Abraham Lincoln’s “Proclamation of Emancipation” of 1863 transformed him into prophetic figure for millions of African Americans, who labeled him as “The Great Emancipator, for having freed them so suddenly from the claws of slavery. However, years after these events, African and White American critics began to criticize his views on race, and to understand the vision behind the liberation act, as one that was shaped by necessity, rather than a strong commitment to African Americans’ rights. This divided the opinions of historians among those who continue to defend his memory as a great fighter against slavery, those who perceive him as a very agile politician who cared little about African Americans, but more about the momentarily interests of the state, and yet another group, who understand his actions as those of a great man of his time, who did what he considered to be correct, while in the same time, fighting to defend the pillars of the nation. Indeed, Abraham Lincoln did not militate in the first place for the rapid liberation of the African Americans from slavery. Yet, he did consider slavery to be an outdated and immoral institution which was meant to disappear in time, by itself. His actions, which in the end led to the emancipation, were however meant to serve one purpose, namely that of preserving the Union, and making it stronger. Abraham Lincoln was no Great Emancipator, but he was a Great American, who constantly thought about the rights and liberties of all the people living in the American States, including African Americans.
Lincoln’s critics tie their arguments to some of Lincoln’s own speeches, which portray him as someone who was deeply prejudicial against the African Americans. However, one should not forget that Lincoln was a product of his times, during which science itself was confirming the inferior status of the African Americans. He thus argues, “I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the of the white and black races, -that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people” (Lincoln in Gienapp 57). This shows that indeed, he was no different than most people of his time, who believed the African American race to be fundamentally different, and inferior to the White race. Not only he may have held these views himself, but also, he was trying to gain the support of a crowd which believed this to be true. Yet, he as compared to other people of his time, of whom not all were Southerners, he did believe in rights and liberties for Africans Americans and in the immorality of slavery.
In addition, throughout the entire antebellum period, he was trying to be seen as a moderate politician, who was not threatening the rights of the Southern states to hold slaves. By displaying a moderate position in this respect, he was simply following his policies of prudence and moderation, meant to help preserving the unity of the country. He believed, at the time, that a radical position on slavery not only would ruin his political career, but would also have a negative impact upon the state, by destroying its frail stability. This is supported by Guelzo (21), who explains that, taking after the model of the Founding Fathers, guided by a principle of prudence (21). This politics of prudence was already being eroded by a politics of absolutism, which allowed for no compromises, which continues up to this day, and which is one major lens through which Lincoln’s actions are judged.
Yet, Lincoln believed that by abruptly ending slavery, the government would destroy the foundation upon which America was meant to rise as a great democratic nation, because rights of slave owners were guaranteed by the constitution. Instead, he believed that slavery would fade away by itself in time. He believed in the restauration of the Founding Fathers’ intention that slavery should be eliminated only gradually, in order to avoid civil unrest and preserve the independence and the democracy of the nascent republic (Morel 5). Lincoln expresses this view in his “Right Makes Might” speech:
“as president of the United States, [Washington] approved and signed an act of Congress, enforcing the prohibition of slavery in the Northwestern Territory, which act embodied the policy of the Government upon the subject up to and at the very moment he penned that warning; and about one year after he penned it, he wrote La Fayette that he considered that prohibition a wise measure, expressing in the same connection his hope that we should at some time have a confederacy of free States (Lincoln in Gienapp 73).
This shows that Lincoln’s views were on the same line with those of the Founding Fathers, who hoped for slavery to disappear, but did not try to dissolve it at once but rather, to restrict it so as not to spread.
Lincoln therefore believed slavery to be a necessary evil, which could not be dissolved for fear of causing an irreparable damage to the republic, but in the same time, it was certainly not to be allowed to spread, and to overtake the entire nation. For this reason, he declares that “the Republican party think it wrong-we think it is a moral, a social and political wrong…and so we deal with it that in the run of time there may be some promise of an end to it” (Lincoln in Gienapp 58). By dealing with it, Lincoln meant that “we insist on the policy that shall restrict it to its present limits” (59). Therefore, Lincoln did believe that the Constitution gave the Southern States the right to hold slaves, but in the same time, he believed that the constitution also gave the federal government, the right to forbid it from expanding.
Lincoln’s respect for the right of Southerners was based on his genuine reverence for the letter of the Constitution, but also on his conviction that Republicans needed to exercise prudence in order not to give birth to a civil war. For this reason, he hoped to reassure Southerners by declaring, “we have no right at all to disturb it in the states where it exists” (Lincoln in Gienapp 58). However, as history as shown, this was not enough and after his election, the Southern states declared their independence, in protest for his election. Lincoln had no choice but starting a war which was meant in the first place, to defend the Union and prevent its rupture. For this reason, he first ordered that all the slaves escaping in the North should be returned to their masters. As a president, he could not feel sorry for those people but he had to act for what he considered to be better for the future of the Republic.
However, as the war raged on, Lincoln made a decisive step and proclaimed the Emancipation of the Slaves in 1863 which was a strategic manner of trying to put an end to the war and restore the Union, by freeing African Americans from the obligation to fight in the Southern army, and to work to support the war. This does not mean that Lincoln did not sincerely support or want this to occur. Indeed, in all of his speeches, he constantly spoke of the horrors of slavery, and on its evil. Perhaps, having understood that there was no chance for the Southern states to return to the Union on free will, he felt free to take this huge step forward, which had nevertheless been shaped by the decades of increasing turmoil and public debate.
In all his actions, Lincoln was first and foremost, a defender of the Constitution, and on the Union. He believed in the future of the American Republic and in the necessity to avoid civil war at all cost. He felt that a head of state is responsible for all the people living in the country, including African Americans, and despised the institution of slavery, as in no way compatible with the notion of all people being born free and equal. Truly, Lincoln may have not been the Great Emancipator, because he was too prudent to take a radical step that would have put future of the republic in danger. But he was a Great American because he patriotically fought with all his power, to preserve the unity of the country, and to ensure that all people enjoyed rights and freedoms, as established by the Constitution.