Why Did Lincoln Face Such Stern Opposition to Abolishing Slavery in America?

History Hit

3 mins

03 Dec 2018

Slavery was the issue which had dominated the United States of America for decades. It was one which pitted Americans against each other on the battlefield, making a mockery of their country’s name. Only in near victory was President Lincoln finally able to put his name to a bill that would outlaw slavery for the rest of US history.

An entrenched way of life

Previous attempts to change the situation in the south – where there were over 4 million slaves in the 1860s – had come to little. It was an entrenched way of life in the southern states, dating back to a centuries-old colonial belief that white men could not work the fields in hot southern climates nearly as well as their black counterparts.

Then had come the idea that to save money these supposedly racially inferior workers need not be paid at all, and so the slave trade was born. The more temperate and liberal northern states had long since abandoned it, and this strict divide in culture and opinion lead the country into a bitter civil war from 1861, which was still unfinished when the amendment was signed.

The US in 1861 – the divide between north and south is very visible. Credit: Tintazul / Commons.

By 1864, however, the north was coming out on top, and so plans were beginning to be made for the new America that would emerge from victory. In April 1864 the US senate passed a historic amendment to abolish slavery across the whole country, which was still growing into the vast superpower that it is today.

Lincoln’s strategy

President Lincoln, a founder of the new Republican Party and staunch opponent of slavery, had already released a proclamation promising its abolition a year earlier, but knew that constitutional reform would be necessary if this dream was to survive the rebuilding job that would follow the end of the war.

As a result, the radical language of racial equality that he had adopted was toned down as the proposal was sold to the more conservative Democrats on the lines that slavery in itself was unfitting with a civilised modern countries and had a pernicious social and economic effect on black and white people across America.

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Achieving the dream

Getting the amendment through Congress proved more difficult, and nine months after it had been approved by the Senate Lincoln’s party were still short of the necessary vote of two thirds even without the southern delegates – who were almost uniformly pro-slavery – being present. It took an immense personal effort from Lincoln in persuading inspiring and cajoling wavering Congressmen to finally secure the numbers of 119 to 56 that he needed for it to pass.

Every single Republican supported the measure, after Lincoln had delayed the vote until 31 January 1865 so that he would have a higher chance of success. The following day, the President became the only one in history to personally sign a successful amendment. His dream of an emancipated America had been achieved.

The house then exploded into celebration, with people of all colours cheering in the visitors gallery on what they could all see was a historic chapter in US history. By the end of February the amendment had been ratified by 18 states and the process of freeing slaves was well underway as the end of the war approached.

Celebration in the House of Representatives as the amendment is passed.

Persisting problems

That is not to say, however, that everything simply ended happily. The effects of the amendment were as intended and instantaneous; for instance, when it was ratified in Kentucky on 18 December almost 100,000 slaves were freed overnight.

A bill, however, could not change centuries of ingrained prejudice in the south, which – some might argue – remains to this day. New laws were introduced by southern states to deny land rights and basic freedoms to black people, who remained terribly mistreated and working in farm conditions that bore no striking difference to how they had been before emancipation.

The great visionary Lincoln also met a disappointingly grim fate. A speech promoting voting rights for black people on 11 April 1865 convinced Confederate sympathiser John Wilkes Booth to assassinate the President three days later as he watched a play in celebration of the surrender of the rebel armies.

His triumph in abolishing slavery lives on, however, and was another step on a long road towards equality.