Lincoln's 19th Century

The Anti-Slavery Movement and Colonization

By 1804, all of the northern states had passed laws to abolish slavery, almost all through gradual means. In some cases, the emancipation was so gradual that some people were still enslaved in those states at the end of the Civil War. The rights of free Black people were uncertain and subject to infringement. Some white anti-slavery advocates proposed establishing foreign colonies, first in Africa and later in the Caribbean and Central America, to remove newly freed Black people from the United States. Kentucky politician Henry Clay was one of the leading proponents of linking emancipation and colonization, and Lincoln followed in his footsteps. Most Black Americans firmly rejected colonization and fought for birthright citizenship and equality under the law. Lincoln would continue to advocate for colonization until he issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.

The Abolitionist Movement

The abolitionist movement that arose in the 1820s and 1830s was a branch within the larger anti-slavery movement. Abolitionism was an interracial movement that called for an immediate end to slavery, rejected reimbursements for enslavers, rejected colonization, and envisioned a biracial nation. By the 1840s, abolitionists had succeeded in moving slavery from the political wings to the center stage. They introduced the argument that the founders held anti-slavery views—a position Lincoln would later adopt. They also called for birthright citizenship, which later would become law in the Fourteenth Amendment. Lincoln repeatedly denied any association with abolitionism and condemned the violence and law-breaking associated with its activism. He opposed slavery but did not espouse racial equality.

Political Parties

By the 1850s, three political parties vied for office. Two drew broad coalitions from across the country. The Democrats appealed more to farmers and urban laborers, saw the federal government as a threat to individual liberty, and vigorously defended the separation between church and state. The Whigs appealed to merchants, industrialists, professionals and commercial farmers and looked to the federal government to provide national unity, economic development and moral improvement. The new and much smaller abolitionist Liberty Party interpreted the Constitution as an anti-slavery document and hoped to use traditional political avenues to bring about anti-slavery reform. All three parties believed that the Constitution gave Congress no authority over slavery in the states.

Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party

In 1854, the growing divide over slavery fractured the Whig Party. The new Republican Party united anti-slavery advocates from many parties and interests around a platform opposing the expansion of slavery in the United States. Lincoln threw himself into the work of creating party unity. His speeches staked out a position in the middle of the northern anti-slavery spectrum. His twin arguments were constant: that slavery must be contained until eliminated, and that America’s founders meant to include Black people in the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness promised in the Declaration of Independence. He had finally found his life’s work—the eventual eradication of slavery—though he admitted that it “may not be completely attained within the term of my natural life.” (July 1858)

A War to End Slavery

Enslaved people understood that slavery was at the heart of the Civil War and were determined to press for abolition and freedom. Hundreds of thousands in the Confederate and slaveholding border states sought out Union troops and Union lines. And from the first year of the war, Black men sought to enlist in the Union Army. Initially, there was no national policy governing the fate of freedom seekers, and some military commanders offered emancipation, while others returned them to their enslavers. The Militia Act and Second Confiscation Act (both July 1862), were intended to undermine the Confederacy at a time when neither side had the advantage. The acts clarified that people enslaved in the rebelling states would be free upon reaching Union lines and that Black people could be employed in the military. Around the same time, President Lincoln first broached the idea of emancipation by presidential proclamation. As the war progressed, Lincoln became a strong proponent of recruiting Black soldiers. By the end of the war, more than 180,000 Black men served in the Union Army.

Lincoln's 19th Century

November 16, 2021 – May 14, 2022
Duke University Libraries