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Abraham Lincoln: "Great Emancipator" Or Common Politician?

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President Abraham Lincoln has been revered as one of the greatest presidents in the history of the United States. He is known for his great effect on slavery and served his terms during the civil war in a time of great controversy. The American Civil War (1860-1865) occurred at the exact time of Lincoln's presidency (1861-1865). The North and the South were divided and a big issue was slavery, on which Lincoln took an anti-slavery stance. Lincoln has been called many things because of his views "from the great emancipator to the reluctant emancipator to the white supremacist, or, in more vulgar terms, Lincoln as just another honkie" (Hubbell 1). While many people believe Abraham Lincoln to be the "Great Emancipator" of the times, he was really just a politician who took a political stance on the current issue of slavery.

In opposition, Lincoln was considered by some as one of the greatest advocates for slaves' rights and a fighter for emancipation as a social cause. In a letter to Albert G. Hodges in 1864, Lincoln writes, "I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, or feel," (qtd. in Gienapp 194). Abraham Lincoln openly opposed slavery and thought it was extremely unethical. He never wanted to have slavery in the United States and believed it wrong according to his moral standards. As a social issue, he personally did not support it. Lincoln believed that a person's fate should not be determined by birth and he supported the Whig ideal of economic growth (Hubbell 1). Therefore, Lincoln believed that black men should be free and not restrained by their color, and he believed in fostering economic growth by the extensive amount of jobs that would arise after eliminating slave labor.

In the words of Arthur Zilversmit, "no American story was as "false" as the traditional picture of Lincoln as the Great Emancipator" (Zilversmit 1). Lincoln necessarily had to accept, and then defend, policies that arose from circumstances--circumstances that forced a reconsideration of the place of the African-Americans in the United States. He was a decent, honest man who valued honesty and loyalty over almost all else. But he was also a politician who had strong political views and a rigid attachment to his political party. Almost all of Lincoln's actions and decisions were based on his political beliefs and were for the good of the party. He always carried out perceived obligations strongly and proved to the common man that he was a man full of honesty and integrity (Wrone 1). In the same letter to Albert Hodges, Lincoln writes of his oath into office, "I understood that in ordinary civil administration this oath even forbade me to practically indulge my abstract judgment and feeling on slavery" (qtd. In Gienapp 194). While Lincoln may have felt very negative about slavery, he understood that the Constitution forbids him to act solely upon his own personal feelings. He continues to say that he has never made an official act according to his own beliefs (Lincoln 194). The president knew his presidential oath and the Constitution were the only ways to make a decision, and set his feelings aside for the good of the country. Also, Lincoln may have felt that slavery was wrong, but he did not support equal right for blacks. During many debates with Stephen Douglas, he confessed that he believed in white supremacy and did not want to grant civil or political rights to African-Americans (Zilversmit). He believed whites were still superior to blacks, and didn't care about the needs of oppressed blacks. Even Frederick Douglass, a prominent black advocate for equal rights, said that Lincoln was "preeminently the white man's president," (qtd. in Berwanger 1) referring to the fact that he focused mostly on white issues.

While Lincoln obviously greatly opposed slavery, he was very hesitant about making any drastic decisions for fear of repercussions. Hamlin, Lincoln's vice-president said of him, "He was much slower to move that it seemed to us he should have been; much slower than I wanted him to be...I urged him over and over again to act; but the time had not come, in his judgment" (Hamlin 71). Lincoln was not ready to abolish slavery in the South, nor was he ready to take too extreme of a stance on the subject. Good politicians never lean to extreme on an issue for fear of losing popularity with the other side, and Lincoln was smart and tried to stay more neutral. He was very hesitant to act to fast or make any drastic decisions because he was scared to completely lose the South. Lincoln had little to gain from slavery and much to lose at that time. A presidential attack on slavery would cause controversy in the north over war goals, create further want for secession in the South and make the South turn against him even more, making restoration of the Union far more difficult (Klingaman 71). Politically, the better choice was to not make any extreme choices for slavery. In the summer of 1964, he even tried to write a statement for peace terms that stated that any proposition for peace, the abandonment of slavery, and an end to the war would be considered by the United States government (Lincoln 201). But this statement was disregarded by the south because it called for abolition. The south was still not willing to compromise and therefore Lincoln



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