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Was Lincoln an anti-slavery champion, or was slavery, at a most, a peripheral concern?

The recent convulsions in American politics highlighted anew the deep political rifts besetting the country. In their contest for prominence, some conservative factions have invoked the weighted name of Abraham Lincoln, who was, in 1860, the Republican Party's first successful presidential candidate.

Arguably the most debated and discussed political leader in world history, Lincoln was deeply controversial in his own time (even in the Northern states). Since his assassination in 1865, there have been thousands upon thousands of books and essays written about him.

The interest in Lincoln is fueled, at least in part, by hotly contested questions over his political — and personal —orientation towards slavery. Was Lincoln an anti-slavery champion, the "Great Emancipator?" Or was he fundamentally an American nationalist-unionist, for whom slavery was, at a most, a peripheral concern?

In the years leading up to the Civil War, Lincoln certainly advocated a gradualist approach to ending slavery, predicting in 1858 that it would take a century to see the end of slave system in America. And in the early stages of the war, he was, in his public pronouncements, careful not to make the conflict "about" ending slavery.

Lincoln's detractors often cite an 1862 letter he sent to newspaper editor Horace Greeley, in which the president baldly asserted, "If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it."

But what, then, about the Emancipation Proclamation? First announced by Lincoln 100 days before its ultimate ratification on Jan. 1, 1863, the Proclamation declared free all slaves in the Confederate states.

As these states were not largely under Union control, the Proclamation was in one sense symbolic. However, there was also nothing gradual about it.

The Proclamation paved the way for the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which in 1865 formally outlawed slavery in the United States. As if to eliminate any doubt about his perspective, in Lincoln's second inaugural address — after his resounding victory in the 1864 presidential election — he stated that Southern slavery was "somehow the cause of the war," and affirmed his belief in the inextricable relationship between ending slavery and winning the war.

How do we reconcile these two Lincolns?

The answer is simple: His position changed over time.

Lincoln's relationship with the eminent African American statesman Frederick Douglass reflects this evolution. In 1863, at Douglass' behest, Lincoln granted a brief and formal meeting at the White House; however, in their second meeting, in 1864, Lincoln sought out Douglass for a more intimate discussion, in which the president asked for advice on how to free as many slaves as possible in the remaining days of his first term.

Historical political personages — like their modern equivalents — were not static; they were not defined by a single speech or single letter. Their beliefs evolved, as they interacted with events, with people, and with new information.

To attempt to define Lincoln by a short period in his life or by a single pronouncement is to do a disservice to the truth, to a full rendering of what he did or did not do.

As the great writer and public intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois said about Lincoln in 1922: "In that curious human way he was big inside. He had reserves and depths and when habit and convention were torn away there was something left to Lincoln ... so that at the crisis he was big enough to be inconsistent — cruel, merciful; peace-loving, a fighter."


Jonathan Cooper is a Vancouver, British Columbia, resident. He previously lived in the Salem area and has family ties to Forest Grove.


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