Abraham Lincoln’s speeches, written between 1858 and 1865, address the issues of slavery through attempting to strike a balance between the United States’ ability to regulate it and sustaining the union to keep the country united. Based on the contexts in which the six speeches were created, including Lincoln’s opening speech and rejoinder in the Charleston joint debate (1858), his letter to Horace Greeley (1862), the Emancipation Proclamation (1863), the Gettysburg Address (1863), Lincoln’s second inaugural address (1865), and his last public address at Washington, D.C. (1865), it is evident that multiple moral aspects influenced Lincoln’s statements. As such, the paper discusses Lincoln’s views on the morality of slavery and the need to keep the nation together. However, it also delves into examining whether or not Lincoln was consistent in his views throughout this time.
According to Gurnham (34), Lincoln spent most of his life in Indiana and Illinois, where slavery was prohibited by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. This prohibition influenced Lincoln’s view on slavery, as he believed that it was naturally wrong. However, during his early life, he failed to comprehend what would happen in the event that slavery would finally be abolished. This belief is evident in his inability to condemn slavery directly. Instead, he remained neutral. Lincoln’s neutrality is exemplified in part by his answer to an elderly gentleman, where he says that “I do not understand that because I do not want a Negro woman for a slave, I must necessarily want her for a wife” (Lincoln, 1858). Lincoln did not find purpose and reason in being a slaveholder. Instead, he argued that it was better to leave the slaves alone since he had been then in his early fifties and had managed to live without owning a slave. Similarly, in the Charleston joint debate rejoinder, he responded to Judge Douglas’s declamation, explaining that “he entertained the belief that this government would not endure half slave and half free. I have said so, and I did not say it without what seemed to me to be good reasons,” (Lincoln, 1858).
The letter to Horace Greeley reveals the distinct human, as well as the humane character that defined Lincoln. In his response regarding the policy that he pursued, he did not leave any citizen in doubt by declaring that he was working to save the union. However, he did not, at the same time, encourage or perpetuate slavery. In a short and clear answer, he said that “his paramount object in the struggle was to save the Union, and was not either to save or to destroy slavery” (Lincoln, 1862). Lincoln meant no harm to any of the slaves and indeed meant to leave them alone, as expressed in his desire to save the union at the expense of freeing all the slaves. He reiterates his belief in the moral good of all humanity by informing the public that he fully understood his responsibilities; thus, in a situation where the perceived or intended actions would only cause harm or hurt someone, then he was obliged to do less. On the other hand, Lincoln believed in doing more in the foreseeable event that the intended action is for an overall right course. In his last public address at Washington D.C, he reaffirmed his duty to the public, stating that “I am considering, and shall not fail to act, when satisfied that action will be proper” (Lincoln, 1865).
Subsequently, Lincoln was consistent throughout the period within which the statements were delivered. Comparative evaluation of the texts reveals that while earlier on, he remained neutral to slavery; his approaches gained momentum and became drastic after he ascended to the presidency. Other than the political factors, it could be viewed and belabored that Lincoln had been patient enough to wait for the right position of power to express his displeasure with slavery. As Lincoln said in the Emancipation Declaration, “…And by virtue of the power, and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons” (Lincoln, 1863). Lincoln had listening ears for both the radicals and the abolitionists since he believed that they all had purposes championed through clear strategies.
However, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address not only recognized those who fought and died in order to uphold the course they believed in but also called upon all the citizens of the United States, regardless of race and color, to take it upon themselves to ensure that unity prevailed. He asked the citizens to ensure that the “dead did not have to die in vain—that the nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth” (Lincoln, 1863).
In summary, Lincoln’s moral view of slavery was that it was wrong. His actions against slavery are consistent with the eventual drastic measures towards abolition after he rose to the presidency. In his second inaugural address (White, 66), Lincoln hoped for an everlasting peaceful and united country that upheld moral values, including shunning malice against anyone, the charity for all, believing in what is right and being firm on it, and caring for one another.
Gurnham, Richard. History of Lincoln. Place of publication not identified: The History Press Ltd, 2013. Print.
White, Ronald C. Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural. Simon and Schuster, 2006.