Happy Birthday, Abraham Lincoln


Many years ago, I enjoyed watching a program called I’ll Fly Away. The show depicted black southerners struggling for civil rights. In one episode the characters were debating Abraham Lincoln’s position on slavery. One commented that Lincoln didn’t do enough to end slavery, and it is true he made the statement,” If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.” Another person countered that it was his abolitionist position, issuing the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, which later got him assassinated.

Lincoln’s quote on freeing slaves was made in a letter to Horace Greeley dated August 1862.  In fact, just a month later, he would announce his intent to issue a proclamation banning slavery- now this did not apply to the non seceding slaveholding states, indicating Lincoln was always aware of the political implications of his actions. But if you study his life, you will find that he was a man willing to change his views. He had had little personal experience with slavery, having spent much of his life in Indiana and Illinois, but he definitely became more sympathetic towards African Americans as his presidency evolved.

In fact, I think his views are best summarized in his second inaugural address which he gave just over a month prior to his assassination. When teaching history, I always read this speech to my students. One course ended with the Civil War so the 1864 election was covered. The other course began with reconstruction, but I spent the first day of class giving the background information to the reconstruction era, so I got to read Lincoln’s address to them also. In fact three years ago, I was substituting in a second grade classroom. I had my copy of the speech but was hesitant to share it with such young students. However, I told them what I was going to read, that they wouldn’t understand everything, but to listen as best they could. They listened intently, and even better were able to hold a discussion afterwards. I’m sure you’re familiar with the phrase, “with malice towards none,” but if you’ve never read the speech in its entirety, or it’s been a long time, then please go here:

There’s a wealth of scholarship on Lincoln; if you’re interested in learning about the influences on Lincoln as he prepared for his second inauguration, I recommend Donald C. White Jr.’s Lincoln’s Greatest Speech. A great biography of his life is David Donald’s Lincoln, and an excellent account of his presidency and political savvy is Doris Kearn’s Goodwin’s Team of Rivals.



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