Lincoln, the North, and the Question of Emancipation

It was only midway through the war that Lincoln reached the conclusion that abolishing slavery would preserve the nation.

By Dr. Hana Layson
Manager of School and Educator Programs
Portland Art Museum

By Dr. Kate Masur
Associate Professor of American History
Northwestern University


For generations, Abraham Lincoln has been known as “the Great Emancipator.” His Emancipation Proclamation of January 1863 effectively declared that, if the North won the Civil War, the American institution of slavery would come to an end. Lincoln abhorred slavery throughout his life. However, that abhorrence did not mean that he always believed abolition was the right course for the country, or that he necessarily embraced racial equality. Lincoln did not assume the presidency or enter the Civil War with the intention of ending slavery in states where it already existed. Rather, his stated goal was to save the Union. It was only midway through the war that Lincoln reached the conclusion that abolishing slavery was an essential component to preserving the nation.

Lincoln was not unique among white Northerners in the way his position on U.S. policy toward slavery evolved, nor in the complex distinctions he drew on matters of slavery and race. Today, we may have trouble grasping how Lincoln could sharply differentiate between, for example, the continuation of slavery in the Southeast and the extension of slavery to Western territories, or between the recognition of slavery as unjust and immoral and the reluctance to embrace full racial equality and integration. But these shifts and nuances of position were shared by many Northern citizens.

The North was the seat of a strong abolitionist movement and most Northern states had ended slavery through laws requiring gradual emancipation during the decades following the American Revolution. (The five states that still allowed slavery, but joined the North during the war all occupied the border between the North and the South: Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, and West Virginia, which broke away from Virginia during the course of the war.) But many Northern cities and towns were the site of intense racial hostilities. Some whites feared that the end of slavery would bring an influx of African Americans to the North, flooding the labor market with new workers and therefore driving down wages, or radically reconfiguring the social and political landscape. In July 1863, six months after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, working-class whites in New York City rioted for five days. They voiced anger about the war draft and fear of job competition from slaves freed by the Proclamation.

Over the course of the week, the rioters lynched 11 black men, burned an orphanage for black children, looted and destroyed numerous black-owned businesses, and forced hundreds of African Americans out of the city. The New York draft riots were extraordinary in the extent of their violence and mayhem, and many white Northerners were horrified by the events and rushed in to aid victims. However, the riots suggest the complexity—and instability—of race relations in the North as well as the degree of fear among white Northerners regarding the consequences of the abolition of slavery. The following collection of documents explores the meaning of slavery and emancipation in the North around the time of the Civil War, and develops the context for Lincoln’s own evolving position.

Mapping Slavery and Freedom

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 effectively overturned the Missouri Compromise of 1820 by allowing U.S. citizens of these territories to vote on whether or not to permit slavery. The act authorized slavery in a region which had previously been free and, as a result, angered many Northerners. Stephen A. Douglas, a Democratic senator from Illinois, promoted the Kansas-Nebraska Act as a necessary component of organizing the territories and encouraging settlement. He also argued that turning the question of slavery over to voters was an essentially democratic solution, which followed the principle of popular sovereignty. Lincoln offered a powerful rebuttal to these claims in a speech delivered in Peoria, Illinois, in October 1854. There is an important distinction, Lincoln argued, between tolerating slavery where it already exists because we don’t see how to end it and promoting slavery in new territories as a democratic right. He said, “I particularly object to the new position which the avowed principle of this Nebraska law gives to slavery in the body politic. I object to it because it assumes that there CAN BE MORAL RIGHT in the enslaving of one man by another…The argument of “Necessity” was the only argument [the founding fathers] ever admitted in favor of slavery.”

Reynolds’s Political Map of the United States: Designed to Exhibit the Comparative Area of the Free and Slave States and the Territory Open to Slavery or Freedom by the Repeal of the Missouri Compromise: William Reynolds, a supporter of the Republican Party, published this map during the presidential campaign of 1856. The map identifies slave, free, and “open to slavery” status, along with data such as political representation and number of slaves held, 1856

The above map was published two years later, during the presidential campaign of 1856. This election pitted Democrat James Buchanan against John Fremont of the recently formed Republican Party and former president Millard Fillmore, who ran for the American Party, or Know-Nothings. (Fremont ultimately carried 11 northern states, but lost the election to Buchanan.) The map’s creator, William C. Reynolds, supported the Republican Party and the map vividly illustrates the party’s condemnation of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

The main part of the map portrays the United States, including the western territories, colored according to slave, free, and “open to slavery” status. The lower portion of the map provides statistical comparisons of existing slave and free states based on the 1850 census, the 1852 presidential election results, congressional representation, and the number of slaves held by owners. Some of these statistics may appear puzzling or surprising to modern readers. For example, the map informs the reader that, in free states, the U.S. post office operates at a profit of about two million dollars a year, while in the slave states, the post office operates at a loss of about half a million dollars per year. It also suggests that white citizens of slave states enjoyed disproportionate representation in Congress due to factors such as the Constitution’s three-fifths clause and the North’s much higher white population density: “one Free State Representative represents 91,935 white men and women. One Slave State Representative represents 68,725 white men and women.” While slave and free states had roughly the same number of U.S. Senators, those senators from free states represented a voting population approximately twice as large as those from slave states.

Lincoln’s Evolving Arguments on Emancipation

“Letter to James Conkling, August 26, 1863”: When Lincoln could not attend a gathering or event, he wrote letters that his supporters would read on his behalf. This letter to James Conkling defends the Emancipation Proclamation and Lincoln’s decision to allow freed slaves to serve in the Union army. / Abraham Lincoln. From The Letters of President Abraham Lincoln on Questions of National Policy, 1863

In these two letters (first above), Lincoln explains the reasoning behind the Emancipation Proclamation, which went into effect on January 1, 1863. The Proclamation declared that “all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” It also authorized freed slaves to serve in the Union army. The Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves only in states that were in rebellion and where, as a result, Lincoln could act independently as commander in chief. In the five Union states that still allowed slavery, Lincoln lacked this constitutional authority and had to defer to Congress and state legislatures. However, one month before the Emancipation Proclamation Lincoln had proposed to Congress a plan of gradual, compensated emancipation, designed to eliminate slavery throughout the United States. This proposal did not become law, but through the passage of various state laws and, ultimately, the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, slavery became illegal in all of the United States by the end of 1865.

“Letter to Albert Hodges, April 4, 1864”: Lincoln’s letter to Albert Hodges, a Kentucky newspaper editor, and other Kentucky politicians reveals Lincoln’s political and personal beliefs regarding the question of emancipation. / Abraham Lincoln. From Greeley on Lincoln, by Horace Greeley. April 4, 1864

Lincoln wrote the first letter included here in response to a request from supporters that he speak at a rally in his hometown of Springfield, Illinois on September 3, 1863. He could not attend the rally, but asked his longtime friend, James C. Conkling, to read the letter on his behalf. This letter was also sent to the New York State Union Convention, which was held at the same time. Lincoln wrote the second letter (above) at the request of Albert Hodges, a Kentucky newspaper editor. In this letter, Lincoln restates thoughts that he had voiced in conversation with Hodges and two prominent Kentucky politicians. The letter illuminates Lincoln’s changing position on the question of emancipation.

The Fugitive

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave: Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery in 1838, was a prominent writer and speaker for abolition, women’s suffrage, and civil rights. Stories of escaped slaves, whether autobiographical or fictional, played a crucial role in abolitionist literature, 1845

Before Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, escape to the North or Canada was the prevailing means for slaves to obtain freedom.

Eliza’s Flight: A Scene from Uncle Tom’s Cabin: This sheet music cover depicts a scene from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, an influential anti-slavery novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe. The novel’s popularity inspired Northern artists to create illustrations, plays, and songs about the novel’s themes and characters. / Edward J. Loder. by Oliver Ditson. 1852

The fugitive slave became an especially potent political and cultural figure following the Compromise of 1850, which significantly strengthened the existing Fugitive Slave Act.

“The Escaped Slave”: The man in the above images fled from Montgomery, Alabama, to join in the Union Army in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Almost 200,000 African American soldiers fought in the Union army after the Emancipation Proclamation allowed blacks to enlist. / T. B. Bishop. From Harper’s Weekly, July 2, 1864

This act required citizens of free as well as slave states to assist in the capture of fugitives or face fines and imprisonment. Any slaves who escaped to the North had to be returned to their masters without trial. Many Northerners regarded the act as making them fully—and newly—complicit in the institution of slavery.

“The Resurrection of Henry Box Brown”: An illustration of Henry “Box” Brown who, in 1849, escaped from slavery in Richmond, Virginia. According to the story, Brown, with the assistance of friends and abolitionists, was packed into a crate and mailed to Philadelphia. / William Still. From The Underground Rail Road: A Record of Facts, Authentic Narratives, Letters, Etc. , 1872

Representations of escaped or escaping slaves played a crucial role in abolitionist literature, whether autobiography, such as Frederick Douglass’ Narrative, or fiction, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

The Contraband

“Oh, Help the Contraband”: “Contraband” refers to escaped slaves who were confiscated as Confederate property and allowed to remain with Union forces. This song was published by anti-slavery activists prior to the Emancipation Proclamation. / Horace Waters. From The Harp of Freedom: A New and Superior Collection of Anti-Slavery, Patriotic, and “Contraband” Songs, Solos, Duets, and Choruses, 1862

As historian Kate Masur explains, Northerners began to use the term contraband to refer to escaped slaves within weeks of the start of the Civil War. Three slaves approached the Union general Benjamin F. Butler at Fortress Monroe, Virginia, in May 1861.

“The New Place”: This cartoon appeared in a New York humor magazine a few days before the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect. / Bobbett-Hooper. From Vanity Fair, December 27, 1862

At that time, Lincoln had declared his intention not “to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists.” When the slaves’ owner demanded their return, Butler had no authority to retain the men, so he invented a policy on the spot. He declared the men “contraband of war,” meaning that they were “property destined for use in the enemy’s war effort,” and could therefore be held by Union troops.

“Contrabands Coming into Camp in Consequence of the Proclamation”: This sketch shows a group of freed slaves gathered around their covered wagon after joining the Union army. Tents, or “contraband camps,” were set up to help clothe and feed runaway slaves who had come into Union lines seeking freedom. / A.R. Waud. From Harper’s Weekly, January 31, 1863

Butler’s contraband policy was soon rendered irrelevant by laws authorizing the Union Army to hold Confederate slaves as confiscated property. Yet, Masur writes, “as a name for fleeing slaves, ‘contraband’ had significance…beyond anything Butler could have predicted… The term jumped immediately into popular culture” and was widely used in Northern publications until the end of the war. Masur argues that the term’s popularity illuminates “the transitional status of the people to whom it referred. They were neither property with a clear owner (as in slavery) nor free people, but something in between.”

“The Effects of the Proclamation”: After the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, many slaves sought out Union camps located in the South to claim their freedom. / From Harper’s Weekly, February 21, 1863

Representations of escaped slaves as contraband were at least as likely to play on Northern fears of the consequences of emancipation as they were to celebrate abolition.


“Proclamation of Emancipation Abraham Lincoln”: This portrait of Lincoln was created two years after his assassination. The words of the Emancipation Proclamation form a drawing of Lincoln’s face. / W. H. Pratt. 1867

These documents approach the legacy of the Emancipation Proclamation from two different directions: first, in relation to Lincoln’s reputation and, second, in relation to the status and experiences of African Americans during Reconstruction. The portrait of Lincoln (above) was created by W. H. Pratt two years after Lincoln’s assassination and the end of the Civil War in the spring of 1865. The words of the Emancipation Proclamation are written in calligraphy across the page to form a drawing of Lincoln’s face.

“In Louisville, KY., 1883”: Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery in 1838, was a prominent writer and speaker for abolition, women’s suffrage, and civil rights. He addresses the nation’s failure to protect African Americans’ rights following Reconstruction. / Frederick Douglass. From Three Addresses on the Relations Subsisting Between the White and Colored People of the United States, 1886

The second document (above), an excerpt of an 1883 speech by Frederick Douglass, addresses the nation’s continuing failure to fulfill its commitment to African American freedom and citizenship. Douglass had escaped slavery in 1838 and become a prominent writer and orator for abolition, women’s suffrage, and, after the war, civil rights.

Selected Sources

  • Leslie M. Harris. In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626–1863. 2003.
  • Library of Congress. With Malice Toward None: The Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Exhibition [online exhibit].
  • Abraham Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln, Slavery, and the Civil War. Edited by Michael P. Johnson. 2011.
  • Kate Masur. “‘A Rare Phenomenon of Philological Vegetation’: The Word ‘Contraband’ and the Meanings of Emancipation in the United States.” Journal of American History (March 2007): 1050–1084.
  • Newberry Library and Chicago History Museum. Lincoln at 200 [online exhibit].
  • Terra Foundation for American Art. The Civil War in Art: Teaching and Learning through Chicago Collections.

Originally published by Newberry Digital Collections for the Classroom, 09.05.2017, Newberry Library, republished with permission for educational, non-commercial purposes.