Forever Free: Abraham Lincoln's Journey to Emancipation

Online Site Support Notebook: Overview of Exhibition Themes

1. Abraham Lincoln's ideas about slavery and abolition evolved over time. Lincoln himself embodied the contradictions found in a republic which espoused the ideals of liberty and equality, but also tolerated slavery. Lincoln was against slavery, but for many reasons he was not an abolitionist who demanded immediate emancipation of slaves.

2. The American Revolution left a contradictory legacy of freedom and slavery. Most of the founding fathers thought slavery was wrong, but they could envision no peaceful way to end it. They hoped that gradual emancipation would somehow be achieved in succeeding generations. This did not happen, and by 1830, abolitionists began to demand immediate and unconditional freedom for slaves and citizenship for blacks. Abolition was opposed by the majority of whites in both North and South. Abraham Lincoln knew that a candidate linked to abolitionism had no chance to win office.

3. Abraham Lincoln was born in a slave state, Kentucky, but moved as a young man to a free state, Illinois. His high ideals as a lawyer and politician in Illinois were threatened by slavery. He believed that "every man"--including the black man--was entitled to better his condition. But he thought that a direct attack on slavery in the South would split the Union and end America's experiment in self-government. Lincoln and other moderates believed that slavery could continue in the South for many more years, and if it were confined to the South, it would eventually die out.

4. The issue that finally divided the Union was the threatened spread of slavery to the western territories through the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. Lincoln and others opposed the expansion of slavery. They believed that if slavery were extended to new territories, it would soon be legal throughout the U.S., even in the North. In his unsuccessful 1858 Senate race against the incumbent, Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln was painted as a radical abolitionist for his views. But his debates with Douglas helped propel him to national renown, and led to a successful run for the Presidency in November 1860 as an antislavery moderate.

5. Protesting the election of an antislavery President, South Carolina was the first state to secede from the United States of America shortly after Lincoln's election, followed within three months by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas. The states soon established themselves as the Confederate States of America. The first shots of the Civil War were fired on Fort Sumter, South Carolina, in April 1861. Soon after, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Arkansas seceded from the Union. Lincoln ordered federal troops to quell the rebellion and restore the Union.

6. Early in the Civil War, Lincoln overturned several orders to free slaves in Missouri and some of the Southern states, fearing that border slaves states such as Maryland and Kentucky would then join the Confederacy. His fragile coalition included the border states, and he believed that Emancipation would shatter that coalition. He drew up a plan that would have gradually freed slaves over many years, until 1893, and would have compensated slave owners for their human property. When his plan was rejected by the border states, Lincoln decided that immediate emancipation was required both militarily, in order for the Union to weaken the South by eliminating its slave labor base, and for moral reasons, so that the Union would finally live up to the ideals of the founding fathers.

7. Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, changed the character of the Civil War and the Union by declaring "forever free" all the enslaved people in the Southern states. For months, Lincoln prepared the public for this move, saying that emancipation was unlikely, but that he would use it, if necessary, to save the Union.

8. The Emancipation Proclamation settled the indeterminate legal status of tens of thousands of runaway slaves, besides declaring as free all people still enslaved. It also allowed blacks to enlist in the Union army. The strength and courage of black volunteers helped to change the public's views about the character and abilities of an entire race. Nearly 40,000 black soldiers gave their lives in the Union cause.