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America, Slavery and Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln’s position on freeing the slaves was one of the vital issues in American history. Though Abraham Lincoln was one of the people recognized as most responsible for the abolition of slavery, his place evolved over the years, and while he early went on record as being in person opposed to slavery, he did not originally take the position that it was suitable that federal laws be passed to stop the practice in states where it already existed. Most Americans agreed that slavery had to develop to maintain its political power, and by ending that expansion, Lincoln proposed to put slavery on a course of steady extinction. Before the American Civil War and even on the war’s early stages Lincoln said that the Constitution prohibited the federal government from abolishing slavery in states where it already existed. His position and the position of the Republican Party in 1860 was that slavery should not be allowed to enlarge into any more territories, and thus all future states admitted to the Union would be Free states. In this manner, he expected that slavery would be put on a path to final extinction.

The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, written to form the territories of Kansas and Nebraska, included language, designed by Stephen A. Douglas, which allowed the settlers to decide whether they would or would not recognize slavery in their region. Lincoln saw this as a repeal of the 1820 Missouri Compromise which had forbidden slavery above the 36-30′ parallel. Douglas and Lincoln aired their divergence in three public speeches during September and October of 1854. The main comprehensive address, the “Peoria Speech”, was given by Lincoln in Peoria, Illinois, on October 16. He and Douglas both spoke to the large audience, Douglas first and Lincoln in reply two hours later. The three hour speech, transcribed after the fact by Lincoln himself, presented thorough moral, legal and economic arguments against slavery, and set the stage for Lincoln’s political future.

During the war he used the war powers of the presidency to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which stated “all persons held as slaves within any State or elected part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free” but exempted border states and those areas of slave states already under Union control. As late as February 1865 he offered to pay the owners for the emancipated slaves; the buyout offers were rejected. It has been argued that by making a statement only about territories he did not control, as a practical matter, he did not free a single slave. Slaves that had escaped to the Union side were, however, immediately freed – as were millions more as areas came under Union control. In 1842 Lincoln had married into a prominent Kentucky family of slave-owners. Lincoln returned to the political stage as a result of the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act and soon became a leading enemy of the Slave Power–that is the political power of the southern slave owners. Before 1861 he also opposed the abolitionists. Lincoln’s critics, particularly the Radical Republicans during the war, said he moved too slowly.

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Updated: April 22, 2010 — 5:52 am

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