Why wait? Why did Abe Lincoln wait to free the slaves?

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Why wait?

NOTE FROM DR. WAYNE BAKER: This week, we welcome back our popular contributing columnist Terry Gallagher.


Click on Lincoln to visit our LINCOLN RESOURCE PAGE, which links to a lot of fascinating reading on Abe and the Civil War.

When is waiting the best policy? And when can we not wait any longer?

One of the most challenging questions for admirers of Abraham Lincoln (and there are many of them among OurValues readers) is why he waited so long to emancipate slaves.

Although he denounced slavery in his campaigns for the Senate and the presidency, Lincoln took no steps to end the oppression when he became president. When his generals freed slaves owned by rebels in their regions, Lincoln ordered them to stop.

He made his priorities clear: “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.”

Most biographers agree now that Lincoln’s equivocation was a complex balancing act to keep slave-holding border states in the Union, to keep Britain from coming into the war in support of the Confederacy, to encourage enlistment among Northerners who supported the Union but not racial equality.

After the Union victory at Antietam, Lincoln felt the time had come when he could issue the Emancipation Proclamation. But even that was equivocal, freeing only slaves in rebel-held territories, and months away.

For the nation’s 4 million slaves, how much waiting was enough?

This song cited in his memoir by one-time slave Frederick Douglass provides a clue:
Run to Jesus — face the danger—
I don’t expect to stay
Much longer here.

During the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, we’ve all seen and read a lot about Lincoln: What do you think about his decisions?

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS THIS SUMMER: In recent years, Terry Gallagher has written about a wide range of topics; you can read more than 100 of his past columns by clicking on this link. We invite you to comment (below) or to share this column on Facebook (use the blue-“f” icons).

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  1. Duncan Newcomer says

    As I sit here today in coastal Maine writing about Lincoln, I also watch sailboats on the Penobscot Bay. Lincoln waited for the winds, he watched the waves, and so he sailed only as fast as possible. To be pragmatic may also be tragic.

    Scholars cite Lincoln’s leadership style as like the poise in life that the poet John Keats called “Negative Capability.” The idea is that we live in a world of real uncertainties, not a world of absolute certainties. To be able to stand in the midst of insecurity and not to grab hold of absolute ideas or actions is a wise and life-affirming way to be.

    I hope to say more about this in my coming book, “The Spiritual Life of Abraham Lincoln.”