Nearly 150 years after his death, Abraham Lincoln remains a polarizing figure. To some, he is the greatest president the United States of America ever had, a man who freed the slaves and saved the Union. To others, he was a power-hungry tyrant, who invaded his own country and used back-room, sometimes scandalous politics to get what he wanted. No matter what one’s personal view of him, however, all can agree on two things: he was a master politician, and a deeply conflicted man, both internally and his public persona. No person of such high standing in American history has had his views gradually change to the point of nearly a complete reversal. No president has ever been in office in the midst of such terrible and chaotic internal strife.
It is difficult today to look back upon Abraham Lincoln and give him a singular label for what he should be remembered for, but almost always, it boils down to the slavery issue, and how he had the Emancipation Proclamation drafted and then his fight to get the 13th Amendment passed to free the slaves prior to the conclusion of the American Civil War. However, as is the case with many figures when studied through the looking glass back through history, people see what they want to see. Lincoln is a much more complicated figure to study, because at the same time this country was experiencing its single greatest moment of political dissent, Lincoln was dissenting against his own government and party, and sometimes, even himself. His views, which began as quite simple ones began to change and morph over time to what we know them as today, but to ignore the journey that he went through would be a disservice to both the man and the history of this nation.
Prior to the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln famously said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand” (Lincoln, 1858), which was referring to the split between north and south. This could also be applied to Lincoln’s own cabinet when it came to the issue of slavery, because when Lincoln’s views finally changed to be accepting of full emancipation and equality, many of his own party members vehemently disagreed with him. There was internal strife in all aspects of America between 1861 and 1865. A truly dizzying array of political disagreement, north and south, about what this country should be like. Once again, the slavery issue is rearing its ugly head. Abraham Lincoln made a very unpopular decision by some, to grant slaves their freedom in 1865, which completed his full internal dissent on how he felt the Africans in this country should be treated.
It is a marvel of wonder to study this highly fascinating, and sometimes downright conflicting man, but it is proof positive that history cannot be studied as simply black and white; that there is a large gray area of sometimes inconvenient facts that sometimes historians, scholars, and yes, the general public, like to ignore. But they cannot be ignored, because they happened. When this part of Abraham Lincoln is studied, it simply makes the man all the more fascinating and a larger than life figure. As Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote in Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, “Washington was a typical American. Napoleon was a typical Frenchman, but Lincoln was a humanitarian as broad as the world. He was bigger than his country – bigger than all the Presidents together” (Goodwin, 2005).
The Social Climate of America
In order to understand why Lincoln’s personal dissent and transformation was so groundbreaking, it is important to understand what the social climate of America was like during the American Civil War when it came to colored people. Many people tend to assume that the south was fully supportive of slavery and therefore evil, while the north contained all the abolitionists who wanted to see this scourge eliminated from the earth. As commander-in-chief of the Union Army, Lincoln is placed on the throne of being the Christ-like figure who gave the slaves their freedom. This is entirely a generalization, and the lumping in of all northerners as good and all southerners as bad is a result of modern revisionism and political correctness. In The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, Eric Foner writes, “The problem is that we tend too often to read Lincoln’s growth backward, as an unproblematic trajectory toward a predetermined end. This enables scholars to ignore or downplay aspects of Lincoln’s beliefs with which they are uncomfortable” (Foner, 2010).
What he refers to here are so-called inconvenient quotes made by Lincoln on the issue of slavery and black people in general, quotes such as, “If I could save the Union without freeing a single slave, I would do it” (Lincoln, 1862), “I am not, nor have ever been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races…there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will ever forbid the two races from living together…there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race” (Lincoln, 1858), and finally, when speaking of the “Back to Africa” movement which sought to send freed blacks back to Africa to colonize land and get them off of American soil, “A separation of the races is the only perfect preventative of amalgamation but as an immediate separation is impossible, the next best thing is to keep them apart where they are not already together” (Lincoln, 1857). There are some people who would find it hard to believe that Lincoln actually uttered these words, the same man who would go on to free the slaves less than a decade after saying them.
Lincoln as a white supremacist is a theme which does not often get any light, which Matthew Pinkser credits in his article titled “Lincoln Theme 2.0” for the Journal of American History as being due to there not being many writings on Abraham Lincoln immediately after the American Civil War, meaning that by the time people began writing about him, they wanted to address only his positive attributes, which became the theme of Lincoln as the “Great Emancipator” (Pinkser, 2009). However, if one puts himself in the time period in which Lincoln’s politics were fostered, it would be very easy to understand why his views at least began as they did, and that is because America was a highly racist nation, even in the north. One need not view anything besides the films Glory and Lincoln to see this concept brilliantly and shockingly illustrated.
In Glory, the same politicians who want the slaves freed are aghast when the suggestion is made that there should be an all-black regiment fighting for the Union Army, because they were horrified at the idea of blacks being armed with weapons, and that they “did not have the discipline to be fighting men” (Zwick, 1989). This would fit the theme of them finding slavery appalling, but at the same time not wanting anything to do with social or political equality. In the film Lincoln, which is based on Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, a conversation between Lincoln and two civilians brings this to terrible life. William Seward is attempting to show Lincoln that his decision to go forward with the 13th Amendment would be an unpopular one, because the people were not ready to see freed blacks en masse in society. In front of Lincoln, Seward asks a husband and wife if they would support the end of slavery if it meant ending the Civil War. They responded “Yes”. However, he then asks them if they would support ending slavery after the war came to an end. They answered with an enthusiastic “No”, and when asked why, proudly exclaimed, “Well, because they’re niggers” (Spielberg, 2012).
All of this happens to fit in with Lincoln’s views, though by the point illustrated previously, his views had begun to change to that of freeing the slaves. This again makes everything confusing, because even at times when he spoke out strongly against equality for blacks, there was still a part of him that thought slavery was horrible (Oakes, 2012). “In 1841 you and I had together a tedious low-water trip, on a Steam Boat from Louisville to St. Louis. You may remember, as I well do, that from Louisville to the mouth of the Ohio there were, on board, ten or a dozen slaves, shackled together with irons. That sight was a continual torment to me; and I see something like it every time I touch the Ohio, or any other slave-border” he wrote to his friend and colleague Joshua Speed (Lincoln, 1855), and later, “I think slavery is wrong, morally, and politically. I desire that it should be no further spread in these United States, and I should not object if it should gradually terminate in the whole Union” (Lincoln, 1859).
How is it possible that all the above quotes could have come from the same mouth as the ones mentioned earlier? Was Lincoln truly so conflicted that he opposed slavery so much, yet detested the black race at the same time that depending on the situation, let that alter the words he would speak? There is no doubt that Lincoln never actually supported slavery, but this internal conflict, which would explode into actual dissent towards the end of the Civil War could be what started the war in the first place, because southerners confused his lukewarm views of wanting to simply stop slavery’s expansion with wanting to end slavery all-together, something which he never openly spoke about until the final years of the Civil War (Goodwin, 2005).
The Civil War and Lincoln’s Transformation
Contrary to popular belief, the American Civil War did not start out as one to end slavery, it was merely to suppress the southern rebellion. The average northerner, though he may have been opposed to slavery, was not going to risk his neck fighting for a black man’s freedom. That is why the abolition of slavery was pretty much a non-issue until 1862, because to even mention it before that might have hindered much-needed Union enlistments. The Crittenden Compromise of 1860-1861 ensured as much, declaring the permanent existence of slavery and restitution paid to slave owners whose slaves had run away (Crittenden, 1860). In turn, this made the coming war one solely to end the rebellion and bring the Union back together again.
As the war progressed, so did Lincoln’s views, again, although slightly. He began to see the full abolition of slaves as a strategic and political move that would help weaken the Confederate States of America, because at this point, they were winning the majority of the battles. Following Antietam in 1862, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves only in states still in rebellion (Oakes, 2012). This, unfortunately, did not extend to the Union border states where slavery existed, for fear that if slavery was abolished there, they would secede and join the Confederacy. This is Lincoln, the “Master Politician” at work, because he tried to accommodate all sides, with his main goal being the restoration of the Union (Goodwin, 2009). For years, the Emancipation has been severely misunderstood as the document which “freed all the slaves”, when in actuality, it did not free anyone, because the states it applied to were technically not under his jurisdiction at the time.
It is actually not until the Gettysburg Address in 1863 when Lincoln’s views on slavery and equality begin to come full circle to what we know them as today. While the majority of Lincoln’s cabinet still only have the Union in sight, not the end of slavery, Lincoln is starting to change. Filmmaker Ken Burns when discussing his 2013 documentary The Address, called the Gettysburg Address “a reaffirmation of the Declaration of Independence; its version 2.0” because it was here that a glaring hypocrisy finally became fully realized by Lincoln, and that was the idea of how can this country declare that all men are created equal when slavery is still in existence? His famous opening line says as much, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” (Lincoln, 1863). It was as if it took a war and hundreds of thousands of soldiers to die for everything to finally become prioritized in Lincoln’s mind.
The transformation would finally be complete towards the waning months of the American Civil War, when an embattled Lincoln was able to convince his cabinet to go forward with a 13th Amendment, which would grant slaves their freedom (Goodwin, 2005). This was not just a moral move, though, but a political one, as it would break the back of the south once and for all, and let them know that when the war ended (by late 1864, it was a matter of when, not if the Union would win), their way of life would be gone, and slavery would be destroyed (Goodwin, 2005). This truly was a form of dissent, because as seen in Spielberg’s illustration of these final months, everything was contentious. There is a reason why Goodwin chose the title “A Team of Rivals”, because these were men who seemed to not be able to agree on anything, especially something as hot as slavery, yet they were able to somehow be the ones to fully destroy it.
Lincoln had many tricks up his sleeve, from making moral appeals to the decency of would-be voters, to paying off and even intimidating those who were unsure about how they might vote (Goodwin, 2005). Just as always, racism reared its ugly head, as the majority of the pro-Lincoln and strongly anti-Confederate Republican Party still were not entirely comfortable with the idea of blacks being free. So Lincoln had to sell them the idea that the Civil War would not come to an immediate end without the passing of the amendment. Only then could he fully convince people to vote for it. While this certainly is a shrewd political move, one can finally see Lincoln’s thoughts on slavery finally becoming moral. In an 1865 speech, he declared, “Whenever I hear any one arguing for slavery I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally” (Lincoln, 1865).
It quite literally became a race against the clock to pass the amendment before the Confederacy surrendered. There was a lot on Lincoln’s plate, “This, then, is a story of Lincoln’s political genius revealed through his extraordinary array of personal qualities that enabled him to form friendships with men who had previously opposed him; to repair injured feelings that, left untended, might have escalated into permanent hostility; to assume responsibility for the failures of subordinates; to share credit with ease; and to learn from mistakes. He possessed an acute understanding of the sources of power inherent in the presidency, an unparalleled ability to keep his governing coalition intact, a tough-minded appreciation of the need to protect his presidential prerogatives, and a masterful sense of timing” (Goodwin, 2005). As it happened, it did indeed come down to timing, with the Amendment being passed by the senate just one day before Robert E. Lee surrendered.
The definition of “dissent” when used as a verb is, “to differ in sentiment or opinion, especially from the majority”. If that is the case, than Abraham Lincoln may be the greatest dissenter in American history when it comes to dealing with one’s own government and party. No matter what Lincoln’s early white supremacist views may have been, he will forever be known as the man who ended the scourge of slavery in America. Many may want to ignore some downright inconvenient facts about him, but they are essential to our understanding of him both as a politician and as a human being. This was someone who was not stubborn; who allowed himself to be transformed by what he saw in his private life leading up to the Civil War, and then let a war prioritize his thoughts on what exactly this country should be like when it was all over.
Not many politicians throughout history have experienced such a fascinating, albeit sometimes perplexing, change of opinion. As illustrated, though, this was no simple matter, not something so easy as Lincoln just changing his mind over time. This was something internal, something he struggled with. It was a form of personal dissent between the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other. It is dissent that became public, and resulted in one of the most important political documents ever passed. Abraham Lincoln is a multi-layered individual, who can be difficult to understand, but by studying his journey—his transformation—we can develop a better understanding of him, which makes it all the more interesting, and all the more groundbreaking.
Bibliography: 1. Burns, K. (Director). (2013). The Address [Television Documentary]. USA: PBS. 2. Crittenden, J. (1860). Crittenden Compromise. 3. Foner, E. (2010). The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. New York: W.W Norton and Company. 4. Goodwin, D. K. (2005). Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster. 5. Oakes, J. (2012). Freedom National: The Destruction of American Slavery, 1861-1865. New York: W.W Norton and Company. 6. Pinkser, M. (2009). Lincoln Theme 2.0. The Journal of American History, 96, 47-440. 7. Spielberg, S. (Director). (2012). Lincoln [Motion picture]. USA: Dreamworks. 8. Zwick, E. (Director). (1989). Glory [Motion Picture]. USA: TriStar Pictures 9-15. Please note: the Lincoln quotes from 1855, 1857, 1858, 1859, 1862, 1863, and 1865 were taken from the following collection: Van Doren, C. (Editor) (1980). The Literary Works of Abraham Lincoln. Connecticut: Easton Press.