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the Great Emancipator

The title of "Great Emancipator" became Lincoln's with the signing of the Emancipation
Proclamation in September, 1862. Although it actually freed very few slaves - because it applied
only to those areas in rebellion against the United States - it earned the enthusiasm of black and
white abolitionists throughout the Union.

The idea of Lincoln as Great Emancipator was embraced most enthusiastically by those
who had the most invested in slavery and in emancipation: the black community. Following
his assassination, former slaves together contributed a total of $17,000 for a monument of
their gratitude to Lincoln. Unveiled eleven years after the shooting at the Ford Theater, the
Freedmen's Monument is important as an expression of the feelings of former slaves for their
"best friend." (Braden,89.) Frederick Douglass' speech on the occasion of the unveiling of the
statue illustrates the conflict within this myth, the impossibility of being both Savior of the Union
and Great Emancipator simultaneously.

Overall, when judging Lincoln and his decision to emancipate the slaves one

must consider all of the contributing factors which helped influence Lincoln’s decision. For

example, many historians have considered factors such as, his relationship with General George

B. McClellan, the degree of pressure he received from his advisors, cabinet members,

abolitionists and other anti-slavery advocates, and the value of the black population in the war.

However, the most significant factor that influenced Lincoln’s decision to emancipate the slaves

was the respect he had for the Constitution and the principles it stood for. Lincoln disagreed with

slavery because it deprived people from life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. He believed

slavery was wrong for numerous other reasons, but its violation of democratic and egalitarian

principles is the most significant. Critics of Lincoln have argued that Lincoln’s approach towards

emancipation was one of hesitancy and reluctance. This is partially true. Lincoln exhibited racial

prejudices regarding African Americans and their abilities to successfully assimilate to being

normal participating members of American society. Furthermore, he also opposed the interracial

relationships and the amalgamation of the black and white races. However, Lincoln’s hesitant

approach towards freeing the slaves was most heavily influenced by his fear of violating the
Constitution and abusing his power as President. Moreover, the opinions Lincoln had regarding

African Americans were ones of ambiguity. For example, he was one of the largest supporters of

the idea of colonizing African Americans. However, the main reason he supported this process

was because he doubted the abilities of Whites to except Blacks as equals. After considering the

enormous degree of racism exhibited towards African Americans during the mid-nineteenth

century, Lincoln expressed a more pessimistic view of African Americans’ future in the United

States after the Civil War. Critics of Lincoln have argued that Lincoln should have used his

power to fight hardier for the enfranchisement of African Americans. However, after Lincoln

issued the Emancipation Proclamation, African Americans were permitted to actively participate

in the military. After Lincoln witnessed the honor and pride in which African Americans fought

for their own freedom, his views of Blacks evolved. His respect for them as American citizens

grew tremendously. For example, Lincoln willingly accepted the request of respected abolitionist

Fredrick Douglass to increase the wages of Black Union soldiers. Ultimately, Lincoln’s respect

for the Constitution influenced the timing, process, and language of the Emancipation


As a result the questions remains, who was Lincoln really?

Was he secretly an abolitionist attempting to conceal his identity in order to remain politically

relevant only to one day be elected to the highest ranking political position in order to strike

down the practice that he despised so dearly? Or was he merely forced, pressured, and persuaded

by others into ending an unpopular and dying institution as a war measure to help preserve the

Union and prevail victorious over the South? Perhaps, the reality was a combination of both of

these things. Or better yet, maybe Lincoln falls somewhere in between both of these extremes in

relation to the spectrum of being remembered as the Great Emancipator. The truth is, much like
answering the question of slavery in the mid-19th century, the solution was far more complex—

and not so black and white.

At times, Lincoln argued against slavery as a violation of the principles which the Constitution

and Declaration of Independence were founded upon. He continuously argued against the

popular beliefs among slave-owners that slavery was a right protected by the Constitution.1 Yet,

at the same time, he constantly reminded Southerners that he meant their precious slavery no

harm. Overall, more often than not, Lincoln’s hands were tied when attempting to attack slavery

from behind a podium. In fact, by speaking out against slavery, he risked contributing more harm

than good to the possibility of removing slavery from the United States. Prior to the start of the

Civil war there had been several violent events that occurred over the slavery issue in the United

States including Bleeding Kansas, the Nat Turner rebellion, and John Brown’s raid Harper’s

ferry. Lincoln was not responsible for any of these events. However, these events most certainly

helped to perpetuate the feelings of sectionalism among Northerners and Southerners which

helped lead to the Civil War’s beginning. Lincoln repeatedly faced the obstacle of during the

years preceding his presidency, his campaign period for presidential election in 1860, again after

the Southern states seceded almost immediately after his election, and finally, throughout the

Civil War, until ultimately ending slavery by emancipating the slaves in 1863.

After the Peoria speech, Lincoln unknowingly and unintentionally continued on

his path to the Presidency. Furthermore, he continued to battle slavery’s expansion by debating
Stephen A. Douglass in a series of debates in 1858 in number of slavery related topics including
the nationally dividing and controversial Dred Scott Supreme Court decision of 1857 and the
violence provoking Kansas-Nebraska act of 1854

Abraham Lincoln, “Cooper Union Address,” Abraham Lincoln Online: Speeches and Writings,
Now what is Judge Douglas' Popular Sovereignty? It is, as a principle, no other than that, if one
man chooses to make a slave of another man, neither that other man nor anybody else has a right
to object.

Despite Lincoln’s clear disapproval of slavery’s existence this did not necessarily mean

he was willing to immediately end it at country’s expense. In this speech, as in many others,

Lincoln willingly admitted that he, “would consent to the extension of it [slavery] rather than see

the Union dissolved […]”.2 Additionally, fearing the idea of racially mixed society or the

possibility of a race war among blacks and whites, he repeatedly advocated for the gradual and

compensated emancipation of African American slaves followed by the policy of colonization—

an idea for which he himself had admitted at times to be near impossible to effectively execute

without utter disaster.3 He concluded by candidly admitting that he was not angry or resentful

towards slavery’s protectors (Southern slave-owners) for refusing to forfeit their right to own

slaves. In fact, he expressed sympathy and understanding to their predicament by acknowledging

the complexity of ending slavery.

Abraham Lincoln, Speech at Peoria, Illinois, October 16th, 1854, in Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, vol. II, ed.
Roy P. Basler (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 270.
Ibid, 255.
This is no more evident in a letter Lincoln wrote to Kentucky Editor, Albert Hodges, in which

Lincoln admitted that slavery was an institution which he had always opposed and believed was

morally wrong but, had no right as President to infringe upon its existence. “I am naturally anti-

slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think,

and feel. And yet I have never understood that the Presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted

right to act officially upon this judgment and feeling.”4 Lincoln continued by asserting that he

was not acting on his “judgments or feelings” regarding slavery when he issued the

emancipation. Instead, to justify this act, he argued he was acting on his feelings regarding the

war and his ability as President to uphold his oath to protect the Constitution. Ultimately,

according to Lincoln’s logic, he was constitutionally supported by the oath of the office he took

when he became President and the threat the war presented to the Union to issue an emancipation

freeing the slaves because, in the end, the preservation of the nation and, as a result, the

Constitution depended upon it. This is clearly demonstrated by Lincoln when he wrote to

Hodges, “I could not feel that, to the best of my ability, I had even tried to preserve the

Abraham Lincoln, “Letter by Abraham Lincoln to Albert Hodges”, Abraham Lincoln Online: Speeches and Writings,
constitution, if, to save slavery, or any minor matter, I should permit the wreck of government,

country, and Constitution all together.”5

Lastly, in this letter Lincoln, willingly admitted his reluctance to free the slaves

by the means of an immediate emancipation. It was Lincoln’s intention to leave immediate

emancipation as a last resort after exhausted all other possibilities and being more supportive of a

gradual and compensated emancipation agreed to by state legislatures. However, no state ever

agreed to such plans, thus Lincoln was led to seek an alternate route. Furthermore, the President

confesses his own fear about freeing the slaves and allowing them to actively participate in the

military on behalf of the Union cause. However, he concludes, by acknowledging the benefit

African Americans provided to the Union war effort and ultimately winning the Civil War.

Lincoln argued that in his best judgments, by allowing slavery to exist, he risked losing the war.

Therefore, even in the United States, the last this it necessary to the preserving the Union. This

had always been Lincoln’s position on the federal government’s right to interfere with slavery. In

the letter, Lincoln defends his position by pointing out the times he repeatedly defended this
position when he repealed orders of emancipation issued by his generals.6 Yet, Lincoln did act on

his “judgments and feelings” regarding African Americans and slavery when he issued the

emancipation. Ultimately, Lincoln defended his position to issue the emancipation as war

necessity by stating he However, the question still remains: Being the constitutional

conservative he was, why did Lincoln issue the emancipation knowing it more than likely was

not in his powers as President to do so?

Lincoln answered this in his letter to