Abraham Lincoln Was President Because He Was Moderate
Lincoln was not an abolitionist, but did his actions speak louder than words?
“Historians have been wrestling, ever since, with what it was, exactly, that changed Lincoln from an antislavery moderate to the Great Emancipator, and more and more scholars have come to believe that it wasn’t just Lincoln’s own great compassion.” — Justin Ewers, USNews
Abraham Lincoln is remembered today as someone who emancipated slaves in America and won the Civil War. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest presidents in American history.
But what few people know from the mythology and legacy of Lincoln is that he was chosen as a candidate for the Republican Party because he the most moderate candidate in the 1860 Republican National Convention. Many other candidates, including New York Senator, William Seward, were more progressive and radical in wanting to curb slavery. Lincoln, however, was not.
According to Justin Ewers at US News, Lincoln had to be pushed by abolitionists and Radical Republicans to push for the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment. Ewers, summarizing the views of many scholars, reiterates that Lincoln did not campaign on a platform of abolition — he wanted to stop the expansion of slavery into new states and territories, but he didn’t think the Constitution could eliminate slavery.
Lincoln hated slavery, but he didn’t campaign to eliminate slavery. According to Caroline Mimbs Nyce and Chris Bodenner at The Atlantic, Seward was the favorite for the Republican nomination. He had much greater standing than Lincoln, who was only made famous from debates with Stephen Douglas two years earlier. In the words of Frank Williams at The Ripon Society, Lincoln “was a moderate in a radical party,” and noted that Lincoln was “no partisan zealot.” And whoever won the Republican nomination was winning the presidency, with the North united and the Democrats split between several candidates.
Initially, Lincoln didn’t even want to become a Republican because of their radicalism. The Republican Party arose from the “anti-Nebraska” movement, which opposed the expansion of slavery in Kansas and Nebraska once the two states would join the Union. According to Williams, in 1854, Lincoln was still a staunch member of the Whig Party.
But the Whig Party was also dying. They refused to take a position on the very controversial crisis of slavery, so Lincoln attended an anti-Nebraska conference in 1856 and said he wanted to run for Senate. At the first convention of the Illinois Republican Party, according to Williams, Lincoln gave a speech so riveting that his name was offered as a vice-presidential candidate in the 1856 RNC. Lincoln returned to Illinois, but the next year, the Supreme Court handed the Dred Scott decision, which said the Declaration of Independence didn’t apply to Black people, which made Lincoln return to national politics.
While campaigning for Senate in 1858 against Stephen Douglas, Lincoln finally made a name for himself. He lost to Douglas for the Senate seat, but in the process, Williams had this to say about Lincoln:
“[He] emerged as the only Republican candidate who could unify the fractured elements of his young party.”
And the party, at the time, needed a moderate candidate because the party was so divided. According to History, some Republicans wanted to ban slavery altogether, while some only wanted to ban the expansion of slavery. Lincoln was in the latter group of more moderate Republicans. Lincoln thought slavery was morally wrong, but still sanctioned by the Constitution. The Constitution counted slaves as three-fifths of people and included a fugitive slave clause. Again, Lincoln was not an abolitionist.
During the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Stephen Douglas accused Lincoln of supporting “negro equality,” and Lincoln admitted he didn’t believe Black people and white people should have the same rights, shouldn’t serve on the same juries, shouldn’t be able to intermarry, and he said Black people shouldn’t be able to vote or serve on the same juries as white people.
“I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and Black races,” Lincoln said.
He believed slavery was unjust because Black people should be able to enjoy the fruits of their labor. And Lincoln believed colonization would resolve slavery, where the African American population of America would settle in Africa or Central America. In 1854, Lincoln said, “to free all the slaves…send them to Liberia.” He supported colonization even while he was drafting the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, but it angered many Black leaders and abolitionists. Lincoln never mentioned the issue again.
When Lincoln won the Republican nomination, The Atlantic, which was founded as an abolitionist magazine in 1857, expressed disappointment that Lincoln won over Seward. James Russell Lowell, the founder of The Atlantic, wrote:
“[Seward], more than any other man, combined in himself the moralist’s oppugnancy to Slavery as a fact, the thinker’s resentment of it as a theory, and the statist’s distrust of it as a policy,”
Lowell had a more cautious take with Lincoln:
“He represents a party who know that true policy is gradual in its advances, that it is conditional and not absolute, that it must deal with fact and not with sentiments, but who know also that it is wiser to stamp out evil in the spark than to wait till there is no help but in fighting fire with fire.
Lincoln was essentially the last hope at preserving the Union, and he offered an olive branch to the South during his inauguration where he didn’t mention slavery, telling the South: “We must not be enemies.” Lincoln felt like he had to preserve the Union at all costs, and allowed border states to keep their slaves.
“I hope to have God on my side,” Lincoln said. “But I must have Kentucky.”
The other candidates seeking the nomination, other than Seward were deemed too controversial. Governor of Ohio, Salmon Chase was a former Democrat who opposed protective tariffs and was also thought to be too Radical on abolition and slavery by many Republicans. His former collaboration with Democrats annoyed many of his Republican peers. Edward Bates was formerly associated with the xenophobic Know-Nothings, and German Americans didn’t want him to be the nominee.
Seward led on the ballot on the first day of the convention, but then Lincoln tied him on the second. He won the party nomination on the third ballot.
Of course, actions in history speak louder than words. And Lincoln’s views would evolve over the course of his presidency. Sure, the Emancipation Proclamation was a politically convenient military strategy for slaves to serve as a source of military soldiers and to ensure Great Britain and France didn’t assist the South.
By 1862, Lincoln started to promote full equality and voting rights. The political climate had changed by 1862, and historian Eric Foner says Lincoln was pushed into supporting abolition by the climate.
“Lincoln himself insisted that he did not claim to have controlled events — that events controlled him,” Foner says.
One person who really influenced Lincoln’s push against slavery was Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner. Sumner thought Lincoln would alienate the Radical Republicans in 1861 and 1862, and pushed Lincoln to advocate for emancipation. Having the Confederacy cut off from Europe would undermine the Southern economy.
Once Lincoln deemed the border states were no longer in danger of giving their allegiance to the Union and realized tens of thousands of slaves were escaping the South. Constitutionally, he recognized that emancipation could be legal as a seizure of enemy “property.”
According to Ewers, Lincoln was pressured by leaders like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. Douglass was once very critical of Lincoln, saying he “was preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men.”
Seward, who became Secretary of State and the rest of his Cabinet, which included Bates and Chase, his rivals at the RNC, advised Lincoln not to issue the Emancipation Proclamation until the Union won a big victory — Antietam.
Lincoln, like no other politician in his time, was able to cross the aisle, even during the most divisive time in American history. And that means he believed what he thought was politically convenient and expedient.
Seward, once Lincoln’s greatest rival, became great friends with him, showing Lincoln’s ability to appeal to even his stiffest of opponents. And Seward once wrote to Lincoln’s wife: “The President is the best of us.”
Joe Biden is another politician that has been able to cross the aisle. And I have been extremely critical of Biden in the past due to his role in the 1994 Crime Bill and his previous association with segregationists. It’s not that I think people change their beliefs, but politics changes. Even though someone might just believe what is politically convenient, so what if their actions outweigh their words?
History tends to pick its favorites without telling the full story. Donald Trump often compares himself to Abraham Lincoln to extol how not racist he is.
What is undeniable is that Lincoln was able to pass through the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery, win the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln was a moderate, and according to Andrew Ferguson at The Atlantic, many radical Republicans thought Lincoln was weak and hesitant against conservatives. Lincoln cared more about preserving the Union than ending slavery, but it eventually got to the point that slavery could not co-exist with the Union.
Ferguson concludes, due to the nature of politics of the country, that Lincoln was radical without being a Radical Republican since he was able to lead the government and guide the country through war. Frederick Douglass would admit about Lincoln:
“But measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.”