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Primary Sources - Workshop in American History Workshop 4 - Concerning Emancipation: Who Freed the Slaves?homesitemap
Introduction -Link Before You Watch - link Lectures and Activities Classroom and Applications - Link

Workshop 4:  Lectures & Activities

Lecture Transcript One:
Lincoln's Beliefs About Slavery

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He may have thought that blacks did not possess equal capacities, but again he had some telling things to say about the question of equal rights. "There is no reason in the world," he asserted, "why the Negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence -- the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and the right to eat the bread without leave of anybody else. He is my equal and the equal of every living man." Just as those racist statements stung, these statements are the kinds of statements we almost hope for when we think about Lincoln, when we look back and examine the historical record.

So we have a more complicated picture. We have Lincoln defending slavery and denouncing it; protecting racial difference, overturning it; refusing to act, and then acting on it. He is very much a lawyer. You read his text, his documents, you see a mind at work trying to make a case, trying to build logically an argument. Slowly, methodically, deliberately, he changed his mind about his constitutional powers as president to act on the subject of emancipation. He thought over time and again the expediency of taking action, of doing something.

At the precise moment he told Greeley that he would save the Union without freeing any slaves, he had a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation in his desk. That always astonishes me. It always makes you then go back and think about that letter. What's going on here? What's going on here that he would say, "Under no circumstances will I free the slaves," he's got a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation sitting there in his desk? And even that draft changed in profoundly important ways in a few short months between September 15, with the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, and January 1, 1863, when the final Emancipation Proclamation is issued. What he said and what he did were not always one in the same. And any answer to the question of who freed the slaves must start with a deeper investigation into Lincoln's beliefs about slavery and race, his role as a political leader, and most certainly a reading of the famous document itself.

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