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Was Lincoln Duplicitous about Slavery

Not long before Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, he issued the statement, "If I could save the Union and free no slaves, I would do it!" Was Lincoln duplicitous about his intentions in freeing the slaves? Did he say one thing but really feel something differently?

I would not call it duplicity as the statement quoted here is not presented in its entire context. Lincoln wrote in his letter to Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune,

I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be "the Union as it was." If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views. (1)

Lincoln’s entire goal was to save the Union. To him, it was not about slavery. Slavery was just a pawn. If he had to establish slavery forever to stop the fighting and protect the Union, then he was willing to do so If he had to abolish it, he would have. In the end, he saw how abolishing slavery would be more beneficial to end the war than it would be to continue as an institution. There were too many issues pulled into the war, and Lincoln was determined to narrow it down to one that was the most vital – saving the Union. If Lincoln made slavery his prime reasoning, then the war was about slavery. It was not. It was about the South not wanting to work with the North. Lincoln was not duplicitous. He was honest which is amazing for him being a politician. He was also realistic to recognize the fact that decisions would have to be made that some people would not appreciate, but those decisions would have to be made in order to save the nation.


(1) Abraham Lincoln, “Letter to Horace Greeley,” Abraham Lincoln Online, http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/greeley.htm.

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