For President's Day: A new look at Lincoln and slavery

Did the Great Emancipator always want to end slavery? Or did his thinking evolve on the job?

akg-images/Günter Lachmuth/Newscom
Image of Abraham Lincoln at Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Exactly 150 years ago this weekend Abraham Lincoln was slowly making his way to Washington D.C. from his home in Springfield, Ill. Near the end of the trip his train would have to sneak through Baltimore because of fears that Southern sympathizers there might try to assassinate him before he could take office as president.

He escaped martyrdom that day, but couldn't avoid John Wilkes Booth's bullet four years later, after guiding the nation back into Union.

It may seem that there's nothing new to say about the martyred 16th US president, whose birthday is honored along with Washington on this President's Day weekend. But, then again, maybe there's always something new to say. Lincoln will never change, but our views of him will keep evolving. He could rightly be called the most fascinating man to ever hold the office.

No aspect of Lincoln is any more controversial – and to some, troubling – than his views on slavery. Lincoln had roots in slave-holding Kentucky. His wife's family held slaves. He campaigned only on limiting the extension of slavery, not for abolishing it. He was no abolitionist. He waited until the Civil War was well under way before issuing the Emancipation Proclamation that freed slaves in the rebellious states.

He was a politician who sought the middle ground, the politics of the possible. He even advocated returning freed slaves to Africa, though it's unknown how he would have actually dealt with the newly freed slaves after the war.

But Lincoln also said, “I am naturally antislavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” And "I have always hated slavery, I think as much as any Abolitionist." And this: "Slavery is founded in the selfishness of man's nature – opposition to it in his love of justice."

Some argue Lincoln had a strong, consistent aversion to slavery and that his superb political instincts were used to wait until the right moment to put his beliefs into practice.

Another view argues his ideas evolved. "The hallmark of Lincoln's greatness was his capacity for growth," says distinguished historian Eric Foner in "The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery," published last fall. "Over the course of the war he had developed a deep sense of compassion for the slaves he had helped to liberate, and a concern for their fate."

No doubt it was some combination of his inherent beliefs and the new experiences, contacts, and information that he encountered as president.

Perhaps seeing Lincoln as a complex man facing complex problems may help us pause before we label modern politicians too quickly – or judge them too harshly if they come to new positions based on new evidence. We admire leaders who stand unflinchingly for their principles. Should we also admire those who are always trying to get a clearer view?

Lincoln, Foner says, was "intellectually curious, willing to listen to criticsm, attuned to the currents of ... public opinion, and desirous of getting along with Congress."

Those sound like worthy attributes for any president, even one who serves in the 21st century.

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