Busting Myths: Pres. Lincoln did NOT Want to Free the Slaves

Want evidence? See this letter Pres. Lincoln wrote to Liberal Republican, newspaper editor Horace Greeley.  I have included the text below.

Lincoln’s chief intention was NOT to free enslaved African-Americans.  In fact, he would have been happy with “the union as it was”, back to the status-quo.  After all, as a relatively privileged white male, he BENEFTED from the institution of slavery.  The racial and class hierarchies entrenched within the institution ensured that he had some level of status in American society.  This applies also to poor whites in the South.  While they did not benefit from slavery (economically) themselves, they benefited socially.  This was why poor white males volunteered their time as “patrollers,” policing the behaviour of African-American slaves- they could exert a modicum of dominance over another group.  Take away slavery, and you take away the tangible, legally sanctioned basis for their superiority.

Anyway, here’s the text of the letter.  Before I end this, it is worth noting that the Emancipation Proclamation only freed slaves in REBELLING states.  This excluded the Union slave states of Maryland, Delaware. Missouri  and Kentucky. Also the state of Tennessee, which was split between Union and Confederate at the time was not included in the Emancipation Proclamation.


Executive Mansion,
Washington, August 22, 1862.

Hon. Horace Greeley:
Dear Sir.

I have just read yours of the 19th. addressed to myself through the New-York Tribune. If there be in it any statements, or assumptions of fact, which I may know to be erroneous, I do not, now and here, controvert them. If there be in it any inferences which I may believe to be falsely drawn, I do not now and here, argue against them. If there be perceptable in it an impatient and dictatorial tone, I waive it in deference to an old friend, whose heart I have always supposed to be right.

As to the policy I “seem to be pursuing” as you say, I have not meant to leave any one in doubt.

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.

I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free.

A. Lincoln.


  1. I learned this during my first year of college. Lincoln did in fact believe in the superiority of whites over blacks and felt that whites and blacks could not inhabit the same society on equal terms if at all. Sans slavery, he was in support of “back to Africa” voyages for blacks. First and foremost, he was about preserving the union. The civil war was about preserving the union, not freeing slaves.

  2. I learned this in senior year of high school (AP US History).

    It wasn’t a surprise to me, though. As a descendant of slaves, whose parents were history buffs, I’d been taught the alternative history of the Civil War. You are absolutely right about Lincoln being about preserving the union.

  3. Just because Lincoln’s number one priority was saving the union does not mean that he didn’t care about the plight of slaves at all. one must be careful not to go overboard in the opposite direction but try to attain a more balanced picture. Then again I tend to see Lincoln in a more balanced way. It is difficult for us to see things through the eyes of people of that time, we want to try to force our modern day beliefs onto past ideologies.

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