To what extent was Lincoln responsible for ending slavery in the United States?

frontrank2

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I saw this on another web site:


"Slavery had been abolished in certain northern states during the late eighteenth century. By the time of the Civil War, only four of the states that remained in the Union, the so-called border states, continued to retain slavery. In the early stages of the war, Lincoln took a very conservative approach to the question of slavery, following the law to the letter by restoring numerous slaves freed during battle to their previous owners! Even his much- celebrated Emancipation Proclamation only applied to slaves in the Confederacy, and in fact had no direct bearing on slavery policy in what at that time remained of the United States. This proclamation freed very few slaves in short order, and what slaves were eventually freed during the war were liberated though the power of war rather than by executive decree. Lincoln ran for re-election in 1864 on the platform of an abolition amendment, and though such legislation was eventually seen through, it was months after Lincoln's death before his successor, President Johnson, signed the amendment into law. Thus, though Lincoln today stands as the obvious figurehead of the abolition movement, the end of slavery in the United States was a much more gradual and complicated process. Lincoln did much to encourage the final push toward emancipation, but he had several critics among the more radical abolitionists. In the end, Lincoln's contribution was more in the rhetoric than in the actual doing."

While I kind of agree, I don't think it gives Lincoln enough credit. The abolitionists felt he was slower than molasses, while more conservatives felt he was very radical. I think he was trying to build up a consensus by proceeding cautiously, not trying to rock the boat. What do you think?
 

Mark F. Jenkins

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The answer to questions like this always depend on exactly how it's phrased. Obviously, there were many people who worked at the abolition of slavery, both in this country and in others; and to give any one individual the credit is to deny it to other deserving people.

One could point to the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation as a major watershed in the process, and that was clearly the work of Lincoln (the Cabinet provided some edits, but left to them it wouldn't have been issued, at least not at that time and in that form). On the other hand, the charge has been made (and it's true, literally speaking) that the Proclamation did not actually free a single slave, since it only declared slaves free in areas not under Federal control.

Lincoln himself credited (jokingly) Harriet Beecher Stowe... 'So you're the little lady who started this big war,' or something along those lines.

ETA: One of the pivotal figures in the process in 19th-century America was undoubtedly Frederick Douglass. It's not an area I usually get into, but he seems to have been a truly impressive individual.
 
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brass napoleon

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Lincoln ran for re-election in 1864 on the platform of an abolition amendment, and though such legislation was eventually seen through, it was months after Lincoln's death before his successor, President Johnson, signed the amendment into law.

The above statement is grossly disingenuous. Lincoln worked tirelessly to get Congress to pass the 13th amendment, which they did during his Presidency. By all accounts that would not have happened without his encouragement, and even strong-arming. The fact that it took several months for the states to ratify it after that says nothing about Lincoln or Johnson, it's all part of the Constitutional ratification process.

Some people give Lincoln too much credit for freeing the slaves, calling him the "Great Emancipator", which I think is also overstated. As Mark F. Jenkins said, there were many people involved in the effort. But belittling Lincoln's contribution, like the quote posted in the OP, is just as wrong.

Perhaps Lincoln's greatest contribution was years of speaking out forcefully against slavery BEFORE he became President, as Georgia's Howell Cobb noted in an open letter to the people of Georgia telling them why they should secede:

In these declarations Mr. Lincoln has covered the entire abolition platform - hatred of slavery, disregard of judicial decisions, negro equality, and, as a matter of course, the ultimate extinction of slavery. None of these doctrines, however, are left to inference, so far as Mr. Lincoln is concerned, as we see he has avowed them in the plainest and clearest language...

On the 4th day of March, 1861, the Federal Government will pass into the hands of the Abolitionists. It will then cease to have the slightest claim upon either your confidence or your loyalty; and, in my honest judgment, each hour that Georgia remains thereafter a member of the Union will be an hour of degradation, to be followed by certain and speedy ruin...

- Howell Cobb, December 6, 1860

Source: http://georgiainfo.galileo.usg.edu/howellcobbletter.htm
 

Scotsman

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On the other hand, the charge has been made (and it's true, literally speaking) that the Proclamation did not actually free a single slave, since it only declared slaves free in areas not under Federal control.

I am always frustrated with that claim, for it ignores the thousands of slaves FROM Confederate areas that were already in Union lines and were constantly fleeing to Union lines that were instantly recognized as free on 1 January 1863. The status of many "contrabands," or fugitive slaves, from the Confederacy was still in flux before the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. With Lincoln's signature, their status as free was instantly established.
 

brass napoleon

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I am always frustrated with that claim, for it ignores the thousands of slaves FROM Confederate areas that were already in Union lines and were constantly fleeing to Union lines that were instantly recognized as free on 1 January 1863. The status of many "contrabands," or fugitive slaves, from the Confederacy was still in flux before the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. With Lincoln's signature, their status as free was instantly established.

Absolutely true. Not to mention the tens of thousands of slaves who were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation after January 1, 1863, with every square inch of ground the Union conquered.

Of course there was the question of whether they were truly "forever free", or whether their freedom might be rescinded by the courts after the war was over. But that all became a moot point with the ratification of the 13th amendment.
 

Mark F. Jenkins

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Hm. I've usually heard it presented that way... I didn't think of the contrabands so much, as I was counting them among the 'already freed'... but that would be incorrect, wouldn't it, per the Dred Scott decision? Hm.
 

Eric Calistri

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Beaufort SC, held a rather large celebration of the freedom of thousands of former slaves in the Union Controlled Sea Isles area of SC, on 1/1/1863. Similarly slaves in and around Helena Ar and Corinth MS were freed on the first day by the Emancipation Proclamation. I too have often heard the "did not free a single slave" claim, but said claim is totally false, unless one is declaring the Proclamation itself as lacking legality.
 

brass napoleon

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The rumor was probably started by someone proclaiming that "history is written by the victors." :rofl:
 

brass napoleon

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Actually, though, my guess is the rumor started out as "The E.P. didn't free a single slave at the moment it was signed", as I recall my high school history teacher saying. Even that though, as Scotsman noted, is incorrect. But to make matters worse, people have since dropped off the tail end of the original misstatement, making it "The E.P. didn't free a single slave"
 

Scotsman

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Hm. I've usually heard it presented that way... I didn't think of the contrabands so much, as I was counting them among the 'already freed'... but that would be incorrect, wouldn't it, per the Dred Scott decision? Hm.

The Confiscation Acts that predated the Emancipation Proclamation permitted Union armies to take slaves from Confederate areas, but did so through the recognition that the slaves were property. Thus, the "contrabands" as a whole were not officially freed--even if they were functionally free--at least according to established law.

The importance of the Emancipation Proclamation is not in the sense of active liberation of slaves from bondage, as that had been occurring since the first Union armies marched into Confederate territories in 1861 (not to mention the thousands of slaves who liberated themselves by fleeing to northern states). Even after its signing, enforcement of the Proclamation required military might. Instead, it represents a status change; a point when the federal government officially enforced a policy of freedom, where slaves from Confederate territories were not simply taken from former masters, but recognized as free people and not property. In that sense, thousands of fugitive slaves, stuck in a status limbo, were freed instantly.

And this is not a matter of semantics. It is recognition of humanity, of personhood, and of rights. The Emancipation Proclamation marked a point when protection of black human rights (even if not yet racial equality) became a federal prerogative.
 

ForeverFree

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I saw this on another web site: "In the end, Lincoln's contribution was more in the rhetoric than in the actual doing."

I could not disagree more. The implication seems to be that, emancipation/abolition was inevitable, and that, anybody who had been president would have done the same thing as Lincoln. I don't know that there is evidence to support that.

The historian Barbara Fields said this recently, and I agree with her: a lot of people get credit for the end of slavery - the US Congress, the US military, African Americans, many varied civilians, state governments (eg, MD and MO abolished slavery before the end of the war), and Lincoln himself. Each of them, in their own way, fed off each other, keeping the feedback loop going. I say, acknowledge them all.

- Alan
 

ole

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Early in the warm Butler predated the EP. In the West, however, the military was different. Take, for example, the Memphis area before it was considered that Tennessee was, in fact, under Union Control.

Those in charge of restructuring the area as a Military Post and Supply Depot hired hundreds of Negroes, but there was a question of who was paid. Freedmen, who could prove their status were paid directly. Negroes who were hired directly from their owner had their pay deposited in the hands of their owners. Negroes who could not prove their status as freedmen and who were not hiredf directly from their master had their pay withheld until it could be determined who was entitled to the pay.

As you might imagine, paymasters were quite confused and demanded a clarifying answer. They got it on January 1, 1863. All were free; all were paid.
 
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