This past week, I gave a talk (along with colleague Maimon Schwarzschild) on Abraham Lincoln at the San Diego Law Library as part of their exhibit on the former President. My talk was entitled “Lincoln: Slavery, Sovereignty, and Secession,” but unfortunately due to time constraints, it was mainly on slavery.
My main point about Lincoln is that his views on slavery were very “moderate” up until the point at which he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. As a matter of policy, Lincoln favored ending slavery, but he wanted such emancipation to be gradual, compensated, popularly enacted, and followed by colonization. In Lincoln’s defense, he believed that any stronger position would have been rejected by the American people and therefore this was the best that could be accomplished for the slaves.
By contrast, there were the abolitionists of the time – people who favored immediate emancipation of the slaves. The abolitionists included William Lloyd Garrison, who believed the Constitution was a deal with the slavemaster devil, and Lysander Spooner, who believed that the Constitution forbade slavery. But the groups associated with both of these men were considered extremists and represented only a small portion of the population.