scorecardresearch Skip to main content
About this section

Connecting past to present, revealing the ripple effect of discriminatory systems — and the fixes.

Lincoln gets way too much credit for freeing enslaved Black people

Historian: Black people were not given freedom; they forced it

The only known photograph of a Black Union soldier with his family.Matthew R. Gross , Elizabeth T. Lewin/Library of Congress

Abraham Lincoln did not free the enslaved. The enslaved freed themselves. For decades, historians have argued for the agency of Black Americans in securing their own liberation during the Civil War. But time and time again, Lincoln is touted by his most well-known monikers, The Great Emancipator or Savior of the Union. His entire presidential legacy is often summarized in an easy one-liner: “Lincoln freed the slaves.”

Lincoln is perhaps one of the few presidents who require constant revisiting. This Juneteenth, I’m honored to revisit Lincoln’s personal and political legacy, particularly focusing on how he faced the deadliest and most consequential war in U.S. history. Equally important, it emphasizes the role of Black leaders, abolitionists, and political activists who convinced Lincoln to transform the nation. Their voices and contributions to emancipation and equality have resonance today.

I am always hopeful for an era of nuance, a moment in which Americans can hold the complexities of people in full view. Lincoln remains complicated and inconsistent. He was for restoring the Union at all costs, even if that meant preserving the institution of slavery. In his first inaugural address, he spoke in support of the Fugitive Slave Law, a provision that allowed slaveholders to retrieve their human property. Lincoln proposed compensation for slaveholders and deportation or colonization for African Americans. While he was anti-slavery, he was not an abolitionist, and he did not believe in the equality of the races.

Lincoln is flawed, but he was also willing to reflect, pivot, and listen. I appreciate Lincoln the most for his willingness to understand and eventually act upon the encouragement of Black leaders and their White allies to extend freedom, citizenship, and voting rights to African Americans. History reveals that people, particularly those with the least access to power, politically or economically, can and should hold elected officials accountable.

Statue of Abraham Lincoln, tucked in a corner of Park Square in Boston, near the spot where Lincoln first set foot in the city. At its base is an inscription to Lincoln’s final legacy to Massachusetts and beyond: “A race set free and the country at peace — Lincoln rests from his labors.”File

In America, slavery died a painful death on the ground. During the Civil War, enslaved people did not wait for White liberators. They saw many of their slaveholders leave to fight, and so they left for freedom. Enslaved people by the hundreds of thousands ran away to Union lines and Northern cities to escape their bondage. Their massive migration forced the nation to place the end of slavery on the national political agenda.

We have looked for abolition in all the wrong places. Freedom did not come from the White House or Congress. Black people were not given freedom; they forced freedom to become a national mandate. The Emancipation Proclamation freed the enslaved in rebelling states, but we should remember that Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, Tennessee, and West Virginia also decreed abolition on their own. Because the enslaved were escaping from bondage, the nation had no choice.

While we can credit Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation formally, it was abolitionist and national leader Frederick Douglass who convinced Lincoln to use freedom as a weapon. Douglass pushed Lincoln to make abolition the heart and cause of the war. He persuaded Lincoln to allow Black men to fight and serve in the military, and to compensate them equally. Unbeknownst to many, Douglass is the real hero behind much of Lincoln’s success. Douglass was, as David Blight suggests, “America’s prophet of freedom.” He not only called out American hypocrisy but also, along with women, clearly saw the path forward.

The Thirteenth Amendment, which originated with the Women’s National Loyal League, led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, was akin to a coroner’s report. It marked slavery’s official time of death. When the Civil War finally ended, Lincoln admitted, “I claim not to have controlled events but confess plainly that events have controlled me.”

In the end, Lincoln’s real issue was not reuniting the Confederacy with America, nor was it even freeing enslaved people. It was getting White Americans, himself included, to relinquish their allegiance to White supremacy. This question remains for every president elected to office: What to do with White people? Make no mistake, White supremacy is a peculiar pathology. Perhaps Toni Morrison summed it up best when she asked, “What are you without racism? Are you any good? Are you still strong? Are you still smart? Do you still like yourself? I mean, these are the questions.”

The myth of Whiteness as supreme is such a fully formed identity in America that neither the North nor the South has been able to renounce their commitment to racial domination.

The myth of Whiteness as supreme is such a fully formed identity in America that neither the North nor the South has been able to renounce their commitment to racial domination. Or put another way, if everyone were to have equal access to the ballot, would White people still be powerful? If integration were instituted equitably, with all deliberate speed, would America still be America? Today’s battles over elections and critical race theory in the classroom are a reflection of America’s racial conundrum. And, as Morrison warned, “If you can only be tall because somebody is on their knees, then you have a serious problem. And my feeling is: White people have a very, very serious problem, and they should start thinking about what they can do about it. Take me out of it.”

Black leadership had been pushing for abolition, citizenship, and suffrage all throughout the antebellum period. University of Maryland professor Christopher James Bonner has written about this deeply and eloquently in his award-winning book, “Remaking the Republic: Black Politics and the Creation of American Citizenship.” Bonner argues point for point the enormous influence Black people had in defining “who belonged in the nation and the terms of that belonging.” When it came to the Civil War, Black people, again, did much of the work. They ran away from the plantation, escaped to Union lines, and enlisted in the military to fight alongside the Union and against the slave-holding South. More than 250,000 Black soldiers turned the tide of the war into a victory; Lincoln said as much himself.

Moreover, during Lincoln’s Reconstruction, something incredible happened. Black Americans went from being enslaved to being elected officials. Black Americans built schools, public health departments, roads and infrastructure, and charitable institutions for the elderly and mentally ill. They plotted land, created banks, and managed to invest money in their communities. The issue is not Black people’s capacity to survive and succeed: It is White people’s ability to accept Black humanity and forfeit the myth of their supremacy.

Context and scope are everything. Where historians or textbooks start a story is political. What is included and what is forgotten, what is centered and what is marginalized, matters a great deal. One cannot teach Lincoln without Douglass. One cannot teach the Civil War without slavery. One cannot talk about freedom without talking about the grip of bondage.

The history of America is often about social and political change, followed by backlash. That was certainly true in Lincoln’s era and the decades that followed. The racial reckoning of 2020 is being eclipsed by an effort to censor educators and ban books, and by a frantic movement to suppress the history of slavery and racism in America. We can turn on the lights, look under beds, and open closet doors, but the real boogeyman is not critical race theory — it’s White supremacy.

Kellie Carter Jackson is the Michael and Denise Kellen ’68 Associate Professor of Africana Studies at Wellesley College, and the author of “Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence.”