Yes, Abe Lincoln freed the slaves.
But, as un-whitewashed history teaches us, not without giving far more progressive abolitionists, and Black folks, lots of aggravation and agita.
If you’re tired of Lincoln’s legend being sanitized, or the story of Black Americans being bleached by the College Board, it’s time to turn to the brilliant 1619 Project: A New Origin Story created by Nikole Hannah Jones for the New York Times & Random House (copyright 2021, New York Times Publishing Company), and the insightful and contemporaneous writings of Frederick Douglass, a powerful voice for equality who knew Lincoln well.
Douglass, a former slave, ardent abolitionist, great orator, and one of the most consequential writers, thinkers and leaders in American History—wrote three separate autobiographies from 1845 through 1892. He is the Douglass whose name should be immediately paired with Lincoln’s, rather than that of US Senator Stephen Douglas, who debated Lincoln about slavery, beat him for the Illinois Senate seat in 1858, and tried to broker a wishy-washy State sovereignty deal on slavery to avert Civil War.
In the 1619 Project, the Lincoln/Frederick Douglass story is meticulously told. I have excerpted some key portions of that story here:
“In our national story, we crown Lincoln the Great Emancipator, the president who ended slavery, demolished the racist South, and ushered in the free nation our founders set forth.
But this narrative, like so many others, requires more nuance. Frederick Douglass would never forget that the president initially suggested that the only solution, after abolishing enslavement that had lasted for centuries, was for Black Americans to leave the country they helped to build.”
Yes, you read that correctly. Abe Lincoln, considered by many to be the greatest of all American presidents, first favored the deportation of all Black Americans. It was a position he had favored for years.
More than a decade after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, Douglass was asked to eulogize the assassinated President.
“ The abolitionist (Frederick Douglass), whose mother had been sold away from him when he was a young child, had met Lincoln a few times during his presidency and had repeatedly prodded Lincoln in his writings and speeches to emancipate the enslaved.”
“At first, Douglass praised Lincoln as “a great public man whose example is likely to be commended for honor and imitation long after his departure to the solemn shades, the silent continents of eternity.”
But, as Jones writes in 1619 Project, Douglass was determined to make clear that he hadn’t simply come to praise Lincoln and “promote the narrative of Lincoln as the Great Emancipator who set his people free.”
Frederick Douglass: “Abraham Lincoln was not, in the fullest sense of the word, either our man, or our model…He was preeminently the white man’s president, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men. He was ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people to promote the welfare of white people in this country. YOU are the children of Abraham Lincoln. We are, at best, only his step-children; children by adoption, children by forces of circumstances and necessity.”
Douglass was not just referring to Lincoln’s longstanding advocacy of Colonization—relocating American Blacks to either the West Indies or to Africa. He was directly referencing the North’s necessity of freeing the slaves in order to defeat the Confederacy and preserve the union. Whether by design or default, freeing the slaves had become an essential military tactic for the North to win the War. Following the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation, thousands of freed black, enslaved persons left Southern plantations, and reinforced battered Union troops.
Historian Bruce Levine, in his book The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution That Transformed the South (Random House, NY, 2013), drove home the crucial role newly freed slaves had in the Union’s victory over the South:
“By early 1864, the steady erosion of slavery throughout the loyal border states was as difficult to miss as it was in Union-occupied portions of the confederacy…By mid-September 1864, the Union had enlisted 14,000 Black soldiers (from border states, with another six thousand expected by the end of October…General Lorenzo Thomas praised the new Black regiments as filling up with “the very best class of men.”
What became clearer each succeeding day, was that while Lincoln “freed the slaves,” the newly freed Black men, fighting alongside Union Troops, were critically important in the Union’s victory over the Confederacy in the Civil War. Once freed, former enslaved people fought fiercely to preserve—and extend—their liberty. There was no going back.
In his eulogy, “Douglass launched into a breathtaking litany of Lincoln’s shortcomings, referring in part to their White House meeting with Black leaders in August 1862, just a little over four months before the Emancipation Proclamation was issued:
“Our faith in him was often taxed and strained to the uttermost…when he strangely told us that we were the cause of the war; when he still more strangely told us that we were to leave the land in which we were born.”
However, as Jones writes in The 1619 Project, “though the Union was worth more to Lincoln than enslaved people’s freedoms, Douglass said: ‘under his wise and beneficent rule we saw ourselves gradually lifted from the depths of slavery to the heights of liberty and manhood.”
“Douglass understood that Lincoln’s ideas about Black people changed during the course of the War. The president had been deeply moved by the valor of the Black men who’d help save the Union, and had been influenced by Black men such as Douglass, whom he held in high esteem. Though the first version of his Emancipation Proclamation advocated Colonization (resettlements of the Black population), by the end of the Civil War, Lincoln had abandoned these efforts and advocated for the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery. In his final speech before his assassination, Lincoln expressed an openness to enfranchising a limited number of Black men—particularly educated men and those who’d fought in the War.”
Historian Christopher James Bonner, author of Remaking the Republic: Black Politics and the Creation of American Citizenship, offered his perspective to The 1619 Project:
“ That last speech calling for partial inclusion of Black Americans, that’s an evolution, and among the many tragedies of Lincoln’s death is that he did change so much in such a short period of time,” Bonner said. “Still, the final stage of Lincoln is still a person who only believes in partial Black inclusion and who is only advocating for certain Black people on certain terms. It’s valid to expect that he would have continued to evolve, but what we do know is that in the unfortunately short period of his presidency, Lincoln wasn’t an advocate for full equality.”
Formerly enslaved Black Americans were not interested in any half-way solutions. Jones writes in The 1619 Project, that when the Civil War ended “suddenly freeing four million Black Americans, few were interested in leaving the country.
“Instead, most would have fervently supported the sentiment of a resolution against Black colonization put forward at a convention of Black leaders in New York, some decades before:
“This is our home, and this our country. Beneath its sod lie the bones of our fathers…Here we were born, and here we will die.”