April 15, 2015, was the 150th anniversary of the death of President Abraham Lincoln. Arguably the most beloved American president, he also is considered one of the two or three best, if not the best, leader of our country.
His greatest achievements were preserving the Union and gaining congressional approval of the 13th Amendment of the Constitution, which abolished slavery in the country. Less well known is the evolution of his thinking on the slavery issue and, just possibly, of blacks in a broader context.
Had Lincoln not been assassinated he most certainly would have accomplished more, maybe even changing the course of Reconstruction.
As far as was documented, Lincoln long believed blacks were not equal to whites and the two races should be separated. In a meeting with five free black ministers in August 1862, he’s reported to have said, “You and we are different races. We have between us a broader difference that exists between almost any other two races.” And more startling, “…on this broad continent, not a single man of your race is made the equal of a single man of ours.”
Notwithstanding these beliefs, Lincoln long advocated freedom of all blacks. In a 1858 speech he said, “I have always hated slavery, I think as much as any abolitionist,” and two years later said “We think slavery a great moral wrong….” Without equivocation, he forcefully addressed the immorality of slavery.
President Lincoln didn’t believe, however, he had constitutional authority to abolish slavery. In his first inaugural address in 1861 he stated, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” With the advent of the Civil War, he made clear this was still his belief and policy, stating “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery.”
As the human toll and devastation of the war dragged on, Lincoln conceived the Emancipation Proclamation as an attempt to abolish slavery. First published on Sept. 22, 1862, the document proclaimed on Jan. 1, 1863, all slaves held in any State or designated part thereof that was in rebellion against the United States shall be free. It would be issued under his authority as Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy “as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion.” Freeing the slaves was justified because the Confederacy would be deprived of essential manpower to prosecute the war.
All Confederate states continued in rebellion, and the Proclamation became effective on Jan. 1, 1863. They ignored the declaration their slaves were free, and thus the Proclamation was effective only in border states that had relatively few slaves. It nevertheless had great moral force and encouraged many slaves to escape to free states.
With no cessation of fighting, Lincoln turned to amending the Constitution to abolish slavery. Whether he yielded to abolitionists’ pressure or his own moral beliefs as to the evil of slavery, Lincoln forced congressional approval of the 13th Amendment in January 1865. Its ratification by the states and the subsequent adoption of the 14th and 15th Amendments guaranteed the equal rights of all persons.
Sadly, that noble concept still lacks reality among African-Americans in our country.
Bo Statham is a retired lawyer, congressional aid and businessman. he livs in Gardnerville and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.