For a man with nearly no formal education, Abraham Lincoln was one of our most intelligent and capable presidents. He wisely conceded, “American slavery…belongs to our politics, to our industries, to our commerce and to our religion. Every portion of our territory in some form or other has contributed to the growth and to the increase of slavery…It is wrong, a great evil indeed, but the South is no more responsible for the wrong done to the African race than is the North.” And, in keeping with the beliefs of his time, Lincoln initially favored repatriation of freed blacks to Africa, a manifestation of white supremacy. However, his administration was the first to grant diplomatic recognition to Haiti, a pariah nation because a slave revolution in 1791 killed French slave owners, defeating three European empires before winning independence in 1804.
In an August 1862 exchange with Horace Greeley, founder and editor of the New York Tribune, Lincoln stated his position clearly: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do that.” His next sentence is crucial to understanding this consummate politician’s mind: “What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it would help save the Union.” The next month, Lincoln addressed a church group in Chicago:
“I admit that slavery is the root of the rebellion, or at least its sine qua non…. I also concede that Emancipation would help us in Europe… I grant further, that it would help somewhat in the North, though not so much, I fear, as you and those you represent imagine… And then, unquestionably, it would weaken the Rebels by drawing off their laborers, which is of great importance, but I am not so sure we can do much with the blacks. If we were to arm them, I fear that in a few weeks the arms would be in the hands of the rebels.”
Lincoln the politician attempted to finesse his way around this delicate issue to keep the Border States, Delaware, Maryland, Tennessee, Missouri and Kentucky, safely in the Union in the first years of the war. He was uniquely open-minded; his attitude continued to evolve until he included authorization for black soldiers in the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863. Ultimately, enlistment of freedmen and slaves would become as important as the elimination of slavery itself. The United States Colored Troops put 180,000 troops in the field in 175 regiments, or more than the Confederacy had in all its field armies. The elimination of slavery and granting African Americans the right to fight for their freedom is what Lincoln meant by “a new birth of freedom” in his Gettysburg Address.