Was Abraham Lincoln the Great Emancipator?

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln is often called the Great Emancipator. Recent findings, however, suggest that he may not have been as interested in ending slavery as believed.

Following his 1865 assassination, President Abraham Lincoln became a martyr. Over the years he has been portrayed in history books as an anti-slavery crusader. New historical evidence, however, seems to suggest otherwise. In death Lincoln became the “Great Emancipator,” but it has become obvious that this is a role he refused to play in life. As for Lincoln’s interest in the slavery issue, this may have actually been a political agenda as opposed to a moral one.

This fact has caused Lincoln to be villified by some modern historians. Finally, many historians and prominent political figures have concluded that Lincoln does deserve some credit for at least introducing the issue of slavery to the American public.

Abraham Lincoln: Racist? For 100 years after Lincoln’s death, African Americans widely regarded him as a sort of paternalistic redeemer figure. Then, modern historians began publicizing the truth: Lincoln was actually just as racist as other whites of his time. One incident that these historians cite as evidence of this claim is Lincoln’s post-Civil War visit to the fallen Confederate capital– Richmond, Virginia. Here, blacks knelt at Lincoln’s feet. Lincoln was appalled by this and told them to desist.

As for Lincoln’s supposedly racist views, it has been widely documented that Lincoln advocated the return of newly freed slaves to Africa. Lincoln also openly stated that the primary goal of the Civil War was to preserve the Union, not end slavery. Thus, Lincoln was concerned with slavery for political rather than moral reasons. These revelations were often used by Lincoln’s critics as a means of portraying him as complicit in creating his own false mythology for personal gain.

The Current President Weighs in on Lincoln’s Legacy

Today, there is a more nuanced view of Lincoln. While historians have concluded that he was no radical, he nevertheless broached the issue of slavery. This is the view held by prominent African Americans as well. In a 2005 TIME essay, then-Illinois senator Barack Obama wrote:”I cannot swallow whole the view of Lincoln as the Great Emancipator.”

By the same token, Obama goes on to applaud Lincoln’s “moral compass” and his courage for tackling the slavery issue head-on as opposed to leaving it to future generations to deal with. In other words, now-President Obama, like many other Americans, believes that even though Lincoln did not intend to completely end slavery, he deserves credit for raising the public’s awareness of the issue.


  1. Various Authors. “Emancipation– 1862-63,” excerpted from Abraham Lincoln: An Illustrated History of His Life and Times, p. 95. New York: TIME Books, Time Inc., 2009.