Abraham Lincoln’s Morality in Relation to Slavery
In modern times, Abraham Lincoln is often viewed as a moral leader and a pioneer of equality for African Americans. If Lincoln’s career is examined more closely, however, it becomes evident that he was not, in fact, a moral leader. Rather, he simply followed the climate of his time period, acting as a moderator rather than a reformer.
Lincoln’s Pragmatic Approach to Speeches
Lincoln did not care about the well-being of the black man, nor was he a dedicated abolitionist. Lincoln’s actions were merely in response to the political climate he was immersed in. Lincoln was not a great reformer, an activist, nor even “the Great Emancipator”; he was simply a convincing politician. One of the clearest signs that Lincoln was far more a politician than a reformer is his inconsistent stance in his speeches. Time and time again, he would alter his positions in order to better attract his audience. Two speeches from 1858 show this. In Chicago, Illinois, a northern city with a stronger abolitionist tendency, Lincoln argued that men of all races should unite and declare that all men are created equal.
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Two months later, in Charleston, Illinois, a city that was more supportive of white supremacy, Lincoln argued that he had never been in favor of the equality of the races and that the white race should and will be held superior (Hofstadter 149-50). Clearly, these two speeches contradict in significant ways the status of African Americans and the white race. Had Lincoln been committed to reform, he would have stood by his beliefs for all audiences, but being a politician first and a savvy one at that, he said what was popular in order to rake up votes. Lincoln’s political opponent, Stephen Douglas, called this trait out, stating that he would despise himself if he thought he was procuring votes by concealing his opinions from the public.
Opposing Slavery’s Expansion: A Political Maneuver
This made little difference, however, since the public didn’t care so much about the consistency of Lincoln’s arguments, only that he made convincing ones. This is a key mark of a person who is politically motivated: they say only what is to their advantage, not what they believe to be true. One plan that Lincoln consistently supported was opposing the expansion of slavery into the new territory. From his varied speeches, it is clear that he did not oppose slavery’s expansion on solely moral grounds, as he did not oppose its continuance in the South or deeply believe in the equality of African Americans. Why, then, would he be so consistent on a topic that seems so controversial? The key to understanding why Lincoln took this position comes from understanding the northern political climate of the time. There was a large group of northern abolitionists who opposed slavery as a moral wrong. An even larger set of people in the north, however, were Negrophobes. These people simply wanted to keep African Americans away from their cities.
Reconciling these two groups seemed impossible, but Lincoln found a way: the free-soil argument (Hofstadter 144-6). By opposing the expansion of slavery, Lincoln found a stable middle ground. Abolitionists supported it because they saw it as the pathway to the end of slavery; slavery would fizzle out on its own if not allowed to expand. Negrophobes also supported this, as it allowed them to grow economically. Without slaves in the new territories, poor whites would not have to compete with slave labor and thus would have the opportunity to climb the socioeconomic scale. Lincoln’s plan supported the American ideal of the self-made man, the man who takes advantage of his opportunities and, through hard work, climbs to the top.
Lincoln, by opposing the expansion of slavery, created this opportunity in the new territories and, therefore, could get the votes of northerners from both the abolitionist group and the Negrophobe group–enough to form a political party. The fear of the expansion of slavery by white northerners was perhaps Lincoln’s most powerful tool. It wasn’t simply that slave-free territories would provide new opportunities to poorer whites–if slavery were not stopped from spreading, it would overtake the entire country. If slavery were allowed everywhere, what was to stop poor whites from becoming slaves?
In his famous 1858 “House Divided” speech, Lincoln argued that the free states were in danger of becoming slave states if their expansion was not restricted (Hofstadter 149). However, he was not arguing that slavery needed to end immediately, as he did not care whether it remained in the South. This again shows Lincoln as primarily a politician; He did not propose claims on ethical grounds, only the practical matter of restricting slavery’s expansion.
Flexible Stance on Slavery: Serving Political Goals
For Lincoln, all of the value in discussing slavery came from how it impacted his politics. To him, slavery’s expansion needed to be stopped in order to retain the freedom of northern white people, his political supporters. Lincoln was not interested in helping the black man or fighting slavery; he was only interested in helping his fellow white men. In fact, on multiple occasions, he expressed white supremacist views in order to keep voters on his side (Hofstadter 143, 150). When politics best suited the opposite approach, he spoke for equality among the races (Hofstadter 131, 136).
Lincoln did have political agendas, but on the issue of slavery, he did not invest himself in changing the outcome. Lincoln worked to help his political base, white northerners, primarily by following their lead. Lincoln’s stance on slavery itself was, therefore, secondary and fluid. If supporting slavery would help him support white northerners and, in turn, get their votes, he would speak in support of slavery. If opposing slavery was the way to help his base, he would work against it. Perhaps the best way to summarize Lincoln’s views on slavery is with his own words: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could do it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it” (Hofstadter 169).
Lincoln simply did not care whether slavery was abolished or not. Only when it became clear to him that the only way to support his other political interests was to emancipate the slaves would he actually take action in this direction? Lincoln insisted on preserving the Union to show that majority rule must be respected and not simply overthrown, and he insisted on majority rights, such as the American ideals of opportunity and popular rule (Hofstadter 161). It was this, not a desire for justice for the black man, that led to the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Ultimately, then, Lincoln’s actions leading up to and including his presidency were those of a politician, though an unusually persuasive and thoughtful one. Lincoln likely had internal views on the situation but never pursued his personal moral interests.
Instead, each step was carefully calculated and only taken if he could be sure that enough popular support existed. While Lincoln did not make political decisions solely to gain votes, he made decisions in order to support his central principle, that of the opportunity of the common man. To him, slavery was not of central importance, only an obstacle to his goals. His position on the issue of slavery changed often during his career and was only addressed as part of achieving his other goals. Only when the existence of slavery began to block his objectives did he deem it necessary to end it. Abraham Lincoln was a politician at heart, always working diplomatically and slyly to achieve his goals and the goals of his political base. As a result, he had no attachment to the issue of slavery other than its role in his other political endeavors.
- Hofstadter, Richard. “Abraham Lincoln and the Self-Made Myth.” The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It. Vintage Books, 1989, pp. 131-161.