Prior to the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln asserted that he would not end slavery in the South and that he was not in favor of racial equality. Yet, by 1863 he signed the “Emancipation Proclamation” freeing slaves and laying the groundwork for the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1865, making slavery illegal across the nation. Why was Lincoln initially opposed to ending slavery? What prompted Lincoln to change his mind?

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    – MCW
    Oct 14, 2018 at 0:40
  • Note that the Emancipation Proclamation did not end slavery, as it only affected areas of the Confederacy in which the US had no de facto authority.
    – jamesqf
    Oct 14, 2018 at 18:48
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    The Emancipation Proclamation had the desirable diplomatic effect of making the Civil War about slavery, making it politically impossible for Britain or France to intervene on behalf of the Confederacy. It was worth it for that alone. Oct 15, 2018 at 18:08
  • "Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained"
    – jonstieg
    May 16, 2023 at 17:05

3 Answers 3


"Why was Lincoln initially opposed to ending slavery? What prompted Lincoln to change his mind?"

Lincoln was never opposed to ending slavery. In his First Inaugural Address, he stated that he has no inclination as the President to end slavery - because:

"... I believe I have no lawful right to do so".

Meanwhile, in the same address, he did not hesitate to mention his believe that slavery is wrong.

Freeing slaves, opposing the ending of slavery, and not being in favor of racial equality - are three different issues. Slaveowner, Chief justice Roger Taney, freed all his slaves. However, he also wrote the Supreme Court Dred Scott decision, which declared that Black Africans:

"so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit".

In his Speech on the Dred Scott Decision, Lincoln underscored the difference between opposing slavery and being in favor of racial equality:

"I protest against that counterfeit logic which concludes that, because I do not want a black woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. I need not have her for either, I can just leave her alone. In some respects she certainly is not my equal; but in her natural right to eat the bread she earns with her own hands without asking leave of any one else, she is my equal, and the equal of all others"

Yes, the Emancipation Proclamation contributed to groundwork for the Thirteenth Amendment. However, its purpose was not ending slavery - but saving the Union by winning the war:

"if I could save it [the Union] by freeing some [slaves] and leaving others alone I would also do that"

Also, the honor (or blame) of laying the groundwork for slavery extermination in the mid-60s should be contributed to southern leaders. They could have saved slavery by accepting Lincoln's Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation condition to stop the war and return to the Union by January 1st 1863. Also, they could have listened before secession to the most visionary of them, who insisted that slavery would be more likely saved if the southern states remained in the Union. Despite secession laid groundwork to slavery ending, we would not blame Jefferson Davis for changing his mind, wouldn't we?

  • JFC! Don't use just one sentence of Lincoln's letter to Horace Greeley and leave the rest out! That's a bald-faced out of context quote. Oct 15, 2018 at 1:52
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    @Pieter Geerkens Just relax, I can not quote this letter and other sources in whole. This is not even complete sentence, but I think this quote is proper and sufficient for the question. However, to make you happy I edited my answer and included link on this letter and on my analysis. Oct 15, 2018 at 3:21
  • Lincoln's words are indeed interpreted in that way, but I am not entirely sure (not being an American myself, and possessing what amounts to very little intimate knowledge on the topic) on the validity of such an interpretation. To me, it seems as if he is merely defending his character (being married to his wife since the early 1840's, and the quote is from two speeches delivered in the late 1850's).
    – Lucian
    Oct 15, 2018 at 16:38
  • @Lucian Lincoln's character as faithful husband was never questioned and no needed to be defended. As you can see from the full quote I added, he was explaining difference between opposing slavery and advocating full racial equality Oct 15, 2018 at 19:24
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    @sempaiscuba I really appreciate your editing my posts and correcting my errors, I consider this as English lessons I still need. I would stop to thank you each time, but please don't stop correcting me. Thank you. Oct 15, 2018 at 19:44

Question: Prior to the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln asserted that he would not end slavery in the South and that he was not in favor of racial equality. Yet, by 1863 he signed the “Emancipation Proclamation” freeing slaves and laying the groundwork for the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1865, making slavery illegal across the nation. Why was Lincoln initially opposed to ending slavery? What prompted Lincoln to change his mind?

I don't think he ever changed his mind about ending slavery. I think he favored a political solution to slavery which became a forgone conclusion prior to the Civil War in his mind. I think Lincoln was willing to allow that political legislative solution to run it's course rather than fight the civil war. Once the war was upon him though, a war he fought to preserve the union, Lincoln took steps to ensure slavery did not survive the war. He had paid the price, so he ensured slavery would end.

The reason why preserving the Union was his foremost concern in pursuing the Civil War was given by the founding fathers John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison, in the Federalist Papers. All three founding fathers by they from the North or the South agreed, If the union were to dissolve it would mean 1000 years of war along the lines Europe was experiencing. As two nations so closely match would naturally conflict on religious, economic and cultural grounds.

Important Dates:

  • 1820 - Missouri Compromise
  • 1842 Supreme Court Decision, Prigg v. Pennsylvania (states did not need to assist in returning escaped slaves, weakening slave owners )
  • September 18, 1850 - Congress passes the Fugitive Slave Act ( arguable legalized slavery in the North, and infuriated and popularized the Abolition movement in the North )
  • March 20, 1854 - Anti Slavery Whigg's form the Republican Party.
  • May 30, 1854 - Kansas–Nebraska Act
  • November 6, 1860 - Lincoln wins the Presidential Election
  • December 20, 1860 - South Carolina leaves the union
  • January 9, 1861 - Mississippi Leaves the Union
  • January 10, 1861 - Florida Leaves the Union
  • January 11, 1861 - Alabama leaves the Union
  • January 19, 1861 - Georgia leaves the Union
  • January 26, 1861 - Louisiana leaves the Union
  • February 1, 1861 - Texas Leaves the Union
  • January 29, 1861 - After years of violent coercion, Kansas Enters the Union as a FREE STATE!!!!
  • March 4, 1861 - Lincoln Takes Office.
  • April 12,13 1861 - Battle of Fort Sumter
  • January 1, 1863 - Lincoln drafts and signs the Emancipation Proclamation which free's slaves in sucessionist States, ultimately responsible for freeing most of the slaves in the United States.
  • January 31, 1865 - Congress Passes the Thirteenth Ammendment outlawing slavery.
  • April 9, 1865 - Lee Surrenders to Grant at Appomattox court house


The Republican Party was founded to oppose the spread of slavery into the new western territories. This doesn't suggest a Republican tolerance for slavery, but rather it was an effective measure to end slavery in the Union. Slavery was protected in the Federal Government since revolutionary war days due to a balance of seats in the senate among free and slave states. The Republican Strategy in 1850, which Lincoln initially opposed but came to favor, was to attack this equilibrium which defended slavery. The American Wig party's weakness and general failure to combat slavery was the reason it imploded and it's more ideological members founded the new Republican Party. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 which admitted pro slavery Missouri and the Free state of Maine into the union established the precedent of safeguarding the pro slavery equilibrium in Congress. The Kansas Nebraska Act changed this precedent said new states would themselves be permitted to decide whether they would be pro slavery or anti slavery. To all combatants in the struggle for and against slavery this compromise effectively decided the issue of slavery in the Union. Slavery might continue for years even decades, but it was on a dead limb of the legislative tree. This decision meant the south could no longer defend their equilibrium in the Senate, and without that equilibrium they would not be able to defend slavery from legislative attacks, and slavery's days were numbered.

Your Question:.

To support your question this is a letter which Lincoln wrote to the Editor of the New York Tribune explaining his reasons for going to war with the Southern sucessionist States.

. 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.

My Answer:

By the time Lincoln took office the decision to end slavery was effectively over. 4 weeks prior to Lincoln taking office Kansas had been admitted to the Union as a Free state blowing apart the south's equilibrium in the Senate. Destroying the balance which had allowed the Southern states to defend the institution of slavery in the Union. The only thing left to be done was decide when and put up with all the shouting. The South had lost it's equilibrium in the Senate and could no longer defend the institution in the Legislature and they knew it. It might have taken several decades but it was over. The Kansas Nebraska Act had made the conclusion of the issue which defined politics in the United States since revolutionary war days a forgone conclusion, Kansas admittance into the Union as a free state put the stamp on it. This is supported by the fact that many of the southern states succeeded prior to Lincoln even taking office. To their mind, slavery was dead in the Union and they didn't need to wait to hear what the new president's agenda would be.

What Lincoln was saying was he was willing to allow slavery to die on the vine in its own time due to legislative process. He would not fight the most costly war in American Lives in history to end Slavery a decade or more early. This is not to say Lincoln was not consistently against slavery. Lincoln drafted and signed the Emancipation Proclamation with freed the majority of the slaves in the United States over the objections of his cabinet ( made up of anti slavery Republicans). His stated reasons were to weaken the confederacy. It is also true that this action effectively blocked European states like Britain and France from entering the war on the Confederacies side.

Lincoln also promoted championed and ultimately passed the Thirteenth Amendment, January 31, 1865. Locking Anti Slavery in place.

I think Lincoln's actions are perfectly consistent. He would not fight the war to end slavery given it was already mortally wounded at the price of hundreds of thousands of Lives and a century of recriminations. Once forced to fight the war however, he did all he could to ensure slavery would not survive the conflict.

(*). The reason Kansas Nebraska Act, which said each new territory would decide for themselves whether they would be free or slave, destroyed the equilibrium between slave and free states in the senate was because settlers were overwhelmingly expected to be anti slavery.

  • Northern Free States States were more populous than the Southern States,
  • America's primary sources of immigration at the time was Europe where slavery was outlawed.
  • Immigrants generally were too poor to own slaves
  • Immigrants objected to slavery because slaves competed with them for jobs, surpassing wages.

This is highlighted by the fact that after a six year campaign of terrorism ( Bleeding Kansas ) the south's effort to control the popular vote in Kanasas ultimately failed and four weeks prior to Lincoln taking office, January 29, 1861 Kansas was admitted to the Union as a free state.

Interesting Twist:

The Interesting Twist is that the Kansas Nebraska Act was negotiated by President Pierce and long time Lincoln nemesis, Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas. Lincoln comes to national prominence first through his opposition to the Kansas Nebraska Act as being too soft on Slavey. In seven speeches October 1854.

Kansas Nebraska Act
Lincoln gave his most comprehensive argument against slavery and the provisions of the act in Peoria, Illinois, on October 16, the Peoria Speech.[67] He and Douglas both spoke to the large audience, Douglas first and Lincoln in response, two hours later. Lincoln's three-hour speech presented thorough moral, legal, and economic arguments against slavery and raised Lincoln's political profile for the first time. The speeches set the stage for the Lincoln-Douglas debates four years later, when Lincoln was running for Douglas's Senate seat.

This act (Kansas Nebraska Act) ultimately was the cause of Southern Secession, not Lincoln's Presidency. This act which Lincoln initially opposed as too soft on slavery, ultimately proved to be the strategy Lincoln preferred to end slavery.


  • In your Important Dates list one date is missing: March 2, 1861 Congress passed Corwin Amendment, which was effectively killing possible future attempts by Congress to abolish slavery. This amendment (which ironically would be 13th if ratified) was ratified by few northern states before the war eventually stopped this process. It makes highly questionable the notion that by the time Lincoln took office the decision to end slavery was effectively over. If southern states would accept it as a condition to end secession, slavery could last at least for few decades more, well to XX century. Oct 15, 2018 at 19:14
  • @AlexanderBarhavin , I don't think the Corwin Amendment if it had passed, which it was not, would have preserved slavery. Any more than the Twenty-first Amendment preserved the ban on alcohol. As I said the Kansas Nebraska act made slave states the ever increasing minority in the Senate. The south could no longer defend the institution. Kansas was the 34th state to be admitted to the Union. there were 16 more states yet to be admitted. Nobody expected any of those new states to be pro slavery if given the choice. As for slavery lasting a few more decades.. perhaps, but end it would.
    – user27618
    Oct 15, 2018 at 23:35
  • You can not be serious. Corwin Amendment passed House February 28, 1861 (vote 13- 65) and Senate March 2nd (24-12),.signed by Buchanan (was not necessary) and endorsed by Lincoln in his first inaugural: "I understand a proposed amendment to the Constitution... has passed Congress, to the effect that the Federal Government shall never interfere with the domestic institutions of the States, including that of persons held to service ... holding such a provision to now be implied constitutional law, I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable". Was ratified by KY, OH, RI, MD, IL Oct 16, 2018 at 0:50
  • @AlexanderBarhavin, As I'm sure you are aware Congress never "passed" the Corwin amendment. Congress doesn't play that role in the Amendment Process. Congress proposes amendments if they received 2/3rds majority support. A proposed amendment becomes part of the Constitution as soon as it is ratified by three-fourths of the State Legislatures. The Corwin Amendment was thus never ratified, it never passed the state legislature phase.
    – user27618
    Oct 16, 2018 at 1:19
  • So this PASSED amendment was ratified by 5 NORTHERN states by mid-February, despite already running war. If seceding states, instead of breaking the war, return to Union, it would surely get necessary 3/4 states. Slavery could be extended until it is needed for manual cotton harvesting. And effective cotton harvesting machinery was not on the fields until the middle of XX century. Oct 16, 2018 at 1:20

In a word, the best explanation was politics. He was elected before secession and he was trying to build a coalition without excluding Southerners who may have been sympathetic to some of his ideas, but didn't want him to abolish slavery. By 1863, the Civil War had been raging and he was looking for a way to isolate his opponents that wanted to end the war and he no longer had to appeal to the South because they weren't voting. He also wanted to isolate any foreign support that the South might get, especially in the case of England who had been actively supporting the South during the Civil War. The Emancipation Proclamation gave moral justification to the war against the South that allowed him to motivate his base of support for the war as well as isolate his opposition. He also turned the South into sort of a pariah state making it harder for them to get support from abroad.

Abraham Lincoln was a great man because he turned his moral beliefs into political action in a way few people ever have. But never forget that he was a politician.

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    There's a second issue which I think may be as important. The free part of the Union was growing faster than the slave part and the South knew and this Lincoln knew this and they all expected it to continue. If Lincoln had been able to preserve the Union, in another decade the South would have been helpless to prevent slavery's extinction. The only way slavery could continue was a successful secession. Lincoln's surest winning strategy was to avoid war and wait. (Lincoln was probably the best strategist on either side.)
    – Mark Olson
    Oct 15, 2018 at 18:57

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