Most Americans believe that the Civil War was fought over slavery and that emancipating the slaves was its primary purpose. Yet Lincoln in his clearest statement on the subject was made in his debate with Senator Stephen Douglas in 1858, in Ottawa, Illinois.
“I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which, in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality; and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a difference, I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position. I have never said anything to the contrary.”
Lincoln supported the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, according to which runaway slaves were to be captured and returned to their owners. Slaves were property and slaves’ owners had the right to claim their property. Owning slaves was a right guaranteed by the Constitution. “I acknowledge them [the slave owner’s rights], not grudgingly but fully and fairly; and I would give them any legislation for the reclaiming of their fugitives.” The Fugitive Slave Act was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court and the supreme courts of every northern state. As late as 1860 none of the four parties fielding presidential candidates favored abolition of Southern slavery. Lincoln, himself, was clear on the matter, “My paramount object in this struggle [the Civil War] is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery.”
Blacks in the North were discriminated against just as they were to be once liberated in the South. As Alexis de Tocqueville observes, “the prejudice of race appears to be stronger in the states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists …” Lincoln opposed black immigration into his state and supported the laws that denied blacks citizenship. According to Lincoln, freed blacks should be sent back to where they came from: Africa, Haiti, Central America. Eliminating every last black person from American soil would be a “glorious consummation.”
On January 22, 1861, the New York Times announced that it was opposed to the abolition of slavery. Blacks should be taught to read and write and save money, making slavery “a very tolerable institution.” The New York Herald speaks of “the good treatment and happy, contented lot of the slaves.”
Both Henry J. Raymond, editor of the New York Times and Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune favored peaceful secession. Said Greeley, “We hope never to live in a republic whereof one section is pinned to the residue by bayonets.”
“Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power have the right to rise up and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better…. Nor is the right confined to cases in which the whole people of an existing government may choose to exercise it. Any portion of such people that can may revolutionize and make their own of so much territory as they inhabit:
But he is talking about the right of Texans to rebel against the Mexico. Isn’t that what the Confederacy did?
But don’t forget the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln liberated the slaves.
Yet in the words of William Seward, Lincoln’s own Secretary of State, “We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free.” Seward is referring to the fact that the “Emancipation” was selective in its application, not universal. Slaves living under the Confederacy, that part of the country at war with Lincoln, were “liberated,” in quotes because there was little or nothing that Lincoln could do to actually set those slaves free. However, those states or parts of states that were loyal to the Union or under Union control were exempt from “Emancipation.” Slave owners in those states were free to continue to enjoy the benefits of their human property. As observed in the London Spectator, at the time, “The principle [of the Proclamation] is not that a human being cannot justly own another, but that he cannot own him unless he is loyal to the United States.”
Why would Lincoln have done such a thing if he were truly concerned with the suffering of slaves? Lincoln was up for re-election in 1864, he did not want to alienate allies by depriving them of a benefit. The “Proclamation” did not grant full citizenship to the ex-slaves (called freedmen). But, “such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.” In other words, blacks who found their way to freedom could offer up their bodies to fight in Lincoln’s war.