense of morality. In the Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction, Lincoln recognizes and declares the permanent freedom of slaves and provides for their education to help relieve their post-slavery struggles. Lincoln’s plan for reconstruction shows his moral obligation did not end with freeing the slaves; he strove to save them from poverty. He understood that in losing their shackles, the slaves would also be losing their homes, their jobs, even access to food. Lincoln decided to invest in the African American population by instituting education to help African Americans compete for higher paying jobs. With the primary goal of Union preservation assured, Lincoln’s personal moral vision played a more central role in the policies he advocated.

Lincoln’s role in Emancipation was more nuanced than Strider contends. We can infer from his letters and speeches from before the Emancipation Proclamation that abolition was not his first priority. Lincoln may have had a personal moral vision, but it was not his first priority as President so he was hesitant to impose that vision upon the nation. In hindsight, the morality of the nation and its attitude toward slavery came to agree with Lincoln. But, in Lincoln’s lifetime, this was not so clear. Lincoln may have felt a moral obligation to use his pulpit to persuade, but his words only evolved into demonstrable action over time.

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