Was Lincoln a genuine advocate of civil rights for African Americans?

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Abraham Lincoln is known by historians today for his staunch determination to protect the Union, even if that meant using force. With this in mind, it is hardly surprising that his public views on African American’s civil rights have been disputed – whether they were just a tool to protect the Union or whether he actually believed that they should be equal. It is arguable that Lincoln’s own views were that slavery should be abolished; however it may also be the case that he did not want to lose popularity by advocating civil rights for African Americans.Lincoln came to attention to the public during seven debates in 1857 and 1858, with the Democrat Senator Douglas, both trying to get elected in Illinois.

Slavery was the key topic during these debates, with each candidate stating their views. In one speech in Edwardsville, Illinois Lincoln said, ‘they [the Republican Party] will use every constitutional method to prevent the evil [slavery] from becoming larger[1]’. This shows his disapproving stance on slavery and his unwillingness to let slavery expand to other areas in the United States. Furthermore in a letter in 1862 to the editor of the New York Tribune he stated ‘my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free[2]’. This letter was written in explanation of why he did not free all slaves that escaped to the Union Army during the Civil War.

This suggests that he could have been trying to gain support in the abolitionist North and defend his reputation.Again in 1857 during a speech as part of the earlier mentioned campaign in Illinois, he states ‘in her [a black woman] natural right to eat the bread she earns with her own hands…she is my equal[3]’. This illustrates how Lincoln believed that slaves should be free and they should have the right to eat with their own hands without ‘asking leave of anybody else’. It becomes apparent that Lincoln did not believe that humans of any race should be owned, hence his viewpoint on slavery. This means that Lincoln might be thought of as being a genuine advocate for civil rights for African Americans as he continually stated how he believed in equality.

The fact that, even at the risk of losing votes from slave-owning people in Border States and pro-slavery democrats in the North, Lincoln publically claimed his want to stop the extension of slavery and believed in equality illustrates how he was a genuine advocator for civil rights.Lincoln’s repeated viewpoint on the evil of slavery had its risks and this could suggest he was a genuine advocator for civil rights. As is written in the Declaration of the causes of secession for South Carolina, ‘[the Northern States] have united in the election of a man to high office of the President of the United States whose opinions and purpose are hostile to slavery.’[4] The fact that slavery is one of the key issues that caused South Carolina to secede from the Union shows that Lincoln’s public stance on slavery was actually causing the Union to break up, something which Lincoln was completely against.

Lincoln was clearly, as the quote suggests, seen as opposing slavery and this meant that many Southern states wanted to secede from a country which was run by somebody who did not agree with slavery. Lincoln’s stance of slavery was undoubtedly a reason for South Carolina’s secession and this demonstrates how Lincoln was a genuine advocator for civil rights for African Americans as he was willing to risk succession in the short term. The freedom for slaves would, he believed, lead to civil rights and equality in the long term.Civil rights typically mean the right of everybody to be politically and socially equal.

To be free and not be owned by another person is one thing, yet Lincoln may not have been such an advocate of civil rights for African Americans as to think them free and equal otherwise. There is some evidence that Lincoln did not feel that they were equal in other senses and if this is to be believed then he cannot be a genuine advocate. During one of the infamous debates with Douglas, he argued that he was ‘not…in favour of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races[5]’. This clear stance might be said to illustrate how Lincoln may have believed that African American slaves should be freed but did not believe in equality, and therefore complete civil rights.

Society in the north were more racist than today and although there were many abolitionists there were very few people who actually believed in equal civil rights for African Americans. By Douglas painting Lincoln as a supporter of civil rights he knew many abolitionists would no longer support him. To counter this, Lincoln’s statement that he did not want to bring about equality of the black and white races could have been an attempt to gain more votes. Lincoln hid his true feelings and gave a response that the masses wanted to hear. As the aim of these speeches were to win votes for election it is not surprising that Lincoln distanced himself from strong equality statements. This does not mean that he was not a strong advocator for civil rights for African Americans, rather that he was more set on winning votes.

To this end, it might be argued that this lessens his right to be called an ‘advocator’ of civil rights; however by Lincoln even simply stating that he wanted slaves to be free could show that he deserves the ‘advocator’ title. Lincoln was simply a realist, he believed in equality but could do the most work for African Americans by getting elected and making small changes.The Emancipation Proclamation is often used as evidence of Lincoln’s advocacy of civil rights for African Americans. Effective from the 1st of January 1863, this order meant that slaves in rebel states became freedmen. This is clear proof that Lincoln supported the freeing of slaves. In a letter from Hannah Johnson, the mother of an African American soldier, she writes that ‘When you are dead and in Heaven, in all a thousand years that action of yours will make the Angels sing your praises’[6].

This is obviously only one person’s view of the Proclamation but it is likely that many other African Americans felt the same. Johnson’s letter illustrates how important Lincoln’s Act was to the lives of African Americans, and also how significant an act like this was as it was so unprecedented. Lincoln believed that to gain eventual civil rights for African Americans, they must first be freed hence the Emancipation Proclamation. However, the introduction of African American soldiers, although seen by many as a step towards civil rights, did not result in all that was promised. A letter from Gooding, an African American soldier, describes how the conditions were within the army, ‘[African Americans] have dyed the ground with blood, in defense of the Union…Why can’t we have a Soldiers pay?’[7] This source demonstrates how Lincoln was not so much of an advocate of civil rights that he would promote equality within the army by giving equal pay to African American and white people..

This adds weight to the idea that the Emancipation Proclamation was simply a tool to help win the war, which was surely Lincoln’s overall aim. It has been argued that the Emancipation Proclamation was not solely or even primarily due to Lincoln’s desire for equal rights. There were northern suggestions that the south could send more men to fight as their wives and slaves could run the plantations whilst they were fighting. By freeing the slaves, Lincoln dealt a blow to the amount of men who could fight for the south. Furthermore, the south were unlikely to gain foreign support if slavery was involved and so by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln was making sure that the world knew and therefore would be less likely to help the south. Despite the other reasons for the Emancipation Proclamation, such as helping him win the war, it does suggest that Lincoln was an advocator for civil rights for African Americans as it started the way towards civil rights.

Lincoln wanted to save the Union and even went to war to do so, highlighting that the Union was his primary focus.The protection of the Union and loyalty to the Constitution are two things that Lincoln believed in and clearly wanted. In his letter to the editor of the New York Tribune he illustrates how this is true, ‘paramount object…is to save the Union…not either to save or to destroy slavery. What I do about slavery…I do because I believe it helps to save the Union[8].’ This clearly demonstrates how his first focus is to save the Union. Perhaps his own view was to destroy slavery but his priority was to save the Union.

To this effect during one of the speeches with Douglas, Lincoln says he ‘will do nothing that can give proper offence to those who hold slaves by legal sanction’[9]. Lincoln did not want to aggravate the Southerners and did not believe the issue of slavery was one that was worth angering them about. Perhaps if he was a strong advocate he would have denounced the practice of slavery everywhere, but this would have surely lost him a vital number of votes. This could be one reason why Lincoln stated many times that he did not want to abolish slavery everywhere.

Mary Frances Berry describes Lincoln as someone who was ‘flexible enough to change his political positions[10]’, suggesting that Lincoln’s primary goal was not to advocate civil rights but to protect the Union – by announcing whatever view was of most use. This thought is also supported by the earlier quote by Lincoln, ‘paramount object…is to save the Union’[11]. His flexibility is sure evidence that he might not have been that much of a strong advocate for the civil rights of African Americans.It is clear that Lincoln’s honest feelings towards slavery were that of abhorrence, which is shown by a speech with Douglas whereby he states that slavery is ‘an evil’.

Furthermore, he stated that his personal wish is that ‘all men everywhere could be free’. However, to be a genuine advocate, actions must have been taken to improve the situation for African Americans. The Emancipation Proclamation was one of those actions and the freedom of slaves in rebel states was such a key act that, as Johnson describes, was welcomed by many African Americans. Although there were reasons for Lincoln issuing the Emancipation Proclamation other than just to stop slavery, it is undoubted that Lincoln hoped it would start the track towards equality for African Americans. However, the Emancipation Proclamation did not mean that African Americans were equal in the army, as shown by the unequal pay described by Gooding.

This illustrates a lack of action on behalf of Lincoln and so perhaps he might not have been a strong advocator for African American civil rights. The fact that Lincoln risked South Carolina, and other states, seceding from the Union because of his public opposition to slavery shows how strongly he held his view. Although Lincoln could not advocate civil rights as much as he perhaps would have wanted to, at the risk of losing votes and support, he did sincerely believe in the evil of slavery and said as much at the risk of states succeeding from the Union. This, along with the Emancipation Proclamation, makes it clear that Lincoln was a genuine advocate of civil rights for African Americans.

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