Freedom's Course: Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation

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"I AM NATURALLY ANTISLAVERY," said Abraham Lincoln early in his career. "If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I cannot remember a time when I did not so think, and feel." Yet Lincoln was not an abolitionist in the years leading up to the Civil War. Before he became known as the Great Emancipator, his position on slavery pleased no one. Slavery advocates saw him as radical and anti-slavery factions thought him overly accommodating.

Even as he became president in 1861, he believed the nation was too divided about slavery for it to be abolished in one sweeping reform. Yet in 1863 he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring an end to slavery in the rebelling states.

"No one anticipated that emancipation would occur as quickly as it did," says John Rhodehamel, Norris Foundation Curator of American historical manuscripts at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. "The Civil War changed the nation and it changed Lincoln."

The change in Lincoln's position on abolition, and his complex political strategy, is addressed in the NEH-supported traveling exhibition, "Forever Free: Abraham Lincoln's Journey to Emancipation," cosponsored by the Huntington Library and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, in collaboration with the American Library Association.

Using reproductions of sixty rare historical documents, the originals all autographed by Lincoln, the show reexamines Lincoln's role in ending slavery. The exhibition will travel to forty libraries around the country beginning in September.

"Lincoln is someone who thinks slavery is wrong but is willing to countenance it," says Rhodehamel, who is curator of the exhibition. "Like the Founding Fathers he believes it will gradually be eliminated but is not ready to do away with it all at once." In 1858, Lincoln stated that slavery might exist for another one hundred years. Yet five years later, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Part of Lincoln's explanation was that that he did not control events but that "events controlled me."

"We must recognize how prevalent white racism was in both the North and the South in the nineteenth century," says Rhodehamel. "To win elective office, you couldn't be an abolitionist. It would be like running as a Marxist/Leninist in Kansas in 1955. Like all aspiring politicians, Lincoln understood that a candidate linked to abolition had no chance of winning office."

It was the threat of slavery spreading into new territories that split the nation and eventually carried Lincoln to the White House. As an antislavery moderate, a "gradualist," Lincoln hoped slavery would slowly die away. But the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 opened up the new territories to the possibility of slavery. The Act left it up to the settlers to decide whether they wanted to be free or slave.

Lincoln's indignation at the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act propelled him back into politics. he had served a term in the U.S. Congress but left to build a private law practice in Springfield, Illinois. His Whig Party was falling apart over the issue of slavery and in 1856 Lincoln joined the new Republican Party, whose mission was to restrict the expansion of slavery. In a speech in Chicago in 1858, Lincoln voiced his hatred of slavery and also his belief that it should not be touched where it already existed:

I have always hated slavery, I think as much as any abolitionist. I have been an Old Line Whig. I have always hated it, but I have also been quiet about it until this new era of introduction of the Nebraska Bill began. I always believed that everybody was against it, and that it was in course of ultimate extinction.

I have said a hundred times, and I have now no inclination to take it back, that I believe there is no right, and ought to be no inclination of the people of the free states to enter into the slave states, and interfere with the question of slavery at all. …