Document Type


Publication Date

Winter 2003

Department 1

Civil War Era Studies

Department 2



The most common trope that governs understanding of Abraham Lincoln and emancipation is that of progress. The variations on that trope are legion, and they include notions of Lincoln's journey toward emancipation, his growth in understanding the justice of emancipation, and his path to the Emancipation Proclamation. "Lincoln was," as Horace Greeley put it, "a growing man"; growing from a stance of moral indifference and ignorance at the time of his election in 1860 toward deep conviction about African American freedom by the time of the Emancipation Proclamation less than two years later. That was a generous sentiment, since it credited Lincoln with being "breathtaking in his advance from prewar advocacy of restricting slavery's spread to foremost responsibility for slavery's total, immediate, uncompensated destruction by constitutional amendment." But it was also an unconvincing one, since a journey may not be about growth at all if it is an unwilling one, or one guided purely by opportunism. Neo-Beardian historians like Richard Hofstadter read Lincoln as a political poseur for whom growth was synonymous with a keep eye for the main chance. In the afterwash of the Civil Rights movement, embittered dissenters within the African American world brooded over the casual racism that accompanied Lincoln's prewar utterances on slavery and wondered why they should offer homage to a white man whose principal act of emancipation was limited to slaves he could not free, while ignoring the plight of the slaves he could. "Lincoln grew during the war," conceded Ebony editor Lerone Bennett Jr. in a sensational 1968 article on Lincoln, "but he didn't grow much. On every issue relating to the black man... he was the very essence of the white supremacist with good intentions." [excerpt]

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