Misconceptions About Lincoln

During a recent conservative talk radio interview program for our new book The War Between the States: America's Uncivil War, the host did something risky even for him – he asked me to address misconceptions regarding Abraham Lincoln. I am not sure I can think of a topic besides that one in which his audience would not have followed the cue of this popular and respected host. Most of them, though they live in a northern state, would likely even have agreed that the Confederate States of America had respectable and defensible reasons for doing what they did. But to support a challenge to the wisdom, motivations, and character of Abraham Lincoln? Why, that is a sure way to generate disbelief, then hatred, and ultimately the loss of career opportunities for anyone suggesting such a notion.

That is why I am so thankful for the marvelous work done by Thomas J. DiLorenzo, Thomas Woods, and others in recent years to address the truth of Lincoln's beliefs and actions, when such work guarantees bitter and unchristian abuse from neo-conservatives, mainstream Republicans, and all stripes of professing Christians, not to mention liberals. Yet these difficult labors are crucial in correcting the collective ignorance of a supposedly-educated America that is struggling to find its way in the present because it has drawn so many wrong lessons from its past.

Indeed, if America and Americans are to be a blessing to the people and nations of the world, we must endeavor to learn the truth of our history, good and bad, that it might better inform our actions in the present. The War of 1861–1865 is a central hinge in that history, and a proper understanding of Abraham Lincoln is the key to unlocking the true lessons of that conflict. Lincoln's views and actions regarding black Americans and slavery, herein discussed, constitute a key component of such an understanding.


The fact is, as we point out in The War Between the States: America's Uncivil War, evidence abounds, from Lincoln's own words as well as his actions, that something besides a desire to free the slaves fueled his Emancipation Proclamation. Largely unreported by most American histories of the war is the revolt launched against Lincoln by United States Senate Republicans in mid-December, 1862, just before he signed the proclamation into law.

According to Lincoln's old friend Illinois Representative Orville Browning and others, the senators demanded the President conduct a more resolute war effort. They were apparently prepared to bring down his administration if he did not. This enhanced effort evidently included emancipation as a method of war that would torpedo the South's economy and ability to defend itself. A slave uprising – with the attendant slaughter of white Southern women, children, and old men – lay within the sphere of this projection. Certainly, a howling chorus of protest not limited to the South, but including many of Lincoln's opponents in the North, as well as in Europe, thought so. Horatio Seymour, soon-to-be Democratic Governor of New York, said: "The scheme for an immediate emancipation and general arming of the slaves throughout the South is a proposal for the butchery of women and children, for scenes of lust and rapine, arson and murder, unparalleled in the history of the world."

Relations between Southern slaves and their owners proved superior to such an eventuality. But Lincoln himself, when told the Constitution gave individual states and not the national government jurisdiction over slavery, claimed emancipation as a war powers act that he as commander-in-chief could employ – for military purposes. Indeed, the President eliminated from an early draft of the decree a call for a violent uprising of slaves.

Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation


A portion of the completed Emancipation Proclamation addressed another view Lincoln had in mind for Southern, but not Northern, slaves – "impressment" into the Federal armies: "And I further declare and make known that such persons of suitable condition will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service . . . [due to] military necessity." Not only did he deprive the Confederacy of the labor and other contributions of many Southern slaves, but he employed them instead in the Federal military effort, forcing many blacks into the fighting against their will.

Orville Browning's diary of December 31, 1862, recorded that Judge Benjamin Franklin Thomas of the Massachusetts Supreme Court told Browning that: "the President was fatally bent upon his course, saying that if he should refuse to issue his proclamation there would be a rebellion in the north, and that a dictator would be placed over his head within the week."

With the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln quelled the Senate revolt. But his lackluster feelings for it resurfaced when he eschewed the urgings of much of his cabinet, including Seward, Chase, Blair, and Bates, and confined his decree to those slaves in Confederate-controlled territory. That is, he freed none of the slaves over which he had control when he had the opportunity.

Famed former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass expressed his views on these actions, as well as Lincoln's public declarations regarding the benefits of deporting the bulk of American blacks: "Illogical and unfair as Mr. Lincoln's statements are, they are nevertheless quite in keeping with his whole course from the beginning of his administration up to this day, and confirm the painful conviction that though elected as an antislavery man by Republican and Abolition voters, Mr. Lincoln is quite a genuine representative of American prejudice and Negro hatred and far more concerned for the preservation of slavery, and the favor of the Border Slave States, than for any sentiment of magnanimity or principle of justice and humanity."

In the end, the Emancipation Proclamation exhibited political sagacity and brilliance, hastened the demise of American slavery, probably triggered the deaths of tens of thousands more men than would otherwise have occurred, and likely contributed to America's future morass in racial relations.


Abraham Lincoln rose to national prominence during his 1858 series of debates with his Illinois senatorial opponent Stephen Douglas. Lincoln's eloquent criticism of American slavery helped catapult him into leadership of the young Republican Party. But his own words during the debates demonstrate how different were the views of many anti-slavery Americans around the country from those of abolitionists who sought not only freedom, but immediate political and social equality for blacks.

Make Negroes politically and socially our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this. I will say 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, that I am not nor have ever been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people. And I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And in as much as they cannot so live, while they do remain together, there must be the position of superior and inferior. And I, as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.

Ward Hill Lamon, a long time Lincoln colleague and Federal Marshal of Washington during his administration, offered his own thoughts on the subject:

None of [Lincoln's] public acts, either before or after he became President, exhibits any special tenderness for the African race. On the contrary, he invariably, in words and deeds, postponed the interests of the blacks to the interests of the whites, and expressly subordinated the one to the other. When he was compelled, by what he deemed an overruling necessity, founded on both military and political considerations, to declare the freedom of the public enemy's slaves, he did so with avowed reluctance, and took pains to have it understood that his resolution was in no wise affected by sentiment.


A subject as volatile as it is unknown, is Lincoln's long-declared goal for dealing with both free black Americans and those enslaved once they gained freedom. Perhaps no one has described it better than black author Lenore Bennett, Jr. No conservative nor friend of the Confederacy, Bennett wrote in his massive chronicle Forced Into Glory, Abraham Lincoln's White Dream:

What Lincoln proposed officially and publicly was that the United States government buy the slaves and deport them to Africa or South America. This was not a passing whim. In five major policy declarations, including two State of the Union addresses and the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, the sixteenth president of the United States publicly and officially called for the deportation of blacks. On countless other occasions, in conferences with cronies, Democratic and Republican leaders, and high government officials, he called for colonization of blacks or aggressively promoted colonization by private and official acts.

Lincoln's own words, and those of his colleagues, left abundant evidence of his views. Following are a few of the many examples.

"Let us be brought to believe it is morally right, and, at the same time, favorable to, or, at least, not against, our interest, to transfer the African to his native clime, and we shall find a way to do it, however great the task may be. The children of Israel, to such numbers as to include four hundred thousand fighting men, went out of Egyptian bondage in a body."

~ Lincoln, 1857

"It is still in our power to direct the process of emancipation, and deportation, peaceably, and in such degrees, as the evil will wear off insensibly; and their places be . . . filled up by free white laborers."

~ Lincoln, February 27, 1860, New York City

"But if gradual emancipation and deportation be adopted, they will have neither to flee from . . . till new homes can be found for them, in congenial climes, and with people of their own blood and race."

~ Lincoln's 1862 State of the Union Address

"(It) might well be well to consider, too, whether the free colored people already in the United States could not, so far as individuals may desire, be included in such colonization."

~ Lincoln's 1862 State of the Union Address, regarding already-free blacks and the American Colonization Society

He asked Congress to pass a constitutional amendment:

"colonizing free colored persons, with their own consent, at any place or places without the United States."

What if Congress refused to grant Lincoln's desire for this sprawling, whites-only enclave, which included states and western territories alike?

"We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best, hope of earth."

"Almost from the commencement of this administration, the subject of deporting the colored race has been discussed . . . As early as May 1861, a great pressure was made upon me to enter into a coal contract with (a) company. The President was in earnest in the matter, wished to send the Negroes out of the country."

~ Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles

"(President Lincoln) zealously and persistently devised schemes for the deportation of the Negroes, which the latter deemed cruel and atrocious in the extreme . . . "

~ Close friend and Federal Marshal Ward Hill Lamon

Until Americans – especially conservatives and Christians – begin to appreciate how misguided was Lincoln in so many ways, how many lives his actions destroyed or ruined, and how unlike conservative and Christian principles were those actions, we will be frustrated in our efforts to elect wise statesmen to lead us, and to support and require statesmanlike conduct from them.

January 5, 2006

John J. Dwyer (send him mail) is chairman of history at Coram Deo Academy near Dallas, Texas. He is author of the new historical narrative The War Between the States: America's Uncivil War. His website includes a five-minute preview video about the book. He is also the author of the historical novels Stonewall and Robert E. Lee, and the former editor and publisher of The Dallas/Fort Worth Heritage newspaper.

Political Theatre

LRC Blog

LRC Podcasts