Introduction by Richard Behn

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

“Whether we will have it so or not, the slave question is the prevailing question before the nation. Though it may be true, and probably is true, that all parties, factions and individuals desire it should be settled, it still goes on unsettled – the all-prevailing and all-pervading question of the day,” said Mr. Lincoln in a speech on March 5, 1860 in Hartford, Connecticut.1 Mr. Lincoln was unwilling that any settlement of the question should include the further deprivation of slavery to more Americans. Historian LaWanda Cox argued: “Lincoln emerged as a consistent, determined friend of black freedom, but a friend whose style of leadership obscured the strength of his commitment — and still does.”2

In his 1862 Annual Message to Congress, President. Lincoln said: “in giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free.”3 Mr. Lincoln told Washington lawyer Simon Wolf, “It was not only the Negro that I freed, but the white man no less.”4

Mr. Lincoln wrote: “Among the friends of the Union there is great diversity of sentiment and of policy in regard to slavery and the African race amongst us. Some would perpetuate slavery; some would abolish it suddenly and without compensation; some would remove the freed people from us, and some would retain them with us; and there are yet other minor diversities. Because of these diversities we waste much strength in struggles among ourselves. By mutual concession we should harmonize and act together. This would be compromise; but it would be compromise among the friends, and not with the enemies of the Union.”5

Historian Dwight Lowell Dumond wrote: “On the question of slavery in its relation to the nonslaveholder we find one significant idea running through all his public pronouncements of the forties and fifties, variously stated according to the exigencies of the occasion, but never retracted: that slavery was hostile to the interests of the poor man, who invariably sought to escape to the free states or to the territories; and that the territories should be kept free by the nation as a haven for the poor. Furthermore, while disclaiming all idea of perfect equality between the races, he did insist over and over, and in unmistakable terms,, that the Negro should be free to develop whatever talents he might possess and be protected in his civil right to the enjoyment of the fruits of his own labor.”6

Especially during the 1850s, slavery and freedom were subjects to which Mr. Lincoln gave increasing attention — so much so that he confidently told aide John Hay in September 1862 that he knew more about the subject than the newspaper editors who were criticizing him.7 In early January 1855, Mr. Lincoln made notes for a speech to be given to the Colonization Society in Springfield in which he summarized what he knew of the history of the first 300 years of the slavery in America:

A portaguse [sic] captain, on the coast of Guinea, seizes a few African lads, and sells them in the South of Spain.
Slaves are carried from Africa to the Spanish colonies in America.
Charles 5th. of Spain gives encouragement to the African Slave trade.
John Hawkins carries slaves to the British West Indies.
A dut[c]h ship carries a cargo of African slaves to Virginia.
Slaves introduced into New-York.
1630 to 41-
Slaves introduced into Massachusetts.
The period of our revolution, there were about 600-000 slaves in the colonies; and there are now in the U.S. about 3 1/4 millions.

Soto, the catholic confessor of Charles 5, opposed Slavery and the Slave trade from the beginning; and the beginning; and in 1543, procured from the King some amelioration of its rigors.

The American colonies, from the beginning, appealed to the British crown, against the Slave trade; but without success.

Quakers begin to agitate to the abolition of Slavery without their own denomination
Quakers succeed in abolishing Slavery within their own denomination.
Congress, under the confederation, passes an Ordinance forbidding Slavery to go to the North Western Territory.
Congress, under the constitution, abolishes the Slave trade, and declares it piracy
All the while –
Individual conscience at work.8

Mr. Lincoln exercised his own conscience. He instinctively felt that slavery violated fundamental principles of justice. “Slavery is founded in the selfishness of man’s nature — opposition to it in his love of justice,” said Mr. Lincoln in a speech in Peoria in October 1854.9 But as President, Mr. Lincoln also understood that his own freedom of action was limited by his position, his time and his contemporaries. President Lincoln knew the limitations of his own presidential power to resolve the problem. In April 1864, he responded to a group of Massachusetts children urging complete emancipation: “The petitions of persons under eighteen, praying that I would free all slave children, and the heading of which petition it appears you wrote, was handed me a few days since by Senator [Charles] Sumner. Please tell these little people I am very glad their young hearts are so full of just and generous sympathy, and that, while I have not the power to grant all they ask, I trust they will remember that God has, and that, as it seems, He wills to do it.”10

Mr. Lincoln said repeatedly that he hated slavery, but Mr. Lincoln operated from other moral limitations. His sense of fairness imposed other tests for an effective and fair emancipation policy, according to Illinois friend Joseph Gillespie: “For instance he would not begin the work of emancipation when proposed by [General John] Freemont [sic] nor would he proclaim the freedom of the slave untill [sic] he had given the masters one hundred days notice to lay down their arms[.] This was done to place them obviously in the wrong and strengthen his justification for the act[.] Mr Lincoln Knew that it was not in the power of the masters to lay down their arms but they being in the wrong he had no scruples about making that wrong appear monstrous.”11

Mr. Lincoln differentiated between what he thought was right and what was possible and legal. Another longtime friend, Joshua Speed, wrote after Mr. Lincoln’s death: “My own opinion of the history of the emancipation proclamation is, that Mr Lincoln for[e]saw the necessity for it — long before he issued it — He was anxious to avoid it — and came to it only when he saw that the measure would subtract from their labor and add to our army quite a number of good fighting men — “12 John Todd Stuart, who had been Mr. Lincoln’s first law partner, said he was told by Mr. Lincoln around 1850: “The time is Coming when you & I will have to be Democrats or Abolitionists”. Mr. Lincoln added: “When that time Comes My mind is fixed — I cant Compromise the Slavery question.”13 Caleb Carman, who knew Mr. Lincoln in New Salem, recalled that Mr. Lincoln then “was opposed to Slavery & said he thoug[h]t it a curse to the Land”.14

Democratic friend Orlando B. Ficklin wrote of Mr. Lincoln: “As a Statesman, he was deeply imbued with the Principles of Henry Clay, but was conscient[i]ously opposed to slavery all his life, & he expressed his views honestly & truly to the Ky delegation when he urged them so strongly to accept compensated emancipation. He had a nice & keen perception of right & wrong & did not wish to see rich men made poor by having their negroes freed without compensation”.15 Indeed, Mr. Lincoln was deeply distressed by his failure to convince representatives of Kentucky and other Border States to accept the wisdom of his plans for compensated emancipation.

Historian Stephen B. Oates wrote: “We now know that Lincoln issued his proclamation for a combination of reasons: to clarify the status of the fugitive slaves, to solve the Union’s manpower woes, to keep Great Britain out of the conflict, to maim and cripple the Confederacy by destroying its labor force, to remove the very thing that had caused the war, and to break the chains of several million oppressed human beings and right America at last with her own ideals.”16 Oates concluded that President “Lincoln’s proclamation was not ‘of minor importance,’ as James G. Randall contended a generation ago. On the contrary, it was most revolutionary measure ever to come from an American president up to that time.”17

President Lincoln’s caution on emancipation exasperated some critics. “Douglass, I hate slavery as much as you do, and I want to see it abolished altogether,” Mr. Lincoln told black abolitionist Frederick Douglass.18 Although some critics complained that President Lincoln’s policies were neither strong nor aggressive enough, Mr. Lincoln told Douglass that “I do not think that charge can be sustained; I think it cannot be shown that when I have once taken a position, I have ever retreated from it.”19

Mr. Lincoln moved the country down the road of emancipation. “Although it did not free all slaves at once, for it applied only in areas still in rebellion, the Emancipation Proclamation was a high point of the Civil War. Lincoln considered it the central act of his administration and the great event of the nineteenth century,” wrote historian Kenneth A. Bernard. “It became a landmark in human progress — it was the beginning of the end of slavery in the United States, it changed the whole nature of the war and made it, at least in large part, a crusade for human freedom and as such gave hope and encouragement to those interested in freedom everywhere, and it made Abraham Lincoln the Great Emancipator.”20

Although Mr. Lincoln’s deliberate pace was criticized by black leaders in the North, one group that generally appreciated Mr. Lincoln’s leadership were former slaves. With or without formal emancipation, slaves declared their own emancipation by crossing Union lines from the very first months of the Civil War. Many of them settled in and around Washington, D.C.. Presidential aide William O. Stoddard editor wrote in his memoirs:

“As yet the vast mass of the population supposed to be most deeply concerned in the Emancipation Proclamation dwells south of the army lines, but from the very beginning of this revolution large numbers of them from time to time broke through. So many drifted into Washington City and its vicinity, in a vague search after somebody to care for them, that it was necessary to corral them, and what is termed the ‘Contraband Camp’ grew to its present proportions upon some vacant land northward, just beyond the corporation limits.

It is a place much visited by the charitable and the curious, and particularly by grim old Abolitionists, of both sexes, from the North. As one of them feelingly remarked, ‘It beats the Underground Railway all hollow! What could the Fugitive Slave Law do with this here collection?”

“It is mainly by the enthusiastic efforts of these triumphantly sincere friends of the African that is to be a grand celebration at the Contraband Camp, on Thanksgiving Day, this year, 1863. There will be a dinner and speeches, and all the available contrabands of the District of Columbia and of Maryland will come flocking in to promote the jollity21

Stoddard recalled attending a 1863 Thanksgiving Day celebration for former slaves encamped north of the nation’s capital. Stoddard had been asked to attend as a representative of President Lincoln and to speak to the crowd of 10,000. When he got up to speak, Stoddard told the assembled crowd: “You people are free. You own your own bodies. Nobody can buy or sell you or your children again. When you work you’ll get money for it. Hear me! You’ll get money for your work same as white men. You’ll buy and own your own clothes. You’ll work and buy with your own money your own home or your own little farm. Nobody can take anything away from you that belongs to you. You’ll have your own church, and your children can go to school.” Stoddard’s speech was greeted with such uproarious enthusiasm that Stoddard was taken aback until he realized that the crowd had not precisely realized who the speaker was. They had only heard the words “Lincoln” and “freedom” in the introduction and thought they were being addressed by the President himself. “To them I was Lincoln. As for me, in my uttermost soul I had learned what freedom could mean and how it would feel to a slave to be freed.”22

Stoddard related freedom to the ability to be paid for one’s labor. So did his boss, President Lincoln, according to historian Michael Burlingame. He wrote: “What did Lincoln’ mean by the monstrous injustice of slavery itself”? A close reading of his speeches and letters suggest that Lincoln found slavery monstrous because it represented the systematic theft of the fruits of hard labor, a kind of institutionalized robbery. He made this pointed heatedly and often. At the start of the 1858 campaign for [Senator Stephen A.] Douglas’s Senate seat, Lincoln characterized the proslavery argument as ‘the same old serpent that says you work and I eat, you toil and I will enjoy the fruits of it. He declared that ‘each individual is naturally entitled to do as he pleases with himself and the fruit of his labor.'”23 Mr. Lincoln also remarked: “When I see strong hands sowing, reaping, and threshing wheat and those same hands grinding and making that wheat into bread, I cannot refrain from wishing, and believing, that those hands some way, in God’s good time, shall own the mouth they feed!”24

Back at the White House, Presidential aide John Hay wrote an anonymous newspaper editorial in April 1862: “One thing we have certainly gained by the fierce convulsions of the past year, if nothing else, and that is the power of discussing the question of slavery in a practical, common-sense way, without any of the former captiousness and irritability that has marked all disputations upon this delicate subject. The rude friction of war and legislation has taken from the matter a great deal of the nervous sensitiveness that characterized it, and it is canvassed dispassionately in quarters from which it has ever been jealously excluded. The people of the Border States are beginning to talk of it in a tone of resolute calmness, as a matter in which they are vitally interested, and which it would be the height of reckless folly to ignore. The people of the North are discussing it, not with the heat and fervor of former fanaticism, but with the practical perception of economic and political influence which forms the normal and legitimate rule of action of the Anglo-Saxon mind.” Hay added that “the mass of the people are beginning to talk and think of slavery as an ugly question, to be discussed and settled cooly and not, as in all former years, to be shelved quietly out of sight, or only kept as a ‘wooly horse’ of the hobby breed, to ride into place and power upon.”25

Two months later, Hay wrote to a friend — just two months before the draft Emancipation Proclamation was issued: “The President himself has been, out of pure devotion to what he considers the best interest of humanity, the bulwark of the institution he abhors, for a year. But he will not conserve slavery much longer. When next he speaks in relation to this defiant and ungrateful villainy it will be with no uncertain sound. Even now he speaks more boldly and sternly to slaveholders than to the world. If I have sometimes been impatient of his delay I am so no longer.”26

When the President issued the draft Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, Hay once again drafted a newspaper editorial that began: “There has probably never been a ruler who in times of such deep public excitement, has so long and successfully maintained an attitude of dignified reticence as has Abraham Lincoln, in the two years that have elapsed since his election. Especially for the last six months, he has been alternately the target of extremists from the North and the border, each charging him with faithlessness to principles and a weak subservience to the influence of the other. He has been equally unmoved by the eloquent fury of the inspired maniac, Wendell Phillips, and the impotent malignity that oozed from the withered lips of Gov. [Charles] Wickliffe. [Pennsylvania Congressman] Thaddeus Stevens might speak bitterness and disappointment, in his place in the House of Representatives, and the President would never allude to it. [New York Daily News Editor] Ben Wood might print the seditious utterances that he lacked wit to write, and the President never thought of it. The border States might form in solemn procession, and invade the Executive mansion; he gave them no assurances of any safety, save that they could find in the sure leeway of emancipation. The Progressive Friends might attack him in force. Glazing upon him in the gorgeous costume of the shadbellied dandies, but he only told them that he had thought of that subject more than they, and they must wait his time and the Lord’s.”

There was an indomitable self-confidence in Mr. Lincoln that stemmed from long and diligent research and careful reflection. The day after President Lincoln issued the final Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, a third presidential aide, John G. Nicolay, completed an anonymous newspaper editorial which observed: “From Plato to Hugo, those idle dreamers, the philosophers and poets, have exhorted the world to love and adopt Justice and Liberty, and to hate and abandon Wrong and Oppression. As nations have approximated to these ideals, they have become prosperous and happy; as they have discarded them, they have become degraded and miserable. Call them crazy enthusiasts if you will; but do not forget that our eighty years of practical national happiness is the direct fruition of their insane ravings. In view of this, shall not the President’s act of to-day become a great moral landmark, a shrine at which future visionaries shall renew their vows and a pillar of fire which shall yet guide other nations out of the night of their bondage?”27

Two years later, another milestone was observed at the White House. Blacks were not customarily welcome at the White House during the 19th Century. That custom temporarily changed under Mr. Lincoln. Historian Richard Nelson Current wrote: “Again and again, during the last two years of his life, he made the White House a scene of practical demonstrations of respect for human worth and dignity. He proved that whites and Negroes, without the master-servant tie, could get along together happily in his own official home, no matter what the antagonisms that might trouble the nation at large. A kindly, unself-conscious host, he greeted Negro visitors as no president had done before.”28

The dramatic highlight came on the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. “New Year’s day, 1865, was marked by a memorable incident. Among the crowds gathered in the White House grounds stood groups of colored people, watching with eager eyes the tide of people flowing in at the open door to exchange salutations with the President. It was a privilege heretofore reserved for the white race; but now, as the line of visitors thinned, showing that the reception was nearly over, the boldest of the colored men drew near the door with faltering step. Some were in conventional attire, others in fantastic dress, and others again in laborers’ garb. The novel procession moved into the vestibule and on into the room where the President was holding the republican court,” wrote Francis Fisher Brown in The Every-Day Life of Abraham Lincoln. When the exhausted President saw his black visitors in line, “he rallied from his fatigue and gave them a hearty welcome They were wild with joy. Thronging about him, they pressed and kissed his hand, laughing and weeping at once, and exclaiming, ‘God bless Massa Linkum!” It was a scene not easy to forget: the thanks and adoration of a race paid to their deliverer.”29

Back in 1841, recalled friend Joshua Speed, Mr. Lincoln had told him that “he had done nothing to make any human being remember that he had lived; and that to connect his name with the events transpiring in his day and generation and so impress himself upon them as to link his name with something that would redound to the interest of his fellow man was what he desired to live for.”30 Speed reminded President Lincoln of that conversation about he had issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Mr. Lincoln responded: “I believe that in this measure my fondest hopes will be realized.”31 Shortly before President Lincoln issued his final Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, his aide John G. Nicolay wrote an anonymous editorial in which he laid out the responsibility for that document: “As to the policy of the Government regarding slavery, the President himself has assumed its sole decision and full responsibility.”32

Mr. Lincoln took the responsibility for being the surgeon that excised slavery. Mr. Lincoln had often compared slavery to a cancer tumor. Speaking in Hartford, Connecticut, in March 1860 after his well-received Cooper Union speech in New York City, Mr. Lincoln said: “I met Mr. Cassius Clay in the cars at New Haven one day last week, and it was my first opportunity to take him by the hand. There was an old gentleman in the car, seated in front of us, whose coat collar was turned far down upon the shoulders. I saw directly that he had a large wen on his neck. I said to Mr. Clay, That wen represents slavery, it bears the same relation to that man that slavery does to the country. That wen is a great evil; the man that bears it will say so. But he does not dare to cut it out. He bleeds to death if he does, directly. If he does not cut it out, it will shorten his life materially.” Mr. Lincoln added: “This is only applicable to men who think slavery is wrong. Those who think it right, of course will look upon the rattlesnake as a jewel, and call the wen an ornament. I suppose the only way to get rid of it is, for those who think it wrong, to work together, and to vote no longer with the Democracy who love it so well.”33

Mr. Lincoln did not see himself so much as a deliverer as an agent of delivery for America’s slaves. Historian LaWanda Cox wrote: “By temperament Lincoln was neither an optimist nor a crusader. Human fallibility, of which he was keenly aware, did not lessen his conviction that in a self-governing society a generally held feeling, though unjust, ‘cannot be safely disregarded. Lincoln would accept what he saw as ‘necessity,’ i.e., a limitation imposed by realities. He did not, however, submit to necessity with complacency. Characteristic was his query: ‘Can we all do better?’ He stood ready to do more when more could be accomplished.”34 Historian Armstead L. Robinson wrote: “Four years of bloody warfare served to strengthen Lincoln’s conviction that the resolution of the slavery issue held the key to saving the Union.”35

Mr. Lincoln, according to historian Garry Wills contended “that temporizing with slavery was the great historical weakness of America.”36 Historian Glen Thurow wrote: “Lincoln finds meaning in the war only by diverting his glance from the war and fixing it on slavery. The injustice of slavery means that punishment is deserved. Lincoln’s position on the sin of slavery and the justice of punishment would remain whether there was a war or not. The easy misinterpretation of the Second Inaugural — that Lincoln says that the Civil War is a punishment of God — is allowed by Lincoln in order to teach the crucial truth that slavery is unjust. The horror of war was easier for most people to see than was the sin of slavery.”37 President Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address in March 1865 practically summed up four years of war which Mr. Lincoln unequivocally said had been caused by slavery:

At this second appearing to take the oath of the presidential office, there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement, somewhat in detail, of a course to be pursued, seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention, and engrosses the enerergies [sic] of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself; and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago, all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil-war. All dreaded it — all sought to avert it. While the inaugeral [sic] address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war — seeking to dissol[v]e the Union, and divide effects, by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.

One eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union, even by war, while the government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial englargment of it. Neither party expected for the war, the magnitude, or the duration, which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the seat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!” If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope — fervently do we pray — that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether”

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.38

Of President Lincoln’s policy on slavery, historian Allan Nevins noted: “Lincoln had gone just far enough. He had been resolute on the two great principles of the wrongfulness of slavery, and the necessity of excluding it from the Territories; but he had stopped at that point. He had not risked offending cautious men by declaring what further steps he would take to put slavery, after its containment, in the way of ultimate extinction. That he left to time and the fit occasion. Throughout the Civil War he had a far surer sense than other men of the degrees by which revolutionary measures could be effected, and of the times for putting them into effect.”39

Mr. Lincoln was well known for putting into effect his compassion for all of God’s creatures and his willingness to seek any excuse to postpone a scheduled execution. But in the case of slavetrader Nathaniel Gordon, President Lincoln showed that he reserved little compassion for those who showed little mercy for others. In its 1860 platform, the Republican Party had proclaimed: “We brand the recent re-opening of the African slave trade, under the cover of our national flag, aided by perversions of judicial power, as a crime against humanity, and a burning shame to our country and age, and we call upon congress to take prompt and efficient measures for the total and final suppression of that execrable traffice.”

Less than nine months after President Lincoln took office, he had a chance to act on the party platform and on his blockade proclamation of April 19, 1861. The Maine captain of a slavetrading ship Erie, Nathaniel Gordon, had been captured in the mid-Atlantic by the Union Navy. He was tried and convicted in New York for violating the federal prohibition on the slave trade. Historian Phillip Shaw Paludan wrote” “The United States proved its commitment to end the [slave] trade in February 1862 when the captain of a slaver, Nathaniel Gordon, became the first American to be executed for that crime. The law had been in disuse for so long that people were insisting that ‘they dare not hang him.'”40

President “Lincoln read the evidence, scrutinized many respectable names on a petition for pardon,” wrote Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg.41 When the U.S. Attorney visited Mr. Lincoln’s office to urge that the execution be carried out, the President had a possible reprieve for Gordon on his desk. “Mr. Smith, you do not know how hard it is to have a human being die when you know that a stroke of your pen may save him.”42 The 28-year-old Gordon was duly hanged — after he was revived from a failed suicide attempt. “Thus was sent to death the first and only slave-trader in the history of the United States to be tried, convicted, and hanged in accordance with the Constitution and Federal law,” wrote Sandburg.43

But Gordon was not hanged before President Lincoln issued a temporary stay of Gordon’s execution on February 4, 1862. Mr. Lincoln made clear that the respite was only temporary:

Whereas, it appears that at a Term of the Circuit Court of the United States of America for the Southern District of New York held in the month of November A.D. 1861, Nathaniel Gordon was indicted and convicted for being engaged in the Slave Trade, and was by the said Court sentenced to be put to death by hanging by the neck, on Friday the 7th. day of February, A.D. 1862;

And whereas, a large number of respectable citizens have earnestly besought me to commute the said sentence of the said Nathaniel Gordon to a term of imprisonment for life, which application I have felt it to be my duty to refuse;

And whereas, it has seemed to me probably that the unsuccessful application made for the commutation of his sentence may have prevented the said Nathaniel Gordon from making the necessary preparation for the awful change which awaits him:

Now, therefore, be it known, that I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States of America, have granted and do hereby grant unto him, the said Nathaniel Gordon, a respite of the above recited sentence, until Friday the twenty-first day of February, A.D. 1862, between the hours of twelve o’clock at noon and three o’clock in the afternoon of the said day, when the said sentence shall be executed.

In granting this respite, it becomes my painful duty to admonish the prisoner that, relinquishing all expectation of pardon by Human Authority, he refer himself alone to the mercy of the common God and Father of all men.44

Massachusetts Congressman John B. Alley recalled under case in which a Newburyport man had been arrested and convicted for operating a ship engaged in the slave trade. The man served his prison sentence but did not pay his fine and local residents petitioned for pardon. President Lincoln replied: “I believe I am kindly enough in nature and can be moved to pity and to pardon the perpetrator of almost the worst crime that the mind of man can conceive or the arm of man can executive; but any man, who, for paltry gain and stimulated only by avarice, can rob Africa of her children to sell into interminable bondage, I never will pardon, and he may stay and rot in jail before he will ever get relief from me.”45

The quality of Mr. Lincoln’s mercy was clearly strained by slavery and slavers like Gordon. There was a steely determination to deal permanently with slavery that strengthened as the war lengthened. But the moral principles upon which Mr. Lincoln was acting had been enunciated before the Civil War in an April 1859 letter to six Boston Republicans, Mr. Lincoln wrote: “This is a world of compensations; and he who would be no slave, must consent to have no slave. Those who deny freedom to others deserve if not for themselves; and, under a just God, can not long retain it.”46

In the Civil War, slaveholders lost it. Historian Kenneth M. Stampp, observed: “An early indication of Lincoln’s broadening conception of the war’s meaning was his response to a serenade a few days after the Union victory at Gettysburg. He was not then prepared, he said, to deliver an address worthy of the occasion, but he spoke briefly and feelingly of the need to defend the principle that ‘all men are created equal’ against those who would subvert it. He returned to that theme in his memorable Gettysburg Address, in which, near the end, another sign of his nascent vision appeared. When Lincoln expressed the hope that those who died at Gettysburg ‘shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom,’ he was, for the first time, anticipating the imminent end of slavery as well as the preservation of the Union. It is reasonable, I think, to give an abolitionist meaning to his phrase ‘a new birth of freedom.'”47

Historian Robert W. Johannsen noted: “As Lincoln said on many occasions, the Negro was first and foremost a human being and therefore deserving of all the dignity and respect accorded human beings. To think otherwise would be to deny natural law.”48 Historian Garry Wills noted that Mr Lincoln — in the October 1858 Alton debate with Senator Stephen Douglas — said that the Founding Fathers who were responsible for the Declaration of Independence “meant to set up a standard maxim for free society which should be familiar to all: constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people, of all colors, everywhere.”49 Wills wrote: “The idea is so general and time-free that it does not merely affect Americans — rather, its influence radiates out to all people everywhere. By setting up this dialectic of the ideal with the real, Lincoln has reached, already, the very heart of his Gettysburg Address, where a nation conceived in liberty by its dedication to the Declaration’s critical proposition (human equality) must test that proposition’s survivability in the real world of struggle.”50

This was an act of supreme will — what Mr. Lincoln hoped was the Supreme Will as well. Historian Armstead L. Robinson wrote: “Lincoln saved the Union by mobilizing the resources of Northern society and by turning the constituent parts of Southern society against themselves; he appealed to blacks’ interest in destroying slavery, to border-state slaveowners’ interests in preserving slavery, and to mountain yeomen’s interest in protecting their own liberties. He sought, in short to undermine the Confederacy from within. And in doing so, Lincoln reaffirmed the centrality of the slavery issue for the era of the American Civil War.”51

Lincoln aides and biographers John G. Nicolay wrote “Fifteen years afterwards, in the stress and tempest of a terrible war, it was Mr. Lincoln’s strange fortune to sign a bill sent him by Congress for the abolition of slavery in Washington; and perhaps the most remarkable thing about the whole transaction was that while we were looking politically upon a new heaven and a new earth, — for the vast change in our moral and economic condition might justify so audacious a phrase, — when there was scarcely a man on the continent who had not greatly shifted his point of view in a dozen years, there was so little change in Mr. Lincoln. The same hatred of slavery, the same sympathy with the slave, the same consideration for the slaveholder as the victim of a system he had inherited, the same sense of divided responsibility between the South and the North, the same desire to effect great reforms with as little individual damage and injury, as little disturbance of social conditions as possible, were equally evident when the raw pioneer signed the protest with Dan Stone at Vandalia, when the mature man moved the resolution of 1849 in the Capitol, and when the President gave the sanction of his bold signature to the act which swept away the slave-shambles from the city of Washington.”52

After the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was passed by Congress, Mr. Lincoln told celebrants that “this amendment is a King’s cure for all the evils” of slavery.”52 Historian James M. McPherson wrote: “To us, today, it seems self-evident that the emancipation of four million slaves from bondage was a great triumph of liberty. But for a majority of white Americans in the Civil War era — until almost the end of the war — this accomplishment represented the antithesis of liberty. This majority of white Americans included most southerners and more than two-fifths of the northerners — the Democrats, who opposed emancipation to the bitter end. It was the outcome of the war that transformed and expanded the concept of liberty to include abolition of slavery, and it was Lincoln who was the principal agent of this transformation.”54 Historian Roy Basler observed:

Lincoln had enunciated his belief in regard to the evil of slavery in a passage long since famous: ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other.’

With this belief as a key, Lincoln’s policy becomes clear. From beginning to end, his purpose was to preserve the Union. The final abolition of slavery by constitutional amendment, Lincoln urged because it was his belief that the only hope of the Union was in the abolition of slavery.55

True enough, but Mr. Lincoln also realized that the elimination of slavery accomplished by the Thirteenth Amendment was a “great moral victory” which made the triumph of the Union possible.56

Mr. Lincoln and Freedom was originally created a project of The Lincoln Institute under a grant from The Lehrman Institute. The text was prepared by Richard J. Behn and the website was designed by Kathleen Packard of KathodeRay Media, Inc.

This web site would not be possible without the scholarship of the legion of Lincoln scholars who have not only interpreted the lives Mr. Lincoln and his contemporaries, especially those who have compiled important primary sources so they are readily accessible for research.
There are many important building blocks for any work such as this.

  • The 10 volume compilation of The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy P. Basler and others in the 1950s.
  • More recently, the Library of Congress has compiled much of the incoming and outgoing correspondence in its Robert Todd Lincoln on the Library’s Web site (
  • Rodney Davis and Douglas L. Wilson were the guiding editors on that project. They are also responsible for another invaluable resource which they edited – Herndon’s Informants, which collects the letters and interviews conducted by William Herndon and Jesse W. Weik in the process of preparing their own biography. Less extensive interviews were conducted by other biographers and have been collected in periodicals such as the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association.
  • Historian Michael Burlingame has edited a series of books compiling work by presidential aides and confidantes Noah Brooks, John Hay, John G. Nicolay and William O. Stoddard which are invaluable sources for what happened at the White House during the Civil War. Other Administration figures and friends – such as Attorney General Edward Bates, Senator Orville H. Browning, Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles – compiled diaries which long have been available in published form.
  • Finally, there are hundreds of autobiographies, memoirs, biographies and collections of letters for persons who knew Mr. Lincoln which contained important nuggets of information and insights into relationships.


  1. Don E. Fehrenbacher, editor, Dwight Lowell Dumond, The Leadership of Abraham Lincoln, “Virtually an Abolitionist”, p. 125-126.
  2. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume IV, p. 2 (Speech in Hartford, Connecticut, March 5, 1860).
  3. Gabor S. Boritt, editor, The Historian’s Lincoln: Pseudohistory, Psychohistory, and History, p. 175 (LaWanda Cox).
  4. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, (December 1, 1862).
  5. Don E. and Virginia E. Fehrenbacher, editor, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 507.
  6. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, (Annual Message to Congress, December 1, 1862).
  7. Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, editor, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, p. 41 (September 24, 1862).
  8. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 298-299 (January 4, 1855).
  9. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 247-283 (October 16, 1854).
  10. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VII, p. 287 (Letter to Mrs. Horace Mann, April 5, 1864).
  11. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews and Statements about Abraham Lincoln, p. 507 (Letter from Joseph Gillespie to William H. Herndon, December 8, 1866).
  12. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews and Statements about Abraham Lincoln, p. 197 (Letter from Joshua F. Speed to William H. Herndon, February 7, 1866).
  13. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews and Statements about Abraham Lincoln, p. 482 (William H. Herndon interview with John Todd Stuart, ca. 1865-1866).
  14. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews and Statements about Abraham Lincoln, p. 429 (Letter from Caleb Carman to William H. Herndon, November 30, 1866).
  15. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews and Statements about Abraham Lincoln, p. 58 (Letter from Orlando B. Ficklin to William H. Herndon, June 25, 1865).
  16. Gabor S. Boritt, editor, The Historian’s Lincoln: Pseudohistory, Psychohistory, and History, p. 197-198 (Stephen B. Oates).
  17. Gabor S. Boritt, editor, The Historian’s Lincoln: Pseudohistory, Psychohistory, and History, p. 199 (Stephen B. Oates).
  18. Don E. and Virginia E. Fehrenbacher, editor, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 144.
  19. Don E. and Virginia E. Fehrenbacher, editor, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 144 (The Liberator, January 29, 1864).
  20. Henry B. Kranz, editor, Abraham Lincoln: A New Portrait, p. 40 (Kenneth A. Bernard, “Lincoln the Emancipator”).
  21. William O. Stoddard, Inside the White House in War Times, p. 213-214.
  22. William O. Stoddard, Lincoln’s Third Secretary, p. 189-190.
  23. Michael Burlingame, The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln, p. 31.
  24. Henry B. Rankin, Personal Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, p. 215.
  25. Michael Burlingame, editor, Lincoln’s Journalist: John Hay’s Anonymous Writings for the Press, 1860-1864, p. 253-254.
  26. Michael Burlingame, editor, At Lincoln’s Side: John Hay’s Civil War Correspondence and Selected Writings, p. 23 (Letter from John Hay to Mary Jay, July 20, 1862).
  27. Michael Burlingame, editor, With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda, and Other Writings of John G. Nicolay, 1860-1865, p. 101-102 (January 2, 1863).
  28. Richard Nelson Current, Speaking of Abraham Lincoln: The Man and His Meaning for Our Times, p. 36.
  29. Francis Fisher Browne, The Every-Day Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 676-677.
  30. Don E. and Virginia E. Fehrenbacher, editor, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 413.
  31. Don E. and Virginia E. Fehrenbacher, editor, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 413.
  32. Michael Burlingame, editor, With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda, and Other Writings of John G. Nicolay, 1860-1865, p. 97 (December 23, 1862).
  33. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume IV, p. 2-8 (Speech in Hartford, March 5, 1860).
  34. Gabor S. Boritt, editor, The Historian’s Lincoln: Pseudohistory, Psychohistory, and History, p. 177 (LaWanda Cox).
  35. Gabor S. Boritt, editor, The Historian’s Lincoln: Pseudohistory, Psychohistory, and History, p. 204 (Armstead L. Robinson).
  36. Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg, p. 116.
  37. Gabor S. Boritt, editor, The Historian’s Lincoln: Pseudohistory, Psychohistory, and History, p. 138 (Glen E. Thurow).
  38. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VIII, p. 332-333 (March 4, 1865).
  39. Allan Nevins, The Statesmanship of the Civil War, p. 120.
  40. Phillip Shaw Paludan, The Presidency of Abraham Lincoln, p. 133.
  41. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Volume I, p. 385.
  42. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Volume I, p. 385.
  43. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Volume I, p. 385.
  44. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume V, p. 128 (February 4, 1862).
  45. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 583 (John B. Alley).
  46. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume III, p. 376 (Letter to Henry L. Pierce and others, April 6, 1859).
  47. Gabor S. Boritt, editor, Lincoln the War President, p. 141 (Kenneth M. Stampp, “The United States and National Self-determination”).
  48. Robert W. Johannsen, The Frontier, the Union and Stephen A. Douglas, p. 260.
  49. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume III, p. 297-318 (Alton Debate, October 15, 1858).
  50. Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg, p. 103.
  51. Gabor S. Boritt, editor, The Historian’s Lincoln: Pseudohistory, Psychohistory, and History, p. 208 (Armstead L. Robinson).
  52. John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln: A History, Volume I, p. 287-288.
  53. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VIII, p. 255 (February 1, 1865).
  54. James M. McPherson, Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution, p. 45.
  55. Roy P. Basler, The Lincoln Legend, p. 213.
  56. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VIII, p. 255 (February 1, 1865).