Why did Lincoln try to separate some aspects of equality and civil rights issues from emancipation policy and his opposition to slavery? Was he evolving on these issues? Does the tension suggest that he should not be remembered as a Great Emancipator?
I think the Constitution and Lincoln’s law background best explains his separation between equality and emancipation. I believe Lincoln was opposed to slavery however; his most important goal was to preserve the union. As it became more obvious that this was going to take place, I believe Lincoln seized the opportunity to end slavery which was as Oakes put it, consistent with his views on natural rights. On the other hand, Lincoln was a lawyer and “law and order type” thus his view that although he may not have liked the state laws that promoted discrimination they simply were not “his issue”. Honestly, could Lincoln have taken up this cause anyway? He fought a war to preserve the Union and defend the Constitution. Could he have in turn circumvented that very document by intervening in the laws of individual states?
The best answer to this question, in my opinion, is that Lincoln hoped to win elections. Phillip Shaw Paludan cites some remarkable statistics on the pathetic electoral returns of antislavery parties in Illinois. Lincoln’s district gave the Liberty party exactly zero votes in the 1840 presidential election, out of 98,000 ballots cast. I agree with Paludan’s assessment: “Lincoln fell short of full heartfelt egalitarianism for pragmatic, political reasons. Politically ambitious as he was, Lincoln had to skirt very carefully accusations that he was an abolitionist. His constituents would punish him for abolition views.” Though Lincoln was debating a race-bating Democrat in Stephen Douglas before an audience devoted to white supremacy, I believe Lincoln nonetheless revealed his true sentiments when he declared, “A universal feeling, whether well or ill-founded, cannot be safely disregarded. We cannot, then make them equals.”
Lincoln never hid his opposition to slavery. However, his thinking on rights and equality for African Americans was much more muddled. On the one hand he believed that African Americans as fellow humans deserved the natural rights guaranteed by the Declaration of Independence, and to be paid for their labor. On the other hand, he wasn’t quite sure if African Americans were his moral, intellectual, or social equals. In his first debate with Stephen A. Douglass he said he had no plans for political and social equality between blacks and whites. In hisfourth debate he said he that “I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race”, and arguably racist statement. On this point Lincoln did not see any inconsistency between the evil of slavery, the entitlement to natural rights and a lack of full equality. It is our mind that makes the distinction between natural rights and civil and social rights. In other words perception depends on context.
Lincoln separated equality from emancipation out of necessity. He needed to circumvent the abolitionists who he believed undermined self-government and he needed to keep any legal actions out of the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. He put aside the emotional side of the issue to focus on the legal side. In reverence to the law, Lincoln believed that we must obey a bad law until the law is changed, so he worked hard to change the law about slavery. His hard work can be divided into three monumental tasks: convincing people that slavery is a violation of natural rights, keeping the economy from collapsing, and changing the laws.
I think Lincoln shifted away from his previous positions on such matters as colonization for practical, as well as philosophical reasons. The Lincoln we knew in 1863 was not the Lincoln of the 1850s. He had evolved in his views to come to the point that he advocated emancipation without conditions—no requirement of consent of slave owners, no compensation to the slave owners, no emigration of black slaves to distant lands. Although Lincoln was not “born with a pen in his hand ready to sign the Emancipation Proclamation [nor did he enter] the White House with a fixed determination to preside over the end of slavery,” he eventually got there (Foner 2010, p. xix). Over time, Lincoln changed his mind and views—not simply for political expediency, but also because, through his on-going learning, experience, and exposure to divergent views, he came to believe in principles of equality and civil rights that made him a “Great Emancipator.”
Lincoln’s commitment to the 13TH Amendment in 1865, shortly before his death, is the greatest justification for his being labeled the Great Emancipator, as his role in this process was Herculean! However, Lincoln’s premature death left the march toward equality far from the finish line. So in a broader sense, can you label someone who served a critical but limited role in this multi-generational story, the pinnacle position?
I believe the answer to the question of why Lincoln separated African-American civil rights from the issue of emancipation is to be found, like many of his distinctions, in his training within the law. In Angels and Ages: A Short Book on Darwin, Lincoln and Modern Life, his study of the two titans of 19th-century thought, Adam Gopnik offers as a paradigm the idea that “When Lincoln proposed a cult of the law, he meant it, and we miss the thread of continuity in his life if we miss the passion of his belief in dispassion” (Gopnik 58). He continues later to suggest that “For Lincoln, the language of legal argument wasthe true language of liberal eloquence” (Gopnik 59).
In terms of emancipation, one is either legally held as a slave or he is not. Equality is a more elusive concept. Are people equal in terms of property rights, voting rights, natural rights, or social rights? The 1960s saw this same ambiguous understanding play out in the fight against Jim Crow oppression in the South. The 1964 Civil Rights Act had to be followed up with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. These historic measures came a full decade after the Supreme Court issued its landmark decision requiring equal access to education through the Brown v Board of Education case of 1954. These rights were achieved piecemeal but would have faced great difficulty if enveloped in an intact package. Lincoln faced similar hurdles. The one true understanding of equality held by Lincoln was that of natural rights being essential for all human beings.
50 years ago, Martin Luther King gave his “I have a dream” speech on President Lincoln’s very doorstep, and a whole generation grew up thinking Lincoln was our nation’s first great civil rights leader. But to Lincoln and his contemporaries, emancipating slaves and finding their rightful place in white America were almost totally separate issues. Frederick Douglass nailed it in a single sentence: “Though Mr. Lincoln shared the prejudices of his white fellow-countrymen against the Negro, it is hardly necessary to say that in his heart of hearts he loathed and hated slavery.”